There appears to be a greater commitment to the development of young players abroad than we typically see in England and certainly in the Premier League.
The following article is based on a 10 month field research project that included over 10 visits to some of Europe’s best known professional football club Academy’s and national associations for developing elite professional footballers. The article alludes to the aspects of best practice that I encountered.
Recent figures suggest that the average youth development budget, as a percentage of gross turnover, was between 7-15%. Barcelona, the top producer of elite young players in Europe appeared to invest the most amount of money into youth development, with €16m being ploughed into their youth academy at La Masia. In the English Premier League 20 clubs spend less than £4m per season (in total) on their Academy’s, with the average turnover ranging between £40-80m. Often in England when clubs are looking to save money the first budget to be slashed is the Academy budget.
In addition, many of the clubs that I visited tasked themselves with producing a set percentage of first team squad players from the Academy. Many of these clubs employ Sporting or Technical Directors, who sit on the board and therefore appear to have more influence with respect to the club’s decisions on youth development.
Consistency is key
Barcelona’s success now is the fruit of a 20 year commitment to youth development. The fact that the Academy Director/Manager reports into senior management or a board member reduces the chance of constant change which is very disruptive to a child’s development. Many of the Academy Directors/Managers had been in post or been involved in youth development for many years. The most successful clubs and/or associations including Clairefontaine (French National Centre), Bayern Munich, and Middlesbrough have had the same person in charge for between 13 and 30 years. One of many negative points that arise from constant change is the club invariably lose the talent they have in their system to other clubs.
If we broaden our lens across the most productive Academy’s at a Premier League level in England, including Manchester United, Arsenal and West ham (Professional Football Players Observatory 2010) we tend to see stability in the Academy personnel.
The top clubs for producing regular top end talent to 1st team (Barcelona, Bayern, Ajax) seem to have a ‘club way’, an identity that is almost tangible and can be described by all. Clubs make a conscious effort to recruit staff in the Academy that have a long term club affiliation to maintain the consistency of their message. While this may seem dangerous and puts at risk the evolution of the infrastructure, it gives consistency and clarity, which are staples of a good development programme. This approach was also characterised by a consistent way of playing all the way through the age groups. In Europe we found there is a culture of learning from the base even for the big name players. For instance Frank De Boer and Dennis Bergkamp were taking the under 13 and 14s at Ajax and Roy Makaay was taking the under 15s at Feyenoord. They were there to learn about coaching and given a chance to experiment without fear of failure. These former ‘superstar’ players also act as fantastic role models for the young players.
Considering the full development landscape allows for a better approach
In other European countries there appears to be far more joined up approach within the Academy infrastructure to facilitate top players being produced for their national teams than there is in England currently. Germany and Holland operate a star rated system of which the higher ranked clubs can take players from lower tiered clubs through set levels of compensation. Many of the national youth sides take selections of players several times over the year for training weeks. Clearly, there are benefits for the top clubs as this approach serves to facilitate the ‘best working with the best’ – a proven method for developing elite players.
Most clubs have developed tiers of partnership clubs within their local community and across other parts of their country to spread their scouting capability and player development. The club link strategy appears to be a very good way of gaining access to talented boys, transitioning young players to the first team environment, loaning young professionals to gain first team experience and players who are not good enough can be offered back or sold on with profits shared. Part of the relationship also allows the parent club to allow access to all its other support operations like coach education, sports science and medical and education and welfare issues to the link clubs for their own development.
Think local, act global
Many of the clubs are owned by their members, or well established in the community, and therefore have a preference for developing local talent above recruiting in.
There was a clear message from the clubs that I visited that the continuity of work with the players is vitally important. European clubs do not have a restriction as to where players can be signed from but most have a self imposed 1 hour rule up until U14, to ensure these players can train with the club on a regular basis. I found that clubs felt it was more favourable to work every day for shorter periods, than to block larger sets of hours out in fewer sessions (e.g., 3 x per week).
Although priority was local recruitment, all of the clubs in this field research had an interest in international recruitment, but with an especially strong interest in recruiting talent from Africa in various forms. Where outstanding players from outside this region were identified, the clubs would provide accommodation and schooling locally to ensure they met the demands of the training programme.
Focus on long term development
All the organisations focussed on development above and beyond winning on match day. Clubs were well equipped to articulate their philosophy, showcase their development model and performance pathway to becoming a 1st team player and were open to sharing. The accumulated training hours (excluding games) over a 10 year period (9-19 years) ranged between 2900 hours (Barcelona) and 5000 hours (Aspire). None of the clubs were close to the much touted 10000 hour rule, showing that development in football is not necessarily about total hours trained but the subtleties in creating the best ‘development environment’ that cultivates talent.
Data on player’s debut age suggests that in football it takes longer to gain the skills necessary to reach the top level teams. This is reflected in the strategy of many of the clubs to keep players in the system until their early 20s. In England we are often quick to release players at the age of 18 or 19 years.
Individualised player development
The concept of using teams to support individual development was articulated at all clubs. Some (Ajax, Bayer Leverkusen, Barcelona, Real Madrid) have taken it on a level by providing additional activities and resource such as specialist coaching or athletic development, to higher performing individual players. Similarly, individual player profiling allows for a more objective assessment of needs based on the player’s developmental stage.
Clubs were open to using different types of methods to engage learning at different levels, for example position based master classes at Bayer Leverkusen, Ajax, Real Madrid and Barcelona are delivered across a number of age groups, and content is delivered both in the field and in the classroom.
Developing problem solving footballers
There was a clear emphasis on a possession based philosophy and most employed a 4-3-3 model with an explicit attempt to pass the ball through the units. There was a tangible difference in the type of work delivered to the players from what I believe is typically delivered at EPL Academies. Early age players typically participated in random and variable practices that involved decision-making tactically. The consistent Talent ID criteria was centred around the player’s ability to handle the ball, make good decisions and speed, as opposed to the notions of power, size and strength that still dominate the English youth system.
In general, the coach tends to adopt the role of a facilitator rather than being the font of all knowledge. The coach sets the practice up with learning outcomes in mind and then lets the session develop with little, if any interruption. It was only on occasion that the coach did stop play to make a coaching point. Coaches tended to step in if the tempo was not to their standard or if any individual seemed not to be concentrating. This suggested that they were more concerned with mental development although this appeared to be a subconscious behaviour in the main as only Ajax had this as a specific outcome to their sessions.
Using the games programme to meet the development needs and timing
A flexible games programme was considered advantageous, so that within the games structure clubs may organise friendly games or tournaments to suit their and others needs. Clubs in Europe mostly play in regional leagues that sometimes only possess one or two other professional clubs. It was suggested by Gilles Rouillon (Head of Recruitment at AJ Auxerre) that they thought the success in the early years actually helps the boys to maintain their enthusiasm and only when they get older around 15 do they need to start to play against older boys to get a more competitive environment. This challenges ‘best against best’ philosophy in the early years.
Holistic Support mechanisms are the key to maximising the ‘development environment’
Every club that was visited mentioned the importance of psychological factors in assisting player development. However, very few centres had a development plan to develop desired traits and behaviours. It is generally left to the individual staff and their craft skills, values and beliefs.
Performance analysis is an area that has been well established in England including at Academy clubs but has yet to be fully embraced in Europe on a consistent basis. It is an area that can clearly help develop a player’s tactical and technical development that could arguably be used towards their accumulated hours of practice.
All the clubs are meeting the basic requirements for medical provision however differences were evident with respect to the presence and/or utilisation of the sports science department. All the centres employed a fitness and conditioning specialist or had qualified staff who were doubling up to provide this support. This is a very visible part of development and is easily measured and therefore justifiable. However, the awareness that it is ultimately the psychological things that will make or break a boy’s development is less supported. I tend to believe that this is mainly because of a lack of knowledge and uncertainty and the ‘difficulty’ experienced in gauging and/or measuring these skills.
Nearly all of the clubs supported players from U14 upwards (and in some cases lower) to have a full training capacity with the club. This was usually arranged by way of accommodation (if travel time was the barrier), or flexible schooling arrangements. This flexibility has been enjoyed for many years by the foreign clubs but is only recently being exploited by clubs in England through the gifted and talented initiative and the new Academy schools programme. Although clubs have experimented in the past with these types of arrangements (e.g., Notts Forrest, Arsenal) they all seem to have abandoned them for various reasons. However, clubs like Manchester United, Watford and West Bromwich Albion are leading the way to developing links with schools that provide the curriculum flexibility required.
The approaches to players’ accommodation varied, and most of the clubs had a mix and match structure. For instance AJ Auxerre put all of their 16-19 year old boys into club accommodation but they tended to separate the age groups into different buildings. Bayern Munich have only a small hostel on site catering for the few foreign boys and those boys from other parts of Germany, with some club flats that they allow the under 19s and slightly older players to use.
It would appear that there is some merit in group accommodation within the first year to allow the players to be inducted into the culture of the club/city and then push them out into home stays allowing them to switch off from football and do family type things. A lot of the Academy Directors expressed their preference of either homes stays or travelling from their own home. It is probably prudent to retain flexibility within this structure to decide what will fit each individual situation.
Finally, all of the clubs visited had adopted a same site scenario. Work undertaken by Dr Martin Littlewood in 2003 alluded to the fact that the most productive Academy clubs in England at the time were those who were based on the same site. The outlier to this was Manchester City, but clubs like Manchester United, West Ham and Middlesbrough are all based on one site.
Chris Sulley is the academy manager at Leeds United. He has previously worked at both Blackburn Rovers and Bolton Wanderers, where he spent 8 years at the helm of their academy, and regularly appears as a guest lecturer at the University of Central Lancashire speaking about his motivational methods as a manager.
The views of our regular columnists are independent, and as such do not represent those of Leaders in Performance.