Updated: Apr 17, 2020
The objective of all (professional) soccer clubs is to find young, gifted players, whose talent and abilities they can nurture and develop further. The kinds of skills a “talented player” can have, however, are quite varied. In this article we explore how to recognize a talented player and what kind of indicators can be used to determine talent. Generally, a player can be proficient in the areas of tactic, technique, physical condition and athleticism, as well as psyche and mentality. Some players have an incredible feel for space and tactical situations, some are exceptionally good with the ball, some have a physical condition which gives them an advantage, and others have strong mental capabilities.
What criteria should be used in identifying talent and what kinds of skills and behavior indicate exceptional abilities?
Tactical skills A primary aspect of tactical skills in the offense is how a player moves in open spaces: Does the player move around in a way that he/she is always open to receive a pass, even in tight spaces? It’s about a player being able to occupy or purposefully open up a space. Additionally, it's about being able to move the ball in the right direction (into a free space or away from an opponent). In the defense a talented player can be recognized by his/her positional play, which should leave the opposing players with few options. This includes effective tackling against dribbling opponents, which requires an element of ferocity. In general, a talented player makes the right decisions in group tactical situations, which means finding solutions that help the team make effective plays. In addition, a talented player is constantly actively participating in the game and thinking – offensively as well as defensively – which means being able to transition effectively between the two. All of these factors together result in an easily recognizable “game intelligence.”
As far as technique goes, it’s about a player being able to use all different kinds of techniques in the right, i.e. fitting, situation. Are passes being played with appropiate weight? Is the right technique for the pass being used? Is the player using technical skills precisely and confidently, even when under extreme pressure? Can the player use techniques learned at a high speed? Does the player use his/her weak foot if need be?
Condition and athleticism
When considering the physical condition of a player, speed is incredibly important and a deciding factor for success in high-level soccer, as most players can’t make it in top divisions without it. Besides linear speed (top speed), maneuverability is also crucial. The foundation is having fast reflexes, which allow a player to react to new situations and opposing plays quickly. Another important trait is that a player doesn’t tire out as easily as the others – physically or mentally (e.g. during long tactical trainings that require a lot of thinking). For positive, long-term development it is also necessary that a player has a certain resistance to injury, i.e. a good overall physical condition.
When considering the psychological capabilities of a player, his/her personal motivation is an essential and telling factor. Talented players show their will to constantly grow and develop on their own, even if it means additional (personal) training. These players set their objectives and try everything to achieve them. Another vital ability for the psychological part of the game is for a player to be able to take responsibility for his/her own performance and that of the team. A player also shows mental strength by his/her unconditional readiness for action in and for the team, that doesn’t waiver even in the face of temporary failure (i.e. frustration tolerance). These attributes are rounded out by healthy self-esteem, meaning the player knows what he/she is capable of and is confident of his/her ability to use these skills in the right situations – which, however, should not be confused with arrogance. A talented player with the right amount of self-esteem can often take on a leadership role and motivate his/her teammates.
When assessing a player, factors like age (see “Relative Age Effect”) as well as a player’s “training age” (i.e. how long the player has been systematically training) are worth noting. As a coach or a scout, it’s important to watch and consider a player’s development over a longer period, as talented players should constantly be learning and growing. It’s important to note, however, that a player’s development isn’t always a linear process, but rather often includes setbacks.