Brazil's goalie Cassio stops a shot from Spain's Mata during their FIFA Under-20 World Cup soccer match in Burnaby

At age nine, Juan Mata was enrolled in the Real Oviedo youth academy by his father, also a footballer. Sixteen years later, Manchester United paid Chelsea FC a £37.1 million transfer fee for the Spanish winger. What happened in those intervening years? Was Mata born gifted, the inheritor of his father’s footballing genes? Was Mata’s path to Manchester United simply a matter of destiny? Or was he made? Was Mata’s brilliance the work of his youth coaches at Oviedo and Real Madrid or the guidance of his papa in the backyard as an adolescent?

Fellow Oviedo graduate and Swansea forward Michu once said confidently, “Oviedo taught Santi [Cazorla] and Mata to play.” And this reflects much of what we believe about youth development in football. Great players are born as raw talents, who are later moulded into shape by experts. So if you just get the “right” coaches with the “right” playing philosophy to teach talented players while they’re still young, you will crank out stars as if running an assembly line.

But what if we’re looking at player development completely backwards? What if the key to producing elite footballers is something much simpler, mich more subtle, something that has less to do with coaching philosophies and more to do with creating as many opportunities for talent to emerge on its own?

I mentioned it yesterday because it has oddly come up in three different things I’ve been reading lately, but I do think the concept of cumulative advantage applies well to the question of how elite players become elite players. Thwink.org has a good definition of the concept here:

The Principle of Cumulative Advantage states that once a social agent gains a small advantage over other agents, that advantage will compound over time into an increasingly larger advantage. The effect is well known and is embodied in “the rich get richer and the poor get poorer”. The principle is also known as the Matthew effect. The term was coined by sociologist Robert Merton in a 1968 paper which described how the more eminent scientists in a group tend get the most credit for the group’s work, regardless of who did the work.

This is concept is often used negatively, a reason to question the unequal distribution of wealth. But I think in the context of player development, it can be a guiding principle. Michael Mauboussin in his book The Success Equation explains a little about how cumulative advantage works in practice:

A number of mechanisms are responsible for this phenomenon. A simple one is known as preferential attachment. Let’s say you launch a new website and want to make it as popular as possible. A logical step would be to link your site to sites that already have lots of connections to their sites, including Google or Wikipedia, rather than sites that only have a few connections. In order to get a head, you have a preference for attaching to sites that are already well known and frequently visited. This behaviour causes positive feedback: the more connections you already have, the more connections you already have, the more new connections you get. Through the process of preferential attachment, some sites gain more links and others fade away into obscurity as new sites join the network. Initial differences, even modest ones, are amplified over time.

To see what this means in a football context, let’s revisit Mata’s career path. Real Oviedo’s youth academy currently consists of eleven youth division comprising several different age groups. It also holds a summer camp which emphasizes good conduct and discipline, team-work, tolerance, friendship and self-esteem, all of which reflect Spain’s general approach to youth coaching, articulated by Spanish technical director Ginés Meléndez:

“We want the players to be very level-headed, psychologically and emotionally stable. Euphoria or sadness [after a match] can lead to a drop in performance.

“Group cohesion is very important. We work on values which are fundamental in life but also in the development of a player. They will be better players if they are good people. We have two fundamental goals: training and educating young players.”

While this is a positive philosophy in its own right, it has a very important effect: by valuing the psychological well-being of the academy kids, it encourages more of the them to stay, widening the talent pool. And it was here that between 13 and 15 years of age Juan Mata scored over 100 goals, which caught the attention of Real Madrid. This moment, what sociologists might refer to as a phase transition, was only the first of several steps up the ladder.

Even then Mata’s future was not assured. He still had to prove himself under the watchful, expert eye of coaches in La Fabrica with the Cadete A U16 side. These playing opportunities further revealed Mata to be a genuine talent, which continued with his graduation to the Castilla, where he scored ten goals in one season (second to Alvaro Negredo with 18). That allowed him to move on to Valencia, another crucial opportunity. The general premium placed on Spanish players (along with their relative affordability in some cases) meant Chelsea had little to lose in paying £23.5 million for the player.

At every step before his crucial move to Valencia, the canteras provided a wide, trusted network for teams to spot and further develop talented footballers. The B reserve teams, which play in the Spanish second division, along with easily searchable youth team accomplishments at respected academies, helps eliminate the sense of risk that often prevents top flight teams from taking risks on green players. And throughout it all, an emphasis on self-esteem and friendship at the youth level ensures that potential talents learn to love the game, instead of letting it ruin their fragile sense of self.

In nations around the world, there are raw talents like Mata that never get these opportunities. Scouts either don’t trust the league, or they don’t trust the level of competition in reserve sides, or the kids drop out because they can’t deal with the pressure that comes with potential, or they simply are never exposed to the right people at the right time. A lot of this has far more to do with luck than talent. The trick to player development could simply be creating as many opportunities for lucky breaks as possible. That means opening the door to as many potential talents as possible, and giving them as many opportunities to flourish in a trusted network as possible.