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:
- 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:
2) Selection of players
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
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.