Google+ Blueprint for Football: February 2011

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

The Product Line Methodology - An Introduction

As a professional geek (I'm an IT Business Analyst), there are certain books and concepts you encounter that have a profound impact on your career. One such book is this one - "Software Product Lines: Patterns and Practices" by Paul Clements and Linda Northrop.

The two authors are gurus from Carnegie Mellon University's "Software Engineering Institute", and they have a handy way of making what could be a complex and overwhelming concept easy for people to understand. That's not to say everyone would find the content interesting, you understand - it's specific to organisations who generate software products after all. Chances are your eyes would glaze over pretty quickly if you weren't looking for something specific in the first place, so hey - I might as well summarise the useful stuff right here eh? I mean, how the @*^k has this got anything useful to contribute to a debate about football?

Well, as you start reading, the book quickly shows you how generally applicable the concept is. It does this with the help of a Mexican restaurant (and as you read, it brings to mind a Billy Connolly routine that says pretty much the same thing).

You see, in most Mexican restaurants, things are pretty simple. You get a menu that lists several dishes on the premise that they're somehow fundamentally different. But unfold the parcel and it quickly emerges that, for the most part at least, your average Mexican dish consists of much the same component ingredients as pretty much every other item on the menu. What's different about them? Well, the wrap's folded differently. Or the veg and salad are sat on one side. And maybe the grated cheese and refried beans too. But then again - maybe not.

Clements and Northrop set out in a simple diagram how the raw materials of meat, vegetables, cheese, beans, sour cream and salsa sauce can be combined in various ways to produce what seems like a varied and exotic menu. And here's the point - your average Mexican restaurant operates what's known as a "product line".

Now - it's important before we start to make one key point: a Product Line is not a Production Line. A Production Line is what Henry Ford set up to produce identical finished products, of reasonable quality, at relatively low cost, and in huge quantities. In a youth development context, that might appeal to some people, but unless every player is Pele, chances are you won't want every single kid who graduates to be identical. You need a blend of qualities with a core set of shared skills and strenghts, don't you?

Enter the Product Line methodology - the whole point of which is to deliver exactly that. Over to Clements and Northrop, who I'll take the liberty of paraphrasing (cos the products we're talking about aren't bits and bytes).


"A {product line} is a set of {products} sharing a
common, managed set of features that satisfy the specific needs of a
particular market segment or mission and that are developed from a
common set of core assets in a prescribed way."


Now - this definition, while intriguing, presumes the existence of certain 'building blocks' - pre-requisites if you like, that must be in place before things start.


  1. You must understand your market segment or mission.
  2. You must understand the features that satisfy the market segment or mission.
  3. You must have some idea of how to develop products that deliver those features in a 'managed' and 'prescribed way'.


In the football context, I'd argue that translates as follows: you need a clear idea of how your organisation will play the game, and you need a blueprint that describes how your finished products will deliver according to that vision, mission, or philosophy.

Sound familiar? I'm guessing it does, as it's been a hot topic over recent months and years in this country. What we've lacked, arguably, is a structured analysis of the underlying domain. Sure, we've seen interesting interviews with people like Fernando Hierro at the Spanish FA and the coaches and management involved in developing the set up at Barcelona, but while we've seen evidence of the need for a clear defining philosophy, it's not clear how they go about implementing that philosophy, at least not beyond the idea of "la rondo" being repeated ad nauseam. Barca may do that training drill until they're blue and red in the face, but there's a lot more to it than that, even if it's not clearly defined anywhere. That club, and the footballing establishment in Spain, have a clear recipe, and indeed a superstructure of recipes, that enable them to produce the kind of football - the product - we've seen from their club and national sides in recent years.

We'll look at the detail in later posts, but the goal of our analysis is this: we'll understand our business domain, then we'll think about the kind of players (products) that satisfy that domain, and last but not least, we'll think about the coaching and management architecture best suited to developing and 'deploying' those players.

That's it for part 1 - there's a lot of stuff to chew on in that snippet, after all. More to come as soon as I find some time to write it!

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Gambardella 2008, stronger than Gambardella 2003?

Original text in French by Sylvain Sro, translated by Puchkin

Let it be known, 2010-2011 is the season in which the “Gambardella 2008” generation took over at the Stade Rennais. In the stride of M’Vila and Brahimi, will they be able to do better than their predecessors of 2003, led by Briand and Gourcuff? This is what the club seems to think, building an important part of its short-term future on their talent.

Yohann Gourcuff
The same Stade de France, the same triumphant victory, the same joy on the pitch. Five years apart, the Stade Rennes U18 won the Gambardella Cup, the most prestigious national competition for youth teams. 2003 or 2008, each promotion had its stars: Briand, Gourcuff or Faty on one side; M’Vila, Brahimi and Souprayen on the other. And above all, the promise of a golden generation expected to feed the professional squad with both quantity and quality.

The 2003 winners blossomed under Bölöni’s management, and most of them are still making their way at the highest level nowadays. Meanwhile, the 2008 winners are progressively settling in under Antonetti’s guidance, and constitute the base of this young team beginning a cycle, so much vaunted since last July.

Integration to the first team: Draw
Both generations have got one thing in common: Almost all of the players that composed them have turned professional. This is anything but usual for teams reaching that level. As a proof, from the Strasbourg team encountered by Rennes in the 2003 final, only Habib Bellaïd and Éric Mouloungui have remained to professional football.

Jimmy Briand
In Rennes, thirteen of the fourteen players used during the final eventually turned pro [1], with midfielder Fabien Dugaz the only exception. Even better, nine of these professional careers have been launched at the Stade Rennais, with four of the dropped players looking for their fortune elsewhere, such as Sébastien Le Toux in the United States. Naturally, all of them did not manage great professional careers, including those kept by the club: Only four made a real impact in the professional squad (Bourillon, Briand, Faty and Gourcuff), two more being limited to moderate success with the “Rouge et Noir” (Mvuemba et N’Guéma) while the last three failed to deliver (Jonathan Bru, Chaigneau and Arthur Sorin).

On this aspect, the 2008 generation seems to follow a very similar way. Out of the fourteen players used at the Stade de France by Laurent Huard and Régis Le Bris [2], eleven have turned professional in Rennes, one did it elsewhere (Louhoungou) and two were force to abandon, at least for some time, their dreams of professional football (M’Laab and Pivaty, both gone for CFA teams)

Several new professionals have already left the club however (Lasimant, Le Marchand, Le Tallec and Petit), and the Rennes future of two other remains uncertain (Caro and Pajot will see their contract expire at the end of the season). At this moment, only five of them have made their way to Rennes’ professional team (Brahimi, Camara, M’Vila, Souprayen and Théophile-Catherine), not far over their 2003 predecessors.

Gambardella 2003 : A lukewarm success
What summary could be done, in terms of the generation 2003’s contribution? It was very important, and highly frustrating at the same time.

2002, the club is in full doubt, still bogged down in the monumental and costly recruitment errors made during summer 2000. Christian Gourcuff’s spell was a complete failure, and Rennes was struggling to deal with its nouveau riche club image, setting European targets but fighting against relegation. An obvious fact is raised: The Academy, which already produced very good players during the previous decade, is under-used. François Pinault made the choice to offer it a quadrupled budget, and the club’s objective clearly became to lay the foundations of the professional squad on it, with a policy aiming to see 50% of the playing staff trained at the club’s Academy.

Laszlo Boloni
For that purpose, the 2003 victory arrived in ideal time: Even though the players in this generation were all recruited before 2002 and therefore not the result of this new policy, their victory was making their integration in the professional squad even more legitimate. Recruited in part for his ability to launch youngsters, Laszlo Bölöni had full latitude to launch a new cycle, quickly based on this wave of youth. The rise of this generation remained progressive however: Although Faty and Bourillon were soon used to starting in Ligue 1, it took a bit more time for the others, such as Briand, or in a lesser extent Gourcuff.

In the latter’s wake, this generation’s input reached its summit between 2006 and 2007, without managing to reach anything else than UEFA Cup qualifications. At the end of summer 2007, only one of the players remained at the club: Jimmy Briand. The 2003 generation had given a great contribution to the revival induced by Bölöni, but the club failed to gain full profit of it, as Gourcuff’s rushed departure to Milan AC symbolises.

Gambardella 2008 : A slower emergence
As opposed to its 2008 successor, the team that won in 2003 had already gathered much experience. During the 2002-2003 season, Philippe Bergeroo and Vahid Halilhodzic had not hesitated to throw Grégory Bourillon (21 games in L1), Jacques Faty (9 games), Stéphane N’Guéma (5 games) and Jimmy Briand (1 game) at the deep end.

Damien Le Tallec
In 2008, nothing like that : Sure, Damien Le Tallec has already been a professional for a year, but none of the players involved has been given any competitive experience in “senior” football. This would not stop the Rennes team to manage its game to the perfection, just like M’Vila, already displaying his serene leadership at midfield.

The following season, while Bölöni had decided to rely on the rising generation, Guy Lacombe left it completely on the side of the road. In 2008-2009, only Théophile-Catherine made a bit of a breakthrough in the professional squad, with two starts in the Coupe de la Ligue. Camara and Lasimant were also offered a few minutes in the season’s last match in Marseille, as the manager’s departure had already been confirmed.

To Lacombe’s credit, he was not facing the same context as his predecessor. Bölöni, searching for a competitive team, could easily take the time for tries and introduce youngsters to Ligue 1. In 2008-2009 however, Rennes was a well-oiled formation, able to manage 18 consecutive games without a loss, and therefore not as easily modifiable. The patience of Rennes’ youngsters was severely tested, too severely for one of them, Damien Le Tallec, who decided to quit Rennes’ Reserve to join Borussia Dortmund’s

The loans as an indicator
One could think that Frédéric Antonetti’s arrival, in June 2009, was opening the generation 2008’s era. It is both true and false. In 2009-2010, only two players were introduced to Ligue 1: M’Vila, who appeared immediately as a future international to Antonetti, and Théophile-Catherine who, as under Lacombe’s management, was only offered limited time on the pitch. Nothing too exciting at first sight.

But this time, the solution was to loan. For the 2003 generation, that strategy had been used in diverse ways, to relaunch N’Guema, to offer Arthur Sorin some playing time, or to try and sell Mvuemba or Chaigneau.

Encouraged by Sow’s spell in Sedan, the management made a massive use of loans in Ligue 2. A successful strategy, which allowed the youngsters to gain experience without fighting the competition in an overcrowded squad, which only M’Vila’s talent and maturity could overcome without resistance.

Yacine Brahimi
The five loaned players (Brahimi, Camara, Lasimant, Le Marchand and Souprayen) totalled over two hundred games played in one season. A good inspiration, especially since the strategy also helps defining which of the five could become key players in the first team. In summer 2010, Brahimi and Souprayen had become candidate to starting slots, Camara was left in stand-by provisionally, while Lasimant and Le Marchand, not as convincing during their respective loans, where left to find a new team. Vincent Pajot, on loan at Boulogne this season, knows ehat he has to do in order to cement a place at the Stade Rennais next year…

Today, in terms of high-level experience (Ligue 1 or Ligue 2), the 2008 generation has nearly caught up with his 2003 predecessor. Cleverly, Stade Rennes also managed to avoid a sometimes difficult period of integration for its young players. Arnold Mvuemba or Florent Chaigneau could witness of the difficulties inherent to professional beginning. The first took years to affirm himself, before finally blossoming in Lorient, the second sought completely after a string of catastrophic games.


Note : The graph above represents the evolution of the number of games played by the two generations over time, after their Gambardella Cup victory. In 2003 (blue curve), some players had already gathered some professional experience. The progression in the number of games is consistent, before gaining in intensity in 2005-2006 (2 to 3 years after the final). After Gourcuff’s departure, the curve returns to normal, before lowering strongly at +4 years, when Bourillon and Faty quit Brittany, leaving only Briand behind them.

In 2008 (Red and Orange curves), the arrival in the first team is happening later, with the players only reaching in Summer 2010 (+2 years) the total already played by the 2003s. A misleading assessment: By including all the Ligue 2 games played during their loan, the players have nearly caught up, in one year, the experience that their 2003 predecessor had acquired in three seasons. The projections made (in dotted lines) according to the number of games played since the beginning of the season, show a constant increase, and nearly equal to the 2003 players’ best score (2005-2006 season). An increase which is destined to be accentuated even more, if Souprayen or Brahimi were to become regular starters.

An difference in emergence, as a good omen?
Yann M'Vila
Finally, except for the only M’Vila, players from the 2008 generation are playing their first full season at Stade Rennais in 2010-2011. An emergence that comes with a two year difference with their from 2003 launched very (too?) early in the first team. If Stade Rennes manages to keep its youngsters – and the club did work this way by extending most of their contracts until 2014 -, they should only be giving the full measure of their potential next season, or during the 2012-2013 season.

Older, and strenghtened by one additional year of Ligue 2 experience, they give much more guarantees than their predecessors. Samuel Souprayen, who is still to complete his breakthrough in the first team, had already shown that he could be a key player in Ligue 2. Enough to create relation of mutual trust between the player and the club, which would have been difficult to instate if he had remained with the reserve squad for one more year.

« I think we are reaching a real turning point, Jérôme Leroy affirmed on 21st December. The potential is there. […] If you keep these youngsters, they are the future at Rennes. Look what Lille has done, they have kept a lot of players since three-four years, and they have become key-players”.

Off to a good start in the League during this 2010-2011 season, everything seems to be shaping up well for Rennes and its «Gambardella 2008» generation. Better, it seems that this generation is far from having shown all its potential yet. A sign, maybe, that glorious tomorrows are well on their way…

Footnotes
[1] The squad for the 2003 final: Chaigneau, Le Toux, Macé (Sorin, 84’), Bourillon, Faty, Dugaz, Mvuemba, Bru, Briand, Gourcuff (Benchenaa, 75’), N’Guéma (Stanger, 84’).

[2] The squad for the 2008 final: Petit, Théophile-Catherine, Louhoungou, Souprayen (cap), Le Marchand, M’Vila, Pajot, Brahimi (Caro, 77’), Lasimant, Le Tallec (Pivaty, 86’), M’Laab (Camara, 64’)

With thanks to the very kind people at Stade Rennais Online who have allowed us to reproduce this wonderful piece.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Secret of Barca's Success

One of the finest pieces of football writing to appear this year is Sid Lowe's interview with the Barcelona midfielder Xavi which, unlike most interviews, happens to be entertaining and insightful.  It really should be read in full but, from the perspective that interests us - how clubs develop players - this bit particularly stood out.
Some youth academies worry about winning, we worry about education. You see a kid who lifts his head up, who plays the pass first time, pum, and you think, 'Yep, he'll do.' Bring him in, coach him. Our model was imposed by [Johan] Cruyff; it's an Ajax model. It's all about rondos [piggy in the middle]. Rondo, rondo, rondo. Every. Single. Day. It's the best exercise there is. You learn responsibility and not to lose the ball. If you lose the ball, you go in the middle. Pum-pum-pum-pum, always one touch. If you go in the middle, it's humiliating, the rest applaud and laugh at you.
 Full interview can be read here.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

My own personal hopes for Blueprint for Football

Roy Henderson

When Paul first mooted the idea of this site, I was enthused. It's something I've been interested in for a long time, and not only in the footballing context. How do people somehow manage to take raw talent and mould and shape it into something wondrous? Be it an individual or a team, or more importantly, a conveyor belt of talent, how is it done? Sure, there are one-offs, but for me there must be patterns and recipes that we can take and apply for ourselves.

Needless to say I have a lot to write on this subject. My mum was a primary school teacher and head mistress. I have two sisters who are PE teachers, one of whom also runs a stage school with her husband, also a former PE teacher, who also runs another stage school. So it's fair to say my family have been closely involved in some form of youth development for years. The textbooks would lie around the house. When I visited my sisters, conversation would often turn to this subject. That kind of thing. So it's something that swims around in my mind really, and while I think some people in life have it pretty well nailed down, I'm not always convinced they're able to articulate their methods into a repeatable formula - something that others might copy and also enjoy success with.

There are several themes that will come up again and again in this work. If it's repetitive, there's a reason for that. The first is time. Kids need to devote time to their chosen craft if they're to become truly world class. Then there's quality. What constitutes quality in a training or learning environment? Clearly, the time spent must be 'quality time' if it's to be most effective. Then there's the stuff that informs what's done during that quality time - the philosophy, and the syllabus, how things should be structured, the skills of the teachers, and so forth. As well as case studies and debate over what constitutes best practice, those elements will come up again and again. I'll try and make sure that, repetitiveness notwithstanding, it's as entertaining and as varied as possible. How else are we going to learn together eh?

As we go I'd encourage readers to participate and debate the points raised as fully as possible, no matter how daft the points seem. That way we'll learn and learn - and this is maybe the one topic I'm most interested in learning. Thanks in advance, and pull your chair up close, cos this could get interesting - we're certainly both passionate about this subject.

Sunday, February 6, 2011

Looking for a Brighter Future

Paul Grech

Neil Mellor left Preston to join Sheffield Wednesday on year's loan deal this summer. It isn't the sort of transfer many Liverpool fans will have picked on but it is significant for one particular reason: Mellor is one of the most successful graduates to emerge from Liverpool's academy over the past ten years.

Indeed, apart from Stephen Warnock, no player from the club's academy who made his senior debut during the past decade currently plays in the Premiership. There are a handful - David Raven, Jon Otsemobor, Stephen Wright, Darren Potter - who have all gone on to establish themselves as good players in the lower leagues but none who have shown that they could have made it at the club.

Pinpointing a reason for that is tricky. It is far too easy to get bogged down in arguments involving Gerard Houllier and Rafa Benitez's reluctance to give younger players an opportunity. Inevitably, these arguments would turn into a debate about whether this was down to players not being good enough or rather the players themselves not developing because their progress was stalling through lack of opportunites.

The truth is, of course, that there isn't one single reason just as it isn’t only talent that is needed for a player to make it in professional football.

Indeed, there are a number of factors - luck, injuries, physical strength, mental resilience, tactical awareness - that always have to be kept in the forefront of any discussion about young players. The temptation to build them up as potential stars is often hard to resist when in reality, sad and cynical though this might seem, it takes much more than talent to be able to get a chance in the game.

The nineties witnessed the largest number of home grown players in the modern history of the club – Mike Marsh, Dominic Matteo, Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler, David Thompson, Michael Owen, Jamie Carragher and Steven Gerrard. Yet this was also the worst decade in the modern history of the club as far as results were concerned something that played a factor in all of those players getting their opportunities as early as they did.

Of course, most of those players were fantastically talented individuals who would have made it in any case. Then again, the injuries that plagued Gerrard early on in the first team could have easily ruined his career. It was Carragher’s mental strength rather than his playing talent that saw him carve out a space for him in the team despite the number of supposedly better players brought in.

Such factors are often overlooked, yet they are what really makes a difference.

This doesn’t answer the question as to why an academy such as Liverpool’s that had been so successful stopped churning out players. The methods certainly didn’t change and the talent pool available remained the same. So what happened?

The most probable reason, strange as this might seem, is that success happened. When Gerard Houllier arrived at Liverpool and started overhauling the first team to bring it in line with his view of the game, results improved markedly. By the time his first season came to an end, expectations had risen considerably and so too the pressure on him to succeed.

Houllier, of course, was a great believer in young talent. One of the reasons that he had been chosen for the Liverpool job was the success of the French youth system which he was credited with shaping. In his first months at the club, he had picked two young players from the reserves and included them in his first team.

The first one, Steven Gerrard, went on to become the club’s finest player in recent history. But, for the sake of this piece, it is the second of those players who is most important.

That player was Stephen Wright, a good right back who seemed to have everything needed to make the grade: strength, speed, willingness to work hard and knowledge of what to do with the ball. What he lacked, obviously enough, was experience and that was the root of the problem.

By the time Wright came to play for the side, Liverpool were on the rise and Houllier probably felt that he needed someone more experienced to rely on if his hopes of success were to be realised. So he turned to Abel Xavier. The move for Everton’s defender was a controversial one and not only because of the club from which he was joining. Xavier was seen as something of a joke and his playing skills weren’t exactly overly admired. But he knew how to deal with the pressure of playing in big games which is what Houllier was looking for at the time.

The manager was more than justified to reason this way but it meant that, all of a sudden, Wright had vanished off the radar. Within months, he was sold to Sunderland where he went on to prove to be a good player – with the potential to be even more than that – until his career was curtailed by a series of injuries that greatly limited his progression.

That move for Xavier didn’t only kill off Wright’s Liverpool career, it also sent the wrong message to the academy. And it wasn’t the only one.

It has long been rumoured that Houllier was irked by the lack of say he had in the running of the academy and although that was never really confirmed, the fact that he chose to turn to young French players (remember Patrice Luzi and Carl Medjani?) in order to fill his reserves was a clear indication of his lack of faith.

Once Houllier left, the hope was that the issues between Melwood and the academy would be sorted out. They weren’t and, if anything, the situation worsened.

Like his predecessor, Benitez wanted a say in how the academy was run but he too was rebuffed. So he set about building his own mini-academy with the reserves. A host of players (most of them from Spain) were brought in and these seemed to be guaranteed starting slots whilst players were left at the academy regardless of whether they were better than those ahead of them.

At that point the club needed to be strong and impose its mentality. Benitez shouldn’t have been allowed to stock up so many young players but, at the same time, he should have been given some say in matters involving the academy.

Sadly, that didn’t happend. Instead the academy became the focus of the standoff between Benitez and Rick Parry so much that when Steven Heighway left in 2007, Benitez wasn’t even consulted about the choice of his replacement in Piet Hamberg. In turn, his stance against the players coming out of the academy hardened amid rumours that Gary Ablett was allowed to pick players from the Under 18s for his reserves.

Ironically during all this, the Academy was apparently prospering. The FA Youth Cup was won twice in a row and, as far as results were concerned, everything seemed fine. Yet, at this level, results tell only half the story.

Potential players looked at their prospects of making it through the system and concluded that their prospects were probably better served elsewhere. It is, for instance, what led to Liverpool fan Jack Rodwell to opt for Everton. Liverpool no longer was the focus for the area’s best talent as it had been in the past when its reputation was enough to convince former blues like Carragher, McManaman and Fowler to join. So, whilst youth cup winning teams were being produced, this was down to the presence of a good group of players rather than that of a couple of exceptionally talented individuals.

Nevertheless, those successes raised expectations that a handful of those players would make it into Benitez’s plans. That didn’t happen and whilst the political in-fighting certainly didn’t help, it wasn’t the only reason that prevented any of Liverpool’s double FA Youth Cup winners from 2006 and 2007 from getting an opportunity.

In fact, success in the FA Youth Cup rarely equates to progression to the first team. When one looks at the Manchester United team that was beaten in the second of those finals, only Danny Welbeck has got a look-in and even he doesn’t seem to be developing as well as had been anticipated.

As for the City team that was beaten a year earlier – a club that, until recently, had limited funds and therefore youth was more likely to be given a chance – the only player that got through was Micah Richards.

Indeed, that City team provides another case in point: Michael Johnson. The midfielder was said to have the dynamism of Steven Gerrard after making an impression in the Premier League as an eighteen year old. Four years down the line, however, and injuries have limited him to just four appearances in the past two seasons. Once again a reminder that talent by itself isn’t enough.

Of course, not all that was happening at Liverpool’s academy was wrong. The appointment of Malcolm Ellias as head scout was particularly inspired as he started to transfer the knowledge that had seen him spot Theo Walcott at Southampton. If Andre Wisdom, one of the trio of Liverpool players that this summer won the European Under 17 championship, fulfils his early promise it is Elias that Liverpool will have to thank for spotting him in Bradford’s youth team.

Sadly, Ellias left when Benitez finally won his battle and got control of the academy and his was one of the few truly disappointing departures of the purge that happened over the last summer.

Yet the academy also gained the likes Pep Segura and Rodolfo Borell, people with a track record of success at a club as famous as Barcellona. By the end of the season, their imprint could easily be seen as the Under 18 side coached by Borell was technically and tactically much better than the one that had started the season. Things, once again, were looking up.

And this was one of the biggest worries when Benitez left: would Borell be leaving as well? Would all the progress shown over the previous twelve months be washed away?

These doubts quickly brought to the fore the problem of having the first team manager in charge of the academy. Because that system works when you have people like Alex Ferguson and Arsene Wenger in charge, whose job is virtually theirs for life. Benitez may have been given a five year deal when he was given control over the academy but the feeling was always that he was one bad season away from being dismissed.

Until Liverpool have a manager who is in such an unsackable position, therefore, it doesn’t make sense to give them any control over the academy. After all, that doesn’t happen at Ajax or Barcellona where the club have thought up and live by pretty visionary ideals for their youth sector. Any manager coming in has to buy into that philosophy if they want the job.

Of course, that these systems continuously produce some pretty amazing players helps. And that is the other part of the equation. Houllier and Benitez became frustrated with the youth system not because their desires to control every aspect of the club were being thwarted (much as there are those out there willing to see it this way) but because the players that were coming out of the system weren’t good enough.

The real building blocks, therefore, have to be at the academy itself. This must continuously try for develop the best coaches (which, by targeting the likes of Borell, is what Benitez did), have the best facilities as well as adopt the best approaches.

At Manchester United, for instance, they have done research to see what ages the kids should be playing on full size pitches with full size goals. The message here isn’t that Liverpool have to copy what is out there but, rather, the opposite: Liverpool have to be at the forefront of innovation. Every step of the process has to be analysed to determine what can be done to help these kids become better players.

Above all there must be a philosophy to which the club holds and which got lost amid all the political in-fighting. And, at Liverpool, that philosophy has to based on the pass and move system.

That is why it is vital to have at the academy someone like Kenny Dalglish. In that respect, Roy Hodgson got it right when he said that Dalglish has a vital role to play linking the academy with the first team. Somewhere along the line that link was lost and instead it became an ‘us versus them’ mentality.

Dalglish can bridge all that as he is the perfect link between the club’s past, its present and the future. He knows how the club’s academy teams should be playing and can ensure that everything is done with the ideal of getting them to play that way.

All of this, however, doesn’t solve the problem facing every manager at Liverpool FC which is that of constantly being under pressure to attain success. Going back to Stephen Wright, in the long term he was the better option but at that stage Houllier needed immediate results so, for him, Xavier’s experience increased his chances of achieving that.

And it will always be that way unless a way is found to give players the experience that they need. Sweeping statements like ‘if you’re good enough you’re old enough’ simply aren’t true. Players have to make their mistakes elsewhere, where they can learn from them rather than be castigated as happens at a top club like Liverpool.

You only have to look at someone like Emiliano Insua who was the standout player for the reserves for a long time but who has suffered badly from playing constantly for Liverpool. Quite simply, his rapid progression to first team regular – that was brought about by the lack of alternatives – has potentially burnt him out.

It would probably have been better for him to spend some time at a Premiership club with lower ambitions. That, however, was never going to happen. One of Benitez’s main problems was that he had very few contacts in the British game meaning that there were always limited outlets when sending out players on loan. Whereas someone like Ferguson, who knows most of the managers out there, can easily pick a Championship or even a Premiership club to send someone who needs games at Liverpool the destination was often a League One or League Two club.

Again the need is for someone like Dalglish who has the contacts and the charisma to get players the moves that they need at that particular stage in their career. With reserves football being the shambles that it currently is, that need is likely to become more pronounced in the future.

The good thing is that, fortunately, that future seems to be quite bright for Liverpool because there is a core of very good players in the Under 18s who seem good enough to keep on progressing.

It would be foolhardy to try and predict which players will actually make it because who knows what might happen to them. The important thing is that they are handled in the right manner and given the opportunities that they need to progress.

More important, however, is the need to ensure the direction in which the academy is going. At this point in time it might be too much to ask for the club to have a real vision for the academy rather than simply the notion that it is there to produce players but, given the direction football is heading, it might be the best hope for future success.

This article was published in the June 2010 issue of Well Red magazine.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

An Introduction to the Blueprint

There are few clubs as fascinating as Barcelona FC.  Not only do they play the best football on the planet but they've been incredibly successful with it.  Yet the real admiration for them does not stem from that but from the make up of their team that regularly includes some seven or eight players who have been with the club since childhood.

Barcelona's success in this respect is often attributed to a good youth system but, whilst fundamentally true, that is a simplistic way of looking at it.  Barcelona have managed to do what they have becuase they developed a philosophy and weaved it into every aspect of how their football club is run: scouting, training, recruiting of players, everything is driven by a common vision.

The idea for this blog - the framework around which it will be built - comes from the desire to really understand what drives such a succesful development programme.  The definition of success in itself is difficult to pin down: for a club it involves getting players through to the first team, for another it is a question of getting kids off the street.  Each one does things differently to get to where they want to be and, for us, each approach is important.

Analysing as many of these approaches as possible - in as many countries as possible - shall be a major focus of this blog.  Yet it won't be the only one.  We are equally intrigued by the psychological aspect of youth football, how players they are scouted and coached, what is done in other sports that could be adopted by football and even the occasional look at particular players who are excelling.  Eventually, the aim is to include interviews with key figures in youth football.

Those looking for match results or coaching tips will have to look elsewhere: that isn't what we are after.  Frankly, they don't interest us and, in any case, we don't have the expertise to write about them.  Instead we want to deliver a melting pot of ideas about developing players in the belief that ultimately this can lead to an identification of certain principles that are common ingredients for sucess.