In 1993, Nobel Prize-winning economist Michael Kremer published a research paper titled “The O-Ring Theory of Economic Development”.
The “O-rings” were faulty on the Challenger space shuttle which shattered within seconds of take-off. Despite billions of dollars spent on Challenger, it was these tiny rubber rings (less than the size of your thumb) which disintegrated and caused the whole thing to tragically explode.
Kremer’s lesson from this? The weakest link is vital. It doesn’t matter how polished everything else is; if one particular factor is substandard, then the whole can be in danger of ruin.
There are various situations in day-to-day life which are “O-rings”. If you go to a fancy restaurant, have a lovely table and enjoy some great food, the occasion will still be tarnished by a rude waiter. You could buy a nice new house which has everything you could ever hope for, but if the lock on the front door doesn’t work, you would delay moving in until it was sorted.
Football clubs aren’t that much different.
Klopp’s Liverpool are notorious for identifying their “pressing victim” before games; the player on the opposition team they think has the best chance of surrendering possession when they swarm him. It’s not a particularly new thing either: Graeme Souness spoke similarly about the Anfield dressing room picking out who wouldn’t be “up for it” before a game, and then targeting them mercilessly.
That’s a direct example, but often the weakest link can be something tactical.
In the early part of last season at Wigan, we had a midfield which pressed high and a defence which sat deep; the gap in between the two was the source of a lot of conceded goals.
Even accounting for the fact that identifying the weakest link can be challenging, it’s not always as easy as fixing a broken lock.
The case of Kepa and Chelsea is an interesting case in point. Despite the Spaniard being the poorest goalkeeper in the Premier League last season by most shot-stopping metrics, Lampard stuck by him for months in the hope that his form would recover. It did not, and Kepa was eventually dropped for veteran Willy Caballero.
Signed two years ago, the former Athletic player became the most expensive goalkeeper in history when he moved to West London - and presumably enjoys a healthy salary to match. Despite becoming Chelsea’s “weakest link”, dropping him would be an admission by the club that they got this one wrong. Yet, the more games he played for the club, the more they suffered.
Similarly, when Arsenal agreed a deal with Manchester United in January 2018 to let Alexis Sanchez go, they demanded Henrik Mkhitaryan, another attacking midfielder, in exchange.
With Alexandre Lacazette already in the building and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang soon to follow, it could be argued that Arsenal would have been better using the Mkhitaryan resources on fixing the leaky defence - that season the Arsenal attack was only bettered by Liverpool and Manchester City, but the defence was 9th best in terms of goals conceded.
With football being such a busy, relentless industry, it is easy for clubs to become passive and reactive like this. Key decision makers at clubs are likely spinning dozens of plates on a daily basis managing potential arrivals, departures, form of players, injuries, contract disputes and players’ personal issues into the bargain. This is why it’s crucial to have defined priorities and contingency plans going into any window.
It doesn’t matter how many millions you throw at your team if you forget about the O-rings.