The Peter Principle
Promotion to a level of incompetence is a common idea in business, but is it true in football?
Player recruitment is at an all-time high. Swelling squads built to combat the increasing physical demands of the game in a fully globalised industry are creating an increasing number vacancies at every level of the food chain, leaving the game’s employees rushing though doors that are revolving at increasingly dizzying speeds. The latest Fifa TMS Global Transfer Market report says the game’s governing body handled 13,090 international transfers in 2014, totalling US$4.06 billion – an increase of 2.9% on 2013.
One good season is now usually enough to earn a big move, with the contemporary world of professional football dictating that any player who excels for a club outside Europe’s elite is instantly rewarded with step up to bigger things. But beware, bigger does not always mean better and football’s current landscape is claiming more and more victims of the game’s Peter Principle – a business theory particularly applicable to the plight of the workers navigating this brave new world.
First posed by Dr Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull in their 1969 book The Peter Principle, Andrea Ovans in the Harvard Business Review labelled the work a “wicked satire”, explaining its fundamental conceit as follows: “Everyone in an organisation keeps on getting promoted until they reach their level of incompetence. At that point they stop being promoted.”
Promotion in the football world time and again transforms talented and ambitious young athletes into incompetents, reducing them to another on the long list of Peters. From Shaun Wright-Phillips, Stewart Downing and Andy Carroll to Felipe Melo, Ishak Belfodil and Juan Iturbe, we’re left with constant reminders that a medium-sized fish may well star in small ponds but can struggle when plunged into deeper waters.
After the teenage prodigy Iturbe made a stuttering start to his career, failing to break through at FC Porto, a single season impressing for Verona in 2013-14 convinced Roma to splash out around €25 million for his services. At Verona things had clicked for Iturbe. Be it the environment, emotional tone, tactical set-up or a combination of all three, the Argentinian found the conditions in which he could thrive. But come the summer of 2015, Iturbe is just another Peter, bearing a closer resemblance to the player who struggled to perform in the depressingly weltering standard of Argentinian football during a loan spell with River Plate in 2013.
Still just 22 years old, he may well come good for Roma, but with the immediacy of the modern game, coupled with the fact that Roma are hardly in a position to invest that sort of money on speculative punts for the future, the club would have hoped for more. Similarly, Wright-Phillips and Downing starred for relatively humble sides before being promoted to levels of incompetence, with Chelsea and Liverpool respectively. Both saw their careers quickly peter out once they were asked to strut a grander stage.
Failing to make an impact when that big transfer arrives inevitably leads to accusations of a lack of desire, application, and/or talent. But for many of football’s Peters, it’s too simplistic to attribute a solely personal responsibility for their misadventures.
With more talented individuals around them to alleviate the burden, it’s unfair to expect a player to have the same sort of impact they did further down the employment ladder, as the skillset required to perform in humbler surroundings isn’t necessarily transferable. In the same way a lead salesman may have the gift of the gab at your local call centre but be entirely unsuited to the position of team leader, performing at one club can require a markedly different set of attributes from those required to do so at a higher level. The danger, as Rob Asghar said of the Peter Principle in his 2014 piece for Forbes Magazine, “Incompetence Rains, Er, Reigns: What The Peter Principle Means Today”, is that “When you’re great at something, you might get rewarded with a promotion … into something you’re terrible at.”
There are countless examples. The Brazil international Felipe Melo could get on with destroying at Fiorentina, but at Juventus he was required to play football, too; the result of his €25 million switch to Turin was desperately predictable. Clint Dempsey could concentrate on charging into the penalty area, often ignoring teammates and smashing speculative shots at goal for Fulham, but his talents weren’t compatible with a more holistic attacking approach he found among an increased number of talented individuals at Tottenham Hotspur. Ashley Young was forgiven for risking possession as he sought to be the difference-maker for Aston Villa, but he struggled with the more intricate play demanded of him at Manchester United, who dominated games more regularly, leaving his technical limitations exposed at the very top. “Subsequent discussions [of the Peter Principle],” says Ovans, “begin to recognise that problematic bosses aren’t so much utterly incompetent as so good at something that their failings are overlooked.”
Some are able to escape the dangers of becoming just another Peter, however, be it by hook or crook. Marouane Fellaini appeared set to become 2013-2014’s highest profile Peter following his move from Everton to Manchester United – a transfer, incidentally, brought about due to the managerial Petering of David Moyes. Fellaini’s physical, battering ram-like attributes fit the collective functioning of Moyes’s Everton side which sought to exert its physical dominance, maximise set pieces and gain territory by playing vertical passes. At Old Trafford, his technical deficiencies were brutally exposed.
Thankfully for the Belgian, the Peter previously in charge of his fortunes was replaced by the more competent Louis van Gaal, whose eternal desire to innovate forced a solution, in this instance by utilising Fellaini as a deep-lying target man, as Jonathan Wilson noted in the Guardian: “If Fellaini looks out of place – as though the real footballer has escaped and his fellow POWs are trying to con the guards that he’s still in the line at roll-call with a model constructed from the contents of the broom cupboard – it’s because he is out of place, and that is what makes him devastating.”
Fellaini clearly doesn’t have the same impact on his new team as he did on his old, but his level of Petering has been reduced, as was James Milner’s following his £26 million switch from Aston Villa to Manchester City in 2010. Perhaps Milner had read HBR’s Making Yourself Indispensable, which Ovans describes as offering up “a step-by-step guide to making the most of your strengths, so that your weaknesses don’t matter”. After quickly accepting he would not be able to star as a flying winger or creative attacking midfielder at club that had invested hundreds of millions in an attempt to assemble a squad capable of doing battle with Barcelona and Real Madrid, Milner reinvented himself as an industrious employee who was willing to forgo the fanfare of his previous position and accept a less recognised, but equally important, admin role. Downing, meanwhile, was able to address his decline by utilising an escape route less prevalent in the business world – dropping back down to a more natural level at West Ham.
The risk of Petering is one of football’s few true constants, because as the game’s clubs scramble to ascend to greater heights at every opportunity so do its workers. A player’s desire to improve his life away from a game that is now producing millionaires on a scale never before seen in professional sports understandably adds to the incentive of chasing that big promotion. As in any industry, workers follow the money. In a refreshingly candid moment following his much-criticised switch from Atlético Mineiro in Brazil to China’s Shandong Luneng in January 2015, then first-choice Brazil striker Diego Tardelli said, “A wage rise is part of an athlete’s life, of everyone’s who has to go to work.” Coupled with the competitiveness essential to any top-level sportsman, we’re inevitably left the overwhelming majority of players striving to test themselves at the highest possible level.
But the result for the game as a whole, as Rory Smith noted in “The Death of Mystery” in The Blizzard Issue Ten, has seen the dominant elite now living by the mantra “if you can’t beat them, take them.” The elite are stockpiling the talent, leaving the chasing pack further and further behind. As Curtis Jackson once posed, “the rich get richer, and the poor don’t get a fucking thing.” The last 11 Champions League titles have been won by teams from the game’s four richest leagues: England, Spain, Italy and Germany. All 20 semi-finalists from the last five editions came from those same nations.
Football is a business like any other, but with one major exception: success is not noted on balance sheets but judged by the content of the trophy cabinet. Lifting the titles to fill those cabinets, however, is now more dependent than ever before on those balance sheets, and the recruitment and upkeep of workers who command such high salaries remains the game’s biggest expenditure. Analytics experts tell us that success is largely dependent on wages spent: the Football Benchmark database launched by the sports team at the professional services firm KPMG found that every Champions League winner since 2011-12 had staff costs in excess of €200 million.
And we’re now at a stage where, for those lucky few, even the creation of Peters isn’t much of a problem. While in the business world a large number of Peters are born in-house, football requires its workers to relocate, leaving a knock-on effect that can result in ostensibly ill-conceived promotions proving successful.
The Germany international Mario Götze has, thus far, failed to reproduce for Bayern Munich the stunning displays that made him one of the hottest properties in European football prior to his arrival from Borussia Dortmund. However, he is one of many Peters who has strengthened his current workforce by weakening the competition. For Bayern in 2013, making Dortmund weaker was just as important as making themselves stronger. The rest of the top clubs in the Bundesliga seem to take it in turns to challenge Bayern’s dominance and the club have reacted by persistently cherry-picking the best from any would-be pretender to their crown. Anyone displaying the gall to step into their arena is quickly slapped down. Bayer Leverkusen’s challenge at the turn of the millennium, for example, was quickly scuppered as Bayern pinched Michael Ballack, Zé Roberto and later Lúcio. 27 of Bayern’s 50 most expensive signings arrived from Bundesliga rivals.
Professional football is widely regarded to be at the highest level the sport has ever seen, particularly the latter stages of the Champions League, with the riches on offer attracting the world’s elite athletes. But without all the stockpiling, with fewer Peters, one wonders if the greatest show on earth could be even greater. Had the likes of Scott Sinclair continued darting in from the channels for Swansea instead of warming the bench at Manchester City, had Belfodil continued bullying Serie A’s best defenders for Parma instead of kicking his heels on Inter’s training ground, the overall standard of the game would be even better.
From a footballing point of view, continuing to star at a lower level rather than accepting a promotion which results in a more marginalised role would be of more benefit to the game as a whole. Matthew Le Tissier amassed a stunning highlights reel over a career at Southampton that one struggles to see him replicate in a team of higher quality which would undoubtedly have demanded a greater contribution to the collective. Juan Román Riquelme, likewise, could only exist in a team in which the entire functionality of the play depended solely on his individual freedom, and so accepted his time would be best spent back at Boca Juniors. Antonio Di Natale has been a phenomenon for the less-fancied Udinese, while Rogério Ceni has carved out his own special legacy in Brazil by electing to remain at São Paulo for his entire career. Hakan Şükür lost two years failing to make the grade at Inter, Parma and Blackburn Rovers before resuming his remarkable career in his rightful home of Istanbul, scoring almost 300 goals for Galatasaray and winning eight league titles and a Uefa Cup.
But most take the bait and accept the risk of joining the game’s list of Peters. And so the 2015-16 season sees the likes of Manchester City’s Fabian Delph, Napoli’s Mirko Valdifiori, Roma’s Iago Falque, Tottenham’s Toby Alderweireld and Kieran Trippier, Atlético Madrid’s Luciano Vietto, Liverpool’s Christian Benteke and Danny Ings and Juventus’s Paulo Dybala all striving not to see themselves heading for the Petering trajectory of Dejan Lovren, Jack Rodwell, Geovanni, Miralem Sulejmani or Asier Illarramendi.
The list of football’s Peters will continue to grow. To the detriment of everyone save a few bank managers and, as always, a few of the game’s elite.