As a sports-watching society, we overuse the word “potential.” It can be used to fit almost any circumstance and almost always carries a positive connotation.
“Granada with money and Paco Jémez? There’s potential there!” Or maybe “Luciano Vietto has flown so under the radar...watch out for him, he’s got a lot of potential.”
You’ve heard phrases like this before. Chances are you, like me, have spoken them into existence and repeated them on several occasions.
(We all make mistakes.)
What we don’t talk much about with regards to potential is what happens if it’s not fulfilled, what happens if roadblocks are erected that prevent a player or team from fulfilling it. It’s natural to anticipate and dream about watching the next big thing rise from the embers and develop into a juggernaut. We don’t often qualify the above statements by saying “that team has such potential...if the players stay healthy or aren’t tempted to leave” or “this kid could be great...if he stays healthy and stays a model citizen.” It’s easier to leave off those qualifiers because we don’t like thinking about talented kids who don’t reach or surpass expectations.
That is the downside of potential, and Atlético Madrid forward Ángel Correa is staring right at it.
Correa agreed to move from San Lorenzo in summer 2014, almost immediately after the 2014 Champions League final. However, the diminutive Argentine missed the entire 2014-15 season while recovering from heart surgery and had to wait until the opening game of the 2015-16 season against Las Palmas to put on for the first time Atlético’s iconic red and white.
From his very first appearance, you could see that the tatted-up kid with the big smile was no joke. Correa had drawn comparisons to former Atlético forward Sergio Agüero for his ability to lead a forward line with dribbling, flair and vision in addition to his finishing skills. While he was mostly a substitute and featured less than 1,000 minutes in LaLiga and played just 127 minutes in the Champions League last season, Correa scored six times in those two competitions and was viewed as a major breakout candidate entering 2016-17.
As Atleti prepare to face that same Las Palmas team on Gran Canaria on Saturday, Correa no longer has the benefit of the honeymoon period, and some fans have grown quite tired of his inconsistent production over increased minutes. Most recently, he was afforded a big chance against Villarreal this past Tuesday, but could not even make it an hour before Diego Simeone decided to withdraw him. Unfortunately, this has become pretty commonplace for the slight-of-build forward.
What we see in the comparison matrix is not necessarily a player who has regressed, but more accurately, one who has not progressed. Correa is level with Antoine Griezmann for the team assists lead in league play, but he’s handed out only two assists since Feb. 4 - granted, one was in a Madrid Derby. While we can point to Correa’s passing as being a difference-making component, he hasn’t scored in any game since the 3-0 Copa del Rey win over Eibar on Jan. 19 and last notched a league goal on Oct. 15 against Granada when pretty much everyone scored. That is most concerning.
Correa’s shot statistics are the reverse of what they were a season ago. Despite relatively the same per 90 average of shots taken, he has nearly doubled the shots he takes outside the penalty area and has found himself with fewer opportunities inside the area. This strategy has not paid off for Ángelito, and the only goal he has scored from outside the box this season remains that goal against Granada six months ago.
It is concerning, too, that a player with Correa’s pace and flair gets fouled just once per 90 minutes, especially as Simeone has deployed him as a winger for much of this season. And it should go without saying that picking up twice as many yellow cards (6) as goals (3) is...not awesome.
The leap to stardom has not happened for Ángel Correa, and that expectation may have come too soon for the 22-year-old. He has time yet to make a significant mark on this season, as Atlético have yet to pull away for third place and Simeone has to juggle that reality with a run at a European Cup. But it is not impossible to see Correa’s place for next season under threat should Atlético’s transfer ban disappear and the club is allowed to purchase yet another forward this summer. He may yet become the next Agüero, but until there’s tangible proof offered, Correa is all potential - and there is a downside to that. After all, “potential” means you’re not there yet.