Google+ Blueprint for Football: August 2011

Monday, August 1, 2011

A supremacy in peril?

Original text in French by Sylvain Sro, translated by Puchkin

Once again elected the best Academy in France, Stade Rennes is reaping the fruits of years of work, with the massive integration of quality young players into its professional squad. But the award should not let the club forget that behind, the competition is improving.
After 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009 and 2010, Stade Rennes has won again clinched the title of best academy in France at the end of this season 2010-2011. A reward which certainly isn’t surprising, considering the number of players trained at the club who completed a professional squad heavily rejuvenated by Pierre Dréossi and Frédéric Antonetti last summer.
Mainly focused on the chance offered to young players in Ligue 1, this ranking from the National Technical Direction (DTN) is indeed the reflects of efforts made years earlier. From the most senior (Romain Danzé, Sylvain Marveaux) to the youngest (Abdoulaye Diallo, Dimitri Foulquier), they were all recruited many years ago. In other words, action taken today clearly conditions the results of the future

The Academies, the future of French football

Although Stade Rennes can hope to fly over these rankings for a while longer, the club will also need to consider a reinforcement of the competition. In its communication, Rennes naturally tends to value the quality of its youth training and the trust put by the club in its young players. Some question the viability of this policy, consisting of a perpetual gamble on the future rather than on a clear present project. Without getting into the detail of all the advantages offered by a top-level Academy, it has to be admitted that many clubs are following sensibly the same way.
Because of the financial difficulty faced nowadays by many a Ligue 1 team, youth training remains indeed a safe placement… Even for a club like Marseille, whose reputation certainly isn’t this of an Academy-focused club. “If we are somehow realist about a modifying football economy over the next few years, we will regularly need talented players who will occupy a first eleven position at OM before, possibly, move abroad and bring a consequent amount of money to our club. This is probably the economic model we have to build the club’s future on”, Jean-Claude Dassier explained last January.
Only words ? Possibly. However, the Marseille management has certainly be encouraged by the examples of Samir Nasri and Mathieu Flamini in the past, or by the present emergence of the Ayew brothers. Insisting on the culture of a club spirit (which is always important to the supporters) and giving a positive image, youth training remains a fragile way to follow however, especially for clubs used to big name transfers.
A recent example is the PSG. Often mocked for its inability to retain the many talents growing in the Greater Paris Area [1] The club from the capital seems to have taken a new direction over the last few years, piling up titles and international caps in the youth categories. But the most difficult, yet most important part remains to be achieved: to make space for these young talents within the professional squad. Last year, several players trained at Paris Saint-Germain managed to make a place for themselves in Ligue 1, in the footsteps of an example such as Mamadou Sakho. But in the future, with the arrival of a Qatari investor, which coach would take the responsibility of launching a youngster, rather than give playing time to an element purchased for huge sums of money?
The months and years to come will show whether Paris continues trusting its youngsters, or if the club from the French capital forget about this new policy that early in the process. In the first case, the Parisian club could continue evolving as a heavyweight rival for Stade Rennes, especially when it comes to the recruitment of players from the Île-de-France region.

Nantes survives, Brest patients, Lorient rises

Even among its close neighbours, Stade Rennes experiences a rise of the competition. The former example, having gone through times of distress, FC Nantes has now started to revive its tradition in terms of youth training. This season, Landry Chauvin will be able to rely on a squad majorly coming from la Jonelière. But the FCN has been heavily hit, and the club will struggle to prove attractive again for as long as it will remain in Ligue 2, as the recent departures of Lionel Carole and Loïc Négo illustrate.
With the Nantes example collapsing, Rennes’ success in the field of youth training has become the model to follow for its neighbours and rivals, which Lorient president Loïc Féry admits without a problem. Despite the announced objective of a more regional team, Brest or Lorient have very few players trained at the club among their regular starters. Last year, Jérémy Morel was the only one for Lorient, while Brest didn’t even field a single player trained at the club. The task is huge for these clubs, far from the results of Stade Rennes, and its squad 50% trained on the grounds of the ETP Odorico.
In Brest, the club doesn’t even have its own academy. Disappeared with the bankruptcy of the Brest Armorique at the beginning of the 1990s, it was never to be reopened. But finally, the return of youth training in the Finistère is a project that should become reality in 2012. An absolute necessity for Brest, who were forced to let go a player like Mathias Autret to Lorient without having a say, simply for not having the youth training infrastructures and the semi-professional contracts these can deliver [2]
In Lorient, the development of the Academy enters in the logic of making the presence of the club in Ligue 1 durable. In the top flight for the sixth consecutive season, the club from the Morbihan has earned most of its success this far in the managing ability of Christian Gourcuff, and also in its good recruitment. Satisfying, naturally, but not necessarily viable on the long-term.
Highly competitive, the Stade Rennais academy allows the club to constantly feed the professional squad, and rapidly cover for poor recruitments if needed, brushing away the perspectives of relegation in the same time. To achieve the same thing and make up for their delay, Lorient are going through the necessary step of modernising their infrastructures, as Stade Rennes did at the beginning of the 2000s. Alongside the renovation of the Stade du Moustoir, the “Merlus” will soon witness the erection of the “l’Espace FCL”, a complex which will become the training centre and Academy of the Morbihan’s club.

«We are not playing in the same category, but we are growing up»

Of course, the « Merlus » are not planning a mere duplicate of the Rennes project. They are rather taking inspiration, adding a playing touch proper to FC Lorient. On target, the perspective of setting up a common playing project from the youngest categories to the professional, as it is done at FC Barcelona, the reference for Christian Gourcuff. Work is also done on the process of recruiting youngsters, in order to compete directly with the Stade Rennais. “We are not playing in the same category, but we are growing up”, Hervé Guégan, the head of the Lorient Academy affirmed to L’Équipe affirmed in April. I position myself on the recruitment of players also chased by Rennes, which I wouldn’t have imagined doing just two years ago”.
Admired for its playing style, the FC Lorient benefits of a positive image, this of a family-minded club, the ideal environment for the blossoming of young talents. Although the “Merlus” are not yet a true Academy-based club, they are already managing to recruit young players desired by Patrick Rampillon and his team. And this, even for youngsters from the Parisian region. “We want to regionalise the recruitment, as per the advice of the DTN, Christian Gourcuff précises. But we don’t plan to be like the Athletic Bilbao, who only accept Basque players”. So far, few Breton players in L1 have avoided the Stade Rennais.
Directly involved in the recruitment of the youngsters, Gourcuff knows that his club’s ability to train youngsters will be a major issue for the future of FC Lorient. At the moment, the club from Morbihan should prove its ability in the domain, and show that it is capable of turning its youngsters into good Ligue 1 players.
Despite the growing competition, even among clubs that haven’t got an history of young players training, Stade Rennes remains the undisputed reference up to this day, starting in Brittany. But a reference with no time to rest on its laurels over the coming years, or it could fall from its throne.


[1] Amongst other examples in Rennes, Yacine Brahimi and Yassine Jebbour played for the PSG’s youth teams before choosing to continue their training in Brittany.
[2] Without youth training infrastructures authorised by the federation, a club is not allowed to offer aspirant or trainee contracts to its player, which would protect them from external interests. Also, no professional contract can be offered to a player under the age of twenty.

Pep Segura Explains Strategy Behind Liverpool's Academy

Rafael Benitez will always be a divisive subject even among Liverpool fans.  Those who point at his Champions League tend to be met by others with a list of mediocre players that he brought to the club.  He took the club to within four points of winning the title but he also oversaw their seventh place finish.  For every positive there seems to be a negative.

There is, however, one area where the criticism dries out.  For years Benitez had asked to be given control over the club's academy, something that he eventually got which allowed him to revolutionise the system.

He brought in Frank McParland to oversee the administration, Pep Segura to set out the technical strategy and Rodolfo Borrell to manage the U18 side.  The results that these men have managed to achieve have been nothing short of astounding.

A sign of this came at the recent U17 World Cup where Liverpool had seven players: Tyler Belford, Raheem Sterling, Matthew Regan, Brad Smith, Adam Morgan and Jack Dunn for England plus Tom King who was in the Australia squad.

Yet, although much has been said about the excellent work that has been done at the Liverpool academy, very little is known about the actual strategy behind their work. Everyone has been saying that they've brought over Barcelona's model without knowing what that model is about outside of vague concepts.

Yet there is now more clarity thanks largely to a presentation made by Pep Segura at a football conference organised by the Catalun INEF (a physical education programme) and RCD Espanyol.

What follows is a summary of Segura's talk, translated from the blog of well known Catalan writer Martin Perarnau and presented with his permission.

The 'target' of the Liverpool Academy is twofold: to implement a common style of play in teams through all categories, and to provide players for the first team. When Rafa Benitez hired Pep Segura as head of the academy, Liverpool FC had three areas that were working completely seperately from each other:

- Scouting
- Technical Staff
- Sports Science (doctors, physios, trainers)

The target was to implement an integrated model of the style that currently exists in many Spanish clubs, so that all departments work in the same direction.

The Liverpool training centre consists of four large age groups:

1) Year 1 > Playing games, technical skills
2) Year 2 + Children + Cadets > technical skills, tactical work starts, physical work starts
3) Youth + Amateur Year 1 > technical skills, tactical work, physical work, psychological work
4) Amateur + Reserves > technical skills, tactical work, physical work, psychological work

The second group participates in the Under-15 Championship, the third group includes the U-17s and U-18s, and the fourth group plays in the Under-20s tournament and the Reserves. This team has been included in Pep Segura's area of responsiblity during the season just ended. The Academy focuses on organising the boys' training, education, and family accommodation in Liverpool.

Pep Segura's Academy work is divided into five major areas:

1) Facilities
2) Selection of players
3) Coaches
4) Program (Syllabus)
5) Management of the player

For reasons of time, he could not detail each of these areas, but he did mention aspects of several of them.


LFC have twelve training camps, ten on natural grass and two with artificial turf, plus one indoor for winter work. The facilities, according to Segura, are excellent, and not more physical infrastructure is needed.

Selection of players
Scouting is the responsibility of the department. Keep in mind that English law is very strict. Some examples:

- Players up to 14 years can't be signed beyond a radius of 150 kilometers from the club (Liverpool competing in the same environment as Manchester United, City, Everton, and so forth)
- The player is owned by the player’s home club /first club forever, this is the main reason why any price tag rises up.
- You can't sign players outside the community (150km) until they are 16 years old
- All games U-16 and U-18 are played on Saturdays at 11 am and from other categories, Sundays at 11 am This avoids the coaches come to watch opposing players of interest. Another peculiarity: the U-15 takes place on Wednesdays, which is almost unfeasible to train more than two days a week

Liverpool work the Academy for sporting and economic necessity and because "we want to work with our players, but do so with our style of play." Segura found, after some time, Liverpool was repeating a pattern that he had already lived in the Barcelona: "Most youth players came from a particular geographical area and, especially, of a particular school."

For scouting the club uses three essential parameters: selection from very young age, constant monitoring of all of them, and determining the precise moment of joining the club. The relevant department raises three questions: a) What is the player profile? B) Is player for Liverpool; c) will he make us grow as a team?

We analyze four factors:
- Technical: We appreciate the passing game (passing game)
- Tactical: Your ability to play without the ball
- Psychological: Your willingness to be professional
- Physical: We value speed, strength and size (English football)

Teams from different categories are structured in the form of a double pyramid

- Between 8 and 11: 3 teams per category
- Between 12 and 14 years: 2 teams per category
- After 15 years: 1 team per category

In the two years since Pep Segura as technical director, the Academy has doubled the number of players at his disposal. In the selection process, all are subject to a battery of physical and technical tests. These tests are also done to those at the Academy itself at sever instances each year to establish internal and external comparisons.

Liverpool FC have identified three types of targets in the catchment:
- Focus A: 14. Local Players
- Focus B: 16. The 2 best in England plus 2 best foreign
- Focus C: 18. Best English and / or foreign to compensate for the shortcomings identified in the Academy

"The program is a great tool to implement and not just having a good criteria for selection of players. It's the idea and style that make an organization strong." Segura says an idea of strategic thinking is needed and from then on a basic understanding of principles of play and style, and an idea to work efficiently and consistent with the philosophy of the club.

Segura says in this regard that the success of Spanish football are based on working with the Academy, which has created an excellent selection pool of players and it has put Spain at the top of European youth football, followed by France. However, he also believes that there si something wrong with Spanish football since that success does not correspond with the actual number of youth players who are actually getting a chance at senior level.

The technical program of the Academy is based on a 4-2-3-1 system of play implemented by Rafa Benitez "although I would have preferred a 4-3-3, but England has historically used the 4-4-2 and we had to adapt." In the case of Liverpool, "using it as a key tool because our style is the passing game, where os our greatest impact".

Stratification of training is as follows:
- 8 to 12 years: 35 weeks of competition / weekly sessions 3
- 13 to 15 years: 35 weeks of competition / weekly sessions 4-5
- 16 to 18 years: 40 weeks of competition / weekly sessions 7-8
- 19 to 21 years: 42 weeks of competition / weekly sessions 7-8

The structure of a typical training session is as follows:
1) Warm up
2) Technical skills: especially in the passing game and to be offered before the pass
3) Tactical skills: Automating offensive and defensive work, possession, Gale Related (reduced situations: from 1 to 1-5 against 5)
4) Part games: Application of the stuff they've worked on
5) End section: Gym, pitch work and stretching

Automation: Work in all phases, from starting to move the ball in defense to the last pass, creating a meaning and order of play. "The small details are the ones that make them grow as players: body position, speed when striking the ball, the timing of his move at the right time ...." Games of position, with special incidence in the circulation at high speed, knowing the positions of the companions are defined and known.

Recordings: The Academy records every game and every practice session with a very interesting point added: they also record the coaches' voices giving advice during sessions. It was a research conducted by the Liverpool University who took up the oral communication, which has yielded great results: "We have seen the deficiencies of the coaches and have corrected the messages. Some always corrected the same concepts and not others more important, or were fixated with some players."

Finally, for Pep Segura the criteria to improve tactics are:
- Everyone must do the same work
- We must be inspired by street football
- Street football is gone and we have to work hard to make up for it
- We must use rectangular surfaces to work on depth and breadth
- We must always breathe offensive spirit
- Explain to children the meaning of 4-2-3-1 to understand it
- Develop the game from the defensive line
- Teaching the collective game based on our system
- Emphasize creativity: the English player is disciplined and easy to learn automation and order, but Spanish is more creative and we must move in this direction
- The Game Related is difficult to apply to players and coaches because they are awaiting orders. When they do receive it, they work hard, but they suffer when they have to bring own creativity

Although centered around Barcelona (and in Spanish), it is highly recommended that people follow Martin Perarnau's blog even if through Google Translate as it is a mine of thoughtful pieces about football. There is a good discussion about this topic going on over at the Red And White Kop forum or, alternatively, you can let me know of your thoughts both through the comments on this blog and on Twitter.