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Monday, October 13, 2014

When Experience Matters

Whilst working on a piece on Feyenoord’s florid youth system for an upcoming issue of The Football Pink I was struck by a quote from Stanley Brard who, when interviewed back in 2011, said "we want coaches who know what is required to become a professional. So we have several former Feyenoord players working at the academy who specialise in the position of their playing days."

Brard is the man who is widely regarded as the prime force in the restructuring of Feyenoord’s academy, making it one of the finest as confirmed by their victory of the past five editions of the Rinus Michels Award which is handed to the best youth system in Holland.  

More significantly than that, the Dutch squad that made it to the last World Cup included four players who had been at Feyenoord since they were kids (Stefan de Vrij, Bruno Martins Indi, Terence Kongolo and Jordy Clasie).  A further five players had made it through their youth system before moving elsewhere (Robin van Persie, Jonathan de Guzman, Leroy Fer, Georginio Wijnaldum and Salomon Kalou).

The point of all this is that Brard is someone who knows what he is talking about.   That of using former players to coach youths is something that is prevalent at some major clubs – Ajax, for instance, are quite famous for doing as are Barcelona – but not at many.

In the past, this was seen as a way of ‘rewarding’ former players and ensuring that they had a job once their playing career came to an end.  Not so any more, especially with players making so much money during their career - at least at the highest level - which means that for most of them there isn’t really the need to work.

Those who remain in the game today do so out passion and ambition.

The big benefit of having someone with playing experience coaching children is precisely that they can pass on their experience.  There is a significant difference between someone who can turn to what he went through in his own playing career and someone who’s coaching career has been built purely on theory.  This doesn’t necessarily make the latter a worse coach but it is undeniable that he lacks something that someone with playing experience has.

As with any walk of life, if you have a problem or are having a hard time learning to do something it is always easier to turn to someone who has overcome that same problem and can empathise with you.  Same goes in coaching, especially when there are young people involved.

Naturally, this doesn’t mean that any former player will automatically become a good coach.  They too must get their coaching education and they too must learn how to put across different ideas to the various age categories.  Certain skills need time to develop – if they ever do develop – and there are ideas that not necessarily everyone was exposed to whilst they were playing.

The case of Roy Makaay, again at Feyenoord, is indicative.  As a player, Makaay was a highly prolific striker who played at the highest level – not only with Feyenoord where he is a club legend but also with Tenerife, Deportivo La Coruna and Bayern Munich – as well as amassing over forty caps for Holland.  

Currently he is the club’s Under 19 boss but even he had to work his way up.  Indeed, his first role was coaching the Under 13s, then moved to the Under 15s before, eventually, getting his current job.  The message is clear: no matter how good you are as a player and regardless of the club’s policy of favouring former players, you have to prove that you are more than good enough in their job.

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Monday, September 22, 2014

The Trouble With Parents (And How To Fix It)

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For most youth sports clubs, they can be the life-blood that keep them alive.  Parents tend to be the ones who pitch in when money needs to be raised, children need to be ferried about and maintenance has to be carried out.  Their work, always done on a voluntary basis and without the merest hint of expecting anything back in return is invaluable and should always be treasured.

That is how it is with the majority of parents.  You might come across some occasional personality clash but nothing that cannot be managed by a quite word or two.

But then there are the others, the minority who fail to see the distinction between youth football – the kind that is played for fun – and the professional game they watch on television during the weekend.

These parents – and, sadly, every club has at least one – can make life miserable.  Their own child will almost always bear the brunt of their criticism, regardless of how well they do.  That in itself is already a problem but it can, and usually does, get worse.  Other kids might kop a harsh word for not passing whilst the coach’s ability will be questioned were he to dare to play someone who isn’t as good simply for the sake of giving him some game time.  Then there are the snarky comments and underhand manoeuvres aimed at making sure that his (or her) child gets the best possible opportunities.  

It is a situation that blights many clubs and a continuous headache for many coaches.  Fortunately it is also one that can be handled and solved, provided that the club has prepared for such matters, something that in itself requires a number of steps to be taken.

Pre-Season Meeting
One of the ways through which a club can set the tone is by holding a meeting before the season starts.  There the club’s policies can be explained: how game time is decided, the playing philosophy, expected conduct and all the other behavioural standards that are expected both of the players and their parents.  

These can be as strict and as lenient as those running the club feel is necessary – for instance some feel the need to include good grades being obtained by the players for them to play, others don’t -  but, regardless, such a meeting will lay a marker, allowing anyone with any doubt to voice their opinion and ask any questions that they can have.  No one leaving such a meeting should have any doubt of what is and isn’t acceptable

Issue A Rule Book
Whilst the meeting itself is an extremely useful tool, there is the tendency of people eventually forgetting what was discussed.  Something that is written down, however, cannot be easily dismissed especially if it is also displayed on the club’s website.  It is why any club should put together its regulations in a rule book that clearly spells out both the expected behaviour and the potential disciplinary actions that could follow.  
There are those who believe that a contract should be signed between the club and the player.  Not one that binds them to the club but rather one that ensures their commitment to the behavioural code.  This can be seen as something of an overkill but it does have its benefits and should be seriously considered.

Ensure That All Coaches Know Policies
This might seem as rather obvious but, given how often coaches change at youth clubs, it is something that can easily be overlooked.  Every coach must buy into the club’s philosophy and one way of doing that is by knowing the behavioural code with which the players and their parents are bound.  

If a coach turns a blind eye to the actions of his star player, for instance, it will be difficult for the other players and parents to take anything they’ve heard seriously.  Unfortunately, what often happens in such circumstances is that matters don’t come out into the open until it is too late, with one or more parents (and players) holding back over a period of time until their tempers boil over.  

Sadly, such occurrences can ruin a lot of good work and it is often difficult to win back the aggrieved individuals.  Indeed, it can end up challenging to whole structure, influencing others who weren’t directly affected by the situation but who might harbour some slight grievance of their own.

Coaches are the most visible representatives of the club and their behaviour will invariably be interpreted as the behaviour of the club.  If they don’t follow the club’s rules, it is impossible to expect anyone else to do so.

Make It Easy To Complain and Act On Them
Despite best efforts, there will still be people who feel that they and their children are not being treated well.  Rather than letting these people hold on to their grudges, make it easy for them to come forward and complain.  

The best way to do so is to appoint an individual to whom any such complaints can be made.  Ideally, it should be someone who, whilst linked to the club, is not one of the coaches or directly involved in the running of the club; perhaps a former parent or coach.

Once a complaint is made, it is vital that action is taken immediately.  This does not mean that all complaints will be justified.  Indeed, it is important to really filter through them and gauge whether it is something brought about by petty jealousy or whether there is a real issue.  In either case, once a decision is taken – and this decision should not take excessively long to take - the individual should be the first to know of what action is to be taken. 

Whenever a complaint is made, it is extremely important for all those connected to the club to keep calm.  It would be infinitely better to discourage people from making complaints rather than lashing out as soon as one is made.  There can be no ‘how dare they complain given all we do for their kids’ mentality, much less thoughts of retribution or revenge.

No Comment Zone On Touchline
Strictly speaking, this should form part of the code of conduct but it is so important that it deserves to be highlighted separately.  Whilst, obviously, parent are allowed to attend their children’s games they should be forbidden from making any comments.  This might seem a draconian rule but a parent passing on what he thinks to be an encouraging comment or a helpful hint might easily sound like a rebuke to the child.  Therefore, avoid any possible misunderstanding – or worse – by encouraging parents not to pass any comments whilst they’re watching games.

Regularly Schedule Meetings
For most clubs, a pre-season meeting is as far as they’ll go.  Given the extra hassle that these involve, it is understandable why they are neglected.  Such meetings, however, play an important role in building an environment where everyone is comfortable and feels that everything is being done to improve the children.

Indeed, these meetings do not have to be about discipline or directly related to the football club but could be used to invite outside speakers to talk about nutrition, for instance.  The issue of discipline and parents’ behaviour can still be addressed but in a roundabout manner.

Apart from group meetings, a lot of the top youth clubs schedule regular – usually – quarterly meetings with the players where the coach, head-coach and player go over their performances in the previous months.  Whether the parents should be allowed to attend these meetings is debatable, with my personal preference being that of only including the player so that he truly takes responsibility of his performances and what he has to do next.  

The ideal is for there to be a tracking system – how often training was attended, how many minutes they played, notes from games where they played – so that performance can be managed over time.

This kind of meeting – which admittedly works better in older age groups – helps get buy in.  If the player has fallen short of expected performance, he can own up to it and together with his coach he may plan how best to get to previous levels.  Areas for improvement can be highlighted along with ways of achieving this improvement.

A side benefit of all this is that no one can complain that they aren’t being treated fairly if they’re having such regular meetings during which they can talk over things with coaches.

Promote a Family Atmosphere
Sadly most of the pointers here focus on what parent can’t and shouldn’t do.  The ideal, however, is to try and foster a family atmosphere.  Social events help but, more than that, tell them how they can contribute towards the well being of the club.  Indeed, go a step further and encourage them to provide ideas and feedback.  Sometimes, people on the outside can see things that those who are too engrossed in the day-to-day running are unable to.  It pays to let these people help.

Blueprint for Football has just issued Volume II to the Blueprint According To... series, featuring seven new interviews where coaches talk about their ideas, beliefs and blueprint for football.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Kids Just Want To Have Fun

Football, as with many other sports, can seem absurd for those who are on the outside looking in.  More specifically, it can be hard for them to comprehend how fans attach so much importance to the outcomes of a game.  Then again, when you support a team and pour in so much emotional commitment into following it, there quickly comes a point when it stops being a game and becomes something more than that.

Ultimately, however, it is just that; it is only a game.  There are things which are far more important than what happens on a Saturday afternoon and problems which are much more serious than your team’s failure to sign the star striker you feel is necessary to win the league.  Probably every fan (or at least the mildly sane ones) agree with this.

And whilst it might not be healthy, it doesn’t really matter if we take football a bit too seriously.  

Even so, there are limits.  Most people know that they shouldn’t be making bets that they can’t afford to lose.  Most people know that those around them aren’t at fault if their team loses.  Unfortunately there are those for whom those boundaries don’t exist. 

Sadly, among those who overstep the boundaries of decency one can find coaches.  It wouldn’t be too bad if the people they were coaching were adults.  Unfortunately, however, among those who fail to make the connection that this is only a game there are those who are coaching kids’ teams..

Children pick up football because they see it as a fun way to spend some time playing with their friends.  They want to get better and most of them want to win when they’re playing but, ultimately, they simply want to do something that they enjoy.

Often, if that is happening, then they will improve.  Not everyone will do so at the same rate but the more they enjoy it the more they’re eager to play which results in them getting better.  Coaches play a key role in this process as they’re the ones who have to make training sessions enjoyable.  This often involves extra work as they have to think of different and interesting ways to get the children – particularly the younger ones – to learn what they want them to learn.

Many dedicated coaches do this.   Sadly there are also those who don’t, coaches who don’t really pay attention to how many touches of the ball each child is getting, leaving them to stand around waiting for their turn to come.  

There are other ways through which coaches can ruin a kids’ experience.  Placing too much importance on winning is perhaps the most classic example yet favouritism – be it with the coach failing to check some parents’ bullying or for other reasons – can turn people off the game very, very quickly.

Indeed, even the language that the coach uses can play a determining role.  What does he say to correct a mistake?  Does he praise effort or is that praise only reserved only for when something that is to his likely is done?

Sometimes, for all their faults, these coaches are successful in that they manage to build winning teams.  But that is in the short term.  The true value of a coach lies in the long term: it does not lie in the tournaments or games won but in how many children they inspire, nurturing a life-long love for the game and for sport.

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Saturday, July 5, 2014

Blueprint According To...Jamie Wright

"Teaching How To Deal With Success And Failure Is Important"

The desire to help others is frequently the reason why people pick up football coaching.  Whether it is assisting your child’s coach, guiding some mates or passing on knowledge to a younger sibling, many take their first steps in coaching in this casual manner before finding that they enjoy it and start taking it a bit more seriously.

That wish to help out never really leaves a true coach but eventually it is joined by other desires such as that of wanting to win or, at least, see the team meet whatever goals it set itself.

For some coaches, however, that of helping is the main goal.  This is particularly the case of those who are involved in clubs’ community schemes where football is the means to push through certain social messages rather than anything else.

Jamie Wright is one such coach and as such can better explain what the blueprint of those who are solely focused on helping is like.

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: what made you go into coaching? 
Jamie Wright: I left school at 16 and there was a position at a local coaching provider as a trainee coach.  I didn’t really want to go into further education and I had always loved football so it seemed like a no brainer.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career? 
JW: Two coaches have played a huge part in my development although I learn from all coaches I come into contact with.  Wayne Walls and Ian Dipper are the two who believed in me from the start and are still the two coaches I consult with on a regular basis – their advice is always excellent and they both challenge my thinking.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy? 
JW: I have this in a presentation I deliver to staff, ‘To produce technically gifted players in a fun, challenging and positive learning environment’.  This philosophy stays with me no matter who I’m working with and forms the foundation on which the department is structured around.

BfF: Is winning important for you? 
JW: Not results based winning no; winning to me is personal.  To become more confident, to use the other foot, to win a 1 v 1 or make a good decision are examples of what I would class as winning.

BfF: What is the most important thing you try to teach during your sessions? 
JW: I’m a great believer in developing technical proficiency in both feet so to pass, dribble, turn and shoot using right and left foot are all important during my sessions.  I like to ensure that the participants have fun in sessions so that has a big focus when planning them.  

Depending on the age of the players, teaching how to deal with success and failure is important too.

BfF: You work at the Foundation of Light.  How did that job come about? 
JW: I finished my traineeship and the opportunity to work for the then Football in the Community scheme as a casual coach came about.  I’ve been here ever since!  I’ve worked on a number of projects and roles within the organisation including the Disability programme, running an outreach project, Head of Football Delivery and now the Directors’ role.

BfF: What is it exactly that you do, both you as an individual and the foundation? 
JW: The Foundation of Light is the registered charity of Sunderland AFC.  We use the power of football to involve, educate and inspire more than 42,000 young people and their families across the North East each year through a broad range of innovative and award-winning programmes that can help change their lives.

The organisation is committed and pro-active in addressing the issues within our community, running programmes at specially designed classrooms within the Stadium of Light, in local schools, community centres and at bespoke outreach centres throughout Sunderland, South Tyneside and County Durham.

My role as the Football & Sport Development Director is to ensure that we deliver high quality sports sessions to a wide range of participants from children as young as 18 months up to adults.  We deliver to schools and community, so ensuring that each curriculum is current, fit for purpose and of the highest quality is the challenge.  

I have a great team alongside me who are deeply passionate about developing the experience our participants receive.

BfF: We hear a lot about it but how can football help society? 
JW: In the North East football is massive.  The weight of the badge is massive and we find it opens doors that wouldn’t normally open.  

BfF: I would assume that you meet a lot of kids with a widely varying range of abilities, probably in the same sessions.  How do you handle these situations? 
JW: That’s what we do – we are community coaches first and foremost.  The ability to ensure a group of children with mixed ability, mixed gender and mixed interest in football or sport have fun, learn something and want to come back next week is a massively undervalued skill.

BfF: How much of a vocation is your job? 
JW: This is my job and I wouldn’t want to work in anything else.  I do however feel coaching is still treated as a hobby in certain fields and there needs to be a culture shift in the way coaching is perceived.  For me, coaching is a form of teaching and should be professionalised in a similar way.  

BfF: Do you miss coaching a team where results matter?  Or is it more rewarding? 
JW: I’ve only been away from having a team for a year and there are times when you miss working towards the game however I believe the development coaches are the ones who should have the higher status as if they are doing their roles effectively they will be the ones setting the right standards with the players they work with.

BfF: What do you want to achieve to be satisfied with what you have done in your career? 
JW: I have to say I’m never satisfied, that’s in my make-up!  I’m always looking to improve and get better.  At one time I would have said a full time role in an Academy would have been my ideal role but as I’ve developed I enjoy the strategy side of the role I have here at the Foundation.

For me, as long as I am enjoying what I do and feel as though I am contributing effectively I will continue to strive towards excellence.

The first six interviews in the Blueprint According To... series are now collected in an e-book that is for sale here for just €0.99.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Reasons For Atalanta's Success With Youths

This is the second in a two part series on Atalanta BC.  The first part can be read here.

Given that they are continuously faced by clubs with far larger resources, the fact that Atalanta not only compete well at a national youth level but have actually registered a number of important wins in their history is perhaps the biggest proof of the quality of work that they do.

Contrary to what some presume there are no secrets to their success, just a number of factors that when put together contribute to a system that is far better than most at doing what it should be doing: developing players who are good enough to play for the club at the highest level.

Although this might seem obvious, it is often overlooked when reasons for a youth system’s success are looked at.  No matter how good the ideas, regardless of the quality of the players that are recruited and irrespective of the amounts invested in facilities there can be no success if there aren’t the right coaches in place.

This means that the coaches must be able to pass on their knowledge to those put in their charge; competent people who are the right fit with the age group that they are assigned to and who know how to help the individuals progress.  

But there is more to it than that.  They have to be people who know in detail what the club is trying to achieve and how their teams play.  They know the value that is placed on technique and creativity, attributes that are encouraged here more than anywhere else in Italy.

More significantly, they must be fully convinced that it is the best way to proceed.  If that conviction is missing then sooner or later it will come out and it will show in their work.

True to form, Atalanta are very selective in deciding who gets a job within their Settore Giovanile (Youth Sector) with their preference frequently falling on individuals who have gone through their system or have played for the club.  Their Under 18 side is coached by Valter Bonacina (265 games for Atalanta) whilst their Under 16s are in the hands of Sergio Porrini (100 games for Atalanta as well as a Champions League winner with Juventus).

It has always been that way: current Italian national team manager (and a man with 116 appearances in the black and blue shirts) Cesare Prandelli spent almost a decade working within the Atalanta youth system handling various age groups before he took his first steps in the pro game.

And that is how it will continue to be because it ensures the presence of people who have gone through the experience themselves.  There is no one who can be as convinced about the system’s validity more than those whose careers have largely been the result of the work they did within that same system.

For the kids placed in their charge they are examples of what might be achieved if they work hard enough.  Or, if the coach isn’t someone who progressed beyond playing for Atalanta’s youth sides, there is confirmation that the club will keep on looking out for you regardless of how good you happen to be.

Stay Local
As with most Italian sides, Atalanta have very close links with a number of youth clubs.  These clubs, usually village sides or teams from particular neighbourhoods, get backing from the professional teams either in the form of coaching or else financial (the sums aren’t typically very significant ones but enough to help them cover some expenses like new kits) in exchange for informing them about any particularly talented individual they come across.

It is a very healthy symbiosis where the professional sides put something back into the grassroots game while ensuring that they cast as wide a net as possible to discover talents.

Perhaps the big difference that Atalanta have with the rest is that, as much as possible, they try recruit locally.  That is not to say that there haven’t been exceptions –there have been recruits from South America, Eastern Europe and Africa – but these are largely one-offs.  

Instead Atalanta go for local boys with the main reason again being cultural: these players have less of a hard time to integrate and settle in, making their footballing education run all the smoother.

No One Is Left Behind
At many clubs, the future of a lot of players is sacrificed in order to ensure that the one or two who are seen as the brightest prospects manage to develop and their talents maximised.  Others put their focus on the team results, looking to boost their profile by winning at youth level but without succeeding in the ultimate goal of any youth system which is that of seeing any talent progress into the first team.

Not so Atalanta where every player is important.  The progress of each individual who enters their system is tracked with coaches setting goals for each one which are then communicated and agree by the players.  This ensures that everyone knows what they have to work on and where they need to improve.  Whether they do so, and to what extent, allows the people at the club to determine what comes next and how they can ensure that there is further progress.  There is absolute commitment from the part of the club that when an eight year old is signed everything will be done so that he goes all the way.

The fact that some of these players even get opportunities coaching within the youth sector, allowing to have a career in football even if it isn’t a player, helps reinforce the image of Atalanta as a club that genuinely cares for ‘its boys’.

Equally, their commitment to local players avoids the (common) situation where a player who has come through the junior ages is suddenly forced out with his place going either to someone brought in either from another Italian club or else from overseas. 

Club Culture
Any manager who comes in at Atalanta will be well aware of what the club is all about and must be willing to work within those parameters.  This means that they must be willing to play the club’s young players, giving them the opportunities to grow and show their worth.  This also means that if a player attracts the attention of a bigger side then they must be ready to lose him if a good enough offer comes in.

Atalanta offers managers a great opportunity to forge their reputations – as many have done – but it also offers a challenge that is unique in Italian football.

Current manager Stefano Colantuono knows all about it.  His first spell in charge ended when he moved to Palermo, lured by the promise of a club with the reputation of more heightened ambition than Atalanta.  Yet his time there ended after just a few months; engulfed by the chaos and lack of patience of a club that is the polar opposite to Atalanta.

It is an experience that probably helped him understand and appreciate better both what he has at Atalanta and also what he has to do.  

Out of the fifteen players who made more than ten appearances last season – one in which they comfortably retained their top flight status - six (Daniele Baselli, Gian Bellini, Giacomo Bonaventura, Davide Brivio, Andrea Consigli and Cristian Raimondi roughly 40%) came from their youth team.  Plenty more got their first taste of Serie A with Colantuono testing them to see how they would do.  

Of those who played regularly, the most impressive was attacking midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura who earned an Italy cap and was close to making it into their World Cup squad.  Yet he is unlikely to be there when the season kicks off again in September, continuing a tradition of seeing their best players move to bigger sides.

To replace him, and to strengthen the team, Atalanta look first and foremost within.  That might seem as an obvious place to start but it is a big departure from other clubs’ normal practise.  

In truth, Atalanta do their best to assist their players’ development.  As with many other Italian clubs, they send a lot of players out on loan (in excess of forty last season) all over the country at different levels.  The fact in itself that a lot of these have come through Atalanta’s system is a guarantee of their potential, meaning that there are many willing to take a bet on their youngsters.

The progress of these players is monitored closely.  The main aim is that of seeing how they handle the experience, looking for indications as to whether they can step up.  But it is also a way of putting these players in the shop window, giving them the best opportunity of making a career out of football even if it isn’t in Atalanta’s colours. 

If you enjoyed this article you will probably enjoy our debut e-book Blueprint for Football According To...Volume 1 where six football coaches with experiences from around the world talk about their blueprint for the game.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

When It Is Too Early To Predict

Coming at around the same time that Greg Dyke was announcing his plans for English football which included the proposed introduction of B teams, one would have expected the Under 17s participation in the European Championship of the age category to receive greater publicity.  Instead it went by largely un-noticed until they reached the final (which they won) at which point everyone suddenly got excited.

That England eventually won (and on penalties!) did little to diminish enthusiasm and rightly so because the team was made up of a number of genuinely talented individuals.  Whether it was the best team or not is debatable – the technique of the Portuguese, where every player on the pitch looked an exquisite passer of the ball, was extremely impressive - yet they won when it mattered which is a great lesson to learn at that age.

And that is what these tournaments are for: learning.  Playing against in a different climate against teams who adopt different approaches to the game provide them with challenges that they don’t normally come across, meaning that they have to come up with new solutions in order to win.  These games will serve as the building blocks on which they can build their careers, and the experience will be stored for future reference.  For sure, they will have less fear of penalty kicks, given the confidence with which they dispatched them.

Inevitably, this point got lost once they won with the effort going instead on identifying which player could be billed as the most talented of this generation.

The truth is that it is very difficult to predict what will happen to any of these players.  They are too young and their bodies have too much development to go through to be able to discern what will happen of them.

For proof of this one only has to look at the list of top scorers from previous editions.  Going through the five editions held between 2005 and  2009 (i.e. players who today are aged between 21 and 26) the only one that you could probably count as a genuine star of the game is Toni Kroos.  Others like Victor Moses and Luc Castignos have had fairly respectable careers so far and could push on to reach another level.

The majority, however, have descended into anonymity.  Players like Lennart Thy, Yannis Tafer, Manuel Fischer, Tomas Necid and Tevfik Kose have ended up playing in lower divisions or minor leagues.  Not that there is any disgrace in that, anything but, yet it is a far cry from what their early success hinted could lie in store for them.

For a lot of players, those age category tournaments end up being the highlight of their career, something from which there are two lessons to take.  The first is one that is often mentioned which is that at those ages it is more important that players learn rather than winning.  But, and this is the second lesson, if they do win it is important that they be allowed to enjoy the experience because it might, literally, be the only one shot of glory they ever get.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Atalanta: The Italian Talent Factory

This is the first in a two part series focusing on Atalanta.  The second part can be read here.

When people talk about clubs who have managed to develop a system that consistently brings through talented players, they’re usually referring to the big continental giants whose success stories are well known; teams like Barcelona, Ajax, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

There are, however, other clubs who are just as successful – perhaps even more – at developing players but whose work gets far less recognition because they do not have the same platform on which to showcase their results.

Atalanta is one of those clubs.  When in 2011 the CIES Football Observatory ranked clubs by the number of players whom they had produced and who were playing top flight football across Europe, Atalanta came eighth, the highest placed Italian side on the list and ahead of a lot of continental heavyweights whose investment far exceeds theirs.

Yet, outside of Italy they are virtually unknown something that is partly down to the fact that except for a Coppa Italia won in 1962 they have never registered any success at national, let alone international, level.  This anonymity is also caused by the way in which their model works which, stripped down, essentially equates to this: bring a player through, give him room to develop, sell him, plough back the money into the system and bring the next one through.

It is an efficient and self-sustaining model that has seen the club develop into the biggest ‘provincial’ side in Italian football, something that is a success in itself.  Of course, the fact that their young players keep finding room in the first team – something that the regular sale of top players ensures – is one of the reasons why they are so good at it; players simply get the opportunities that they wouldn’t necessarily get elsewhere.

What this is not, however, is a strategy that allows whoever is managing the side to build year on year.  There are years that are better than others (and, conversely, some which are worse than others) but long term success is unlikely.

That is something that is accepted and embraced.  Fans might not enjoy seeing  one good player after another getting sold so that they can fulfil their potential elsewhere yet they’ve come to realise that this strategy has allowed them to progress beyond many other clubs as well as giving them occasional joys of bloodying the noses of the big sides.

It is a system that works well for them.  Yet it is also one that is always in danger with predators lurking everywhere.

Whereas other Italian clubs have traditionally given Atalanta time to develop their players, making their moves only after they had played for the senior side and proved that there was more to them than potential, English clubs aren’t that patient.

Over the past decade, Atalanta have lost three of their brightest talents – Samuele Dalla Bona, Vito Mannone and Jacopo Sala – to Premiership clubs as soon as these players were out of school.  There could be more losses along the way with fifteen year old Christian Capone being rumoured to be interesting Liverpool.

With Atalanta receiving little or nothing for these players, the risk is that their whole model can be ruined.  The simple truth for them is that they need to generate certain amounts in transfer fees to keep on funding the whole system, something that is unlikely to happen if their brightest prospects are stolen away before they’re anywhere near reaching full maturity.

Unfortunately, there is little that they can do.  Their best option is to point at the lengthy list of players that have managed to play at the highest level thanks to the education and opportunity that they got at Atalanta.  It is a strong argument and, hopefully, one that will ensure that the list keeps growing longer.

The Atalanta Production Line
Atalanta have always been proficient at developing players with the likes of Gaetano Scirea and Antonio Cabrini – both of whom would go on to become Juventus legends – as well as Roberto Donadoni coming through the ranks.

Yet the club really pivoted its attention on to youth in the late eighties, providing Italian football with some of its finest players.  Here are some examples. 

Riccardo Montolivo
Spotted as an eight year old, he would make his first team debut ten years later at the start of a season where Atalanta where in the Serie B.  His talent immediately came to the fore and he promptly became a regular helping the side to promotion.  The following season he would retain his place in the side and, even though Atalanta would go on to finish last, he had shown enough for Fiorentina to move in and sign him.

Alessandro Tacchinardi
Having initially started out at his home-town side of Pergocrema, Tacchinardi was signed by Atalanta and placed in their youth sides.  In 1992 he made his first team debut and immediately caught the attention of Juventus who would sign him before he made ten appearances for Atalanta.  It would turn out to be a wise choice as Tacchinardi would go on to form one of the best midfields in Europe.

Massimo Donati
After progressing through all the youth ranks at Atalanta, Donati made his first team debut at the start of the 1999-2000 season going on to make 20 appearances as the side successfully battled to get out of the Serie B.  He would play even more the following year (26 appearances) in the Serie A convincing AC Milan to make a move for him. 

Giampaolo Pazzini
Pazzini was in the same youth side as Montolivo and, like him, made his first team debut in 2003-04, scoring nine goals as Atalanta won promotion.  The following season he found goals a bit harder to come by yet, even so, he wasn’t allowed to finish the season at the club because by January they had received an offer from Fiorentina that was too good to refuse.

Domenico Morfeo
Of the players on this list, Morfeo is perhaps the least known yet he was a supremely talented player who perhaps should have made more of his abilities.  Spotted by Atalanta as a fourteen year old, he made his debut at just 17, scoring three times in nine games.  Despite Morfeo’s contribution, Atalanta were relegated that season and, strangely, he would only play a bit-part role in the following season as they successfully won promotion back to the top flight.

Once there, Morfeo would get a starring role scoring eleven times in thirty appearances.  Having survived relegation, Morfeo opted to remain at the club but injuries restricted him to 26 appearances (and five goals) as Atalanta were relegated.  That summer he moved to Fiorentina.

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