Monday, April 8, 2013
Working from a Template
When people talk of the most famous football academies in the world, typically either that of Ajax or the one at Barcelona, and what makes them so successful one of the first reasons that gets mentioned is the common tactical approach to games adopted from the highest to the lowest level.
And indeed that is a significant factor. What is it, however, that makes it so important that everyone wants to do the same?
The most often cited benefit, and indeed the most obvious one, is that if those players get to the senior side they can fit straight in. That, of course, is true albeit partially. Because at the highest level you also want players who are flexible and at least understand the nuances of playing in other ways: for one thing that allows them to know what to do when opposing teams shape up in different ways.
Indeed, the best players are those whose appreciation of tactics and thinking capacity allows them to change the way they are playing in order to exploit any weaknesses in the others' approach. And, just as players are encouraged to play in different positions so that they get an understanding of those roles, they learn about different tactics by experiencing them.
Therefore, while these teams have a very clear imprint in the way that they play, it is reductive to assume that they only have one approach.
There is another lesser heralded benefit that comes from having a philosophy throughout a club and it lies in the recruitment of players. That clear identity tells you what kind of players you need to look for and what kind of attributes are needed for each position.
When I interviewed the Catalan journalist Marti Perarnau, who has written extensively about the Barcelona youth system, he said that "technique, tactical intelligence and mental speed. These three traits are the ones that matter...Barca does not care about the size of the player. The three parameters I mentioned are the only ones that matter." Those are the kind of player they need and those are the kind of players they look for.
In the same way, if the system that you adopt requires full-backs who are good at supporting the attack it is of no use taking on a player whose main strength lies in defending and who does not possess the speed required to get back quickly into position if an attack were to break down.
A well defined system allows you to build a template with what characteristics to look out for in each position. That way, when the players do join they get to play in a way that suits their natural strengths.
The above article was first published in Blueprint for Football's bonus bi-weekly newsletter.