THE TERM ‘WONDERKID’ IS OFTEN USED when referring to a talented young footballer. A player that shows great promise or stands out amongst players older than him. Like a drop of blood falling into piranha-infested waters, saying ‘wonderkid’ to a fan base has the same effect.
It’s very cliché but it’s also hard to ignore – times are changing. Gone are the days if you spent £20 million on a player they’d play week in and week out for you barring injury; this is where the break in reality appears between clubs and fans. Clubs have accepted the inflation of fees. You don’t always get what you pay for but instead you eventually get what you pay for. It’s not always instant success.
However this message hasn’t been passed down to the fans. They still believe if you pay £20 million they’re a guaranteed starter who should have an instant impact and if they don’t it’s because they aren’t good enough. They ignore key factors such as playing time, the age of the player and of course the bedding in period. These three things should be common sense but for varying reasons they are now viewed as luxuries.
I’m sure many people, myself included, are avid fans of the Football Manager series. I became familiar with the wonderkid term because of it. People will argue it’s unrealistic – and it probably is – but there is some truth certain aspects of the game. The tip it gives you for a player labelled as a wonderkid is something along the lines of ‘if managed properly and given minutes then this player could turn into a world class player’.
The instructions are fairly obvious yet many seem to overlook the basics. A young footballer needs game time to improve, that’s a given. They also needs to have their games managed and then be used effectively and efficiently. Do as stated and they’ll fulfil their promise.
There is no better example of this than Raheem Sterling. The new Manchester City number 7 cost them £49 million, which is a far cry from when only 18 months prior fans and media alike all thought he needed to drop down a division and go on loan after putting in a forgettable performance away as Liverpool lost 3-1 to Hull at the beginning of December 2013. At that stage the England international had made sporadic appearances for the Reds and filled in a number of positions from the right side of the three in a 4-2-3-1 to a left wing back in a 5-3-2. He didn’t really have a place in the side and his immediate future at the club was in doubt.
Fast-forward a mere four months and the same player was integral to Liverpool being three wins away from winning the Premier League. Brendan Rodgers tweaked the formation and started to use the 4-diamond-2 to suit Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, and this helped Raheem Sterling thrive in the role off them. Sterling was instrumental in both 3-2 wins against Manchester City and Norwich; as many of the more experienced players felt the pressure, he seemed to play with as much freedom as he had when plying his trade in the academy.
The benefits of giving a talented youngster the chance to express themselves can’t be measured, but here he was, a 19-year-old outperforming players ten years his senior. There was always something special about him, the only difference between pre and post Christmas was the fact he was playing regularly and in a position he could be effective.
It’s a similar story for Gareth Bale. The Welshman is considered a world-class player now but in the summer of 2008, only a year after signing for Tottenham Hotspur, he was nearly sold to Hamburg for £5 million which would have been a £2 million loss on what they’d paid for him. This is a £75 million difference in price for what they eventually sold Bale for.
Highly thought of during his days at Southampton he appeared in 38 league games before he’d turned 18. The exposure to first team football led to many Premier League sides showing an interest, before Spurs eventually signed him.
Injuries, inconsistent performances and an upturn in form for Benoît Assou-Ekotto meant for his first three seasons at Spurs Bale never made over 25 league appearances. It was only towards the latter half of the 2009-10 season that Harry Redknapp decided to use the pace of Bale as a left winger in a 4-3-3. The following season, Bale announced himself to the world by scoring a hat-trick against Inter Milan at the San Siro. He finished that season with 11 goals in all competitions. The following season he was used exclusively as a left-winger and ended up with 12 goals before hitting an astonishing 26 in 44 appearances in his final season at Spurs. Persistence with the players and patience eventually paid off for Spurs both on and off the pitch.
There are similar stories for the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Wayne Rooney, Eden Hazard, Lionel Messi and Neymar, All of these players were exposed to first team football at a young age and their clubs persisted with them because their talent was obvious. All of those players will have had forgettable matches but it’s about the long term, not the short term.
I spoke to Jeremy Dow a football agent and scout for INsoccer. He had this to say on young talents:
“It’s easy to spot talent at a young age. Others will often say they tend to drift off as the level of competition increases but if that’s not the case. If they’re good enough they’ll make it. What usually happens is as soon as the level of competition increases managers tend to go with tried and tested players instead of these youngsters and their development stalls a little.
“I’ve been given briefs in the past on what a club wants and the players they’re keen on and I’ve watched them and thought ‘this player doesn’t meet the brief but he’s still good enough’ so I report that back to the club and I make it known they aren’t what they’re looking for but this is a potentially good player.
“I’ll never try to fit a square peg into a round hole, but sometimes clubs think these players can be changed so meet the brief. They then buy these players and realise they aren’t what they hoped for and their development stalls in the short term. ”
After speaking to Jeremy three players immediately sprung to mind: Lazar Marković, Erik Lamela and Mario Götze.
Lazar Marković arrived at Liverpool via Benfica with a £20 million price tag around his neck. It’s that magic number yet again. Fans expected an instant success. The Serbian winger made 19 league appearances for Liverpool last season but only seven of these came in an attacking position, the rest all came from a wing-back role.
The number of appearances can be misleading so if you look at minutes played it gives you a better idea. Marković played 932 league minutes last season, the equivalent of ten full games and three minutes added time on each. Compare that to Raheem Sterling who had 3047 minutes to his name. He appeared 31 times for Liverpool in all competitions, which is quite the drop off when you consider he made 49 appearances for Benfica the season before. Now at Fenerbahçe on loan, he’s hoping to resurrect the promise surrounding his career.
Erik Lamela featured in 35 games for Spurs, two more than Raheem Sterling for Liverpool, last season yet only appeared for 2300 minutes. The season prior to this he only appeared in nine league games when in the two seasons before that – at Roma – he started 49 games and appeared in another 14 league games from the bench. He was able to play himself into the form that led to Spurs spending a large chunk of the Gareth Bale money on him.
Mario Götze is another player who has suffered from a big money move. He went from playing nearly every game at Dortmund to being a bit part player at Bayern Munich. He appeared in more games for Bayern last season than he did any time during his time at Dortmund yet minutes played was his second worst during his five-year career, a mere 2230.
These players may, in some quarters, be labelled as big money flops. Disappointments. A waste of money. However they’ve shown if given game time they perform. If these players made 20 league starts in the coming season in positions they’re allowed to be effective in I’m sure people’s opinions would change and their fees wouldn’t look like such an issue. Consider the fact that Championship sides are paying north of £10 million for players and £20 million for a player that performs for a top seven Premier League club is surely worth it.
If a young player is inconsistent but plays games it’s very rare they’ll depreciate in value. Furthermore there’s more chance they’ll play themselves into form. If, however, they aren’t playing games they’ll inevitably lose value and the club loses patience quicker. Teams need to balance this: paying £30 million for a player that needs game time to develop properly with having to pay what looks to be over the top prices now to safeguard themselves from paying £50 million plus in a few years time.
By Sam McGuire. Follow @SamMcGuire90