Google+ Blueprint for Football: July 2013

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

No Guarantees in Youth Football

Given the lack of football elsewhere, the U20 World Cup received more prominence than usual and the tournament did not disappoint particularly with Iraq’s run to the semi-final that perhaps should have been rewarded with an appearance in the final.

In truth, however, this is always an interesting competition; one that puts in the spotlight talent which is more than a promise.   So it was this time, with the likes of Juan Quintero (Ecuador), Paul Pogba (France) , Jese Rodriguez (Spain) and Bruma (Portugal) all catching the eye as potential stars.

In some cases, the belief is that the talent is more than potential.  Most certainly that seems to be the case with Bruma on whom a number of clubs are willing to spend a lot of money.  And he’s not the only one.

That by the time they compete at this level most of the players are practically fully developed physically, thus removing a further layer of uncertainty, helps in making judgements of players’ abilities.  A good portion of these players will have played for their club sides as well, and as such will have given better indications as to whether they will manage to transfer their form from youth to senior football.

Yet looking at the history of this competition serves as a reminder that there is no such thing as a guarantee in youth football.  Henrique, judged to be the most outstanding talent of the competition two years ago, has struggled to play regular first team football and already has played for half a dozen clubs.  Same goes for the Ghanaian striker Dominic Adiyah who won the Golden Ball in 2009 but currently plays his football for Arsenal Kyiv having failed to make much of an impact elsewhere.

Indeed, for every player who does make an impact after impressing in this competition, there are three or four who disappear.

All this confirms the difficulty in identifying potential that will flourish.  If a player who excels on the world stage at Under 20 level isn’t guaranteed to be a star, then there truly isn’t a measure to determine potential success.  That is why big clubs stockpile young talent: they know that they cannot pinpoint which players will make it and which will not so they buy as many as possible in the hope that at least a couple do fulfil their promise.  

Little does it seem to matter to them that their inability to give games to these players will hinder them from fulfilling their potential.

PS - If it is impossible to judge players at the age of 20 and who have been through a number of filters then the opposite must apply to those players who at 16, 17 and 18 are told that they aren’t good enough. Something for a future issue of Blueprint for Football Extra.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Football: The Parent Trap

Any parent likes to see his kids excel at anything, but it is an added source of pride and joy if that something happens to tap into their own passion.  So it is that for any football loving parent there are few feats that can match having their kid being taken on by an academy.

Yet, whilst the pride at this achievement remains, eventually other not so positive emotions start coming into play.  Often academies work on the basis that their sole focus is to improve the kids entrusted to them. The parents - and their problems - end up being practically ignored.  It is a rather unfortunate situation since children feed off their parents' emotions and their development can be stunted if they are anxious by what their football career is doing to those around them.

Fear Factor
The stress kicks in pretty early on.  As soon as any child is taken on by an academy, he is told that the chances of making it to the very top are remote.  This is done to temper expectations but, invariably, the initial effect is minimal.  Only when they are in the system and start seeing other kids being released does it start hitting home.

And that leads to one of the most prominent stress factors among parents.  Whilst being taken on by an academy can be a huge boost to a child's confidence, the opposite applies to them being released.  There is the risk that their lives start being defined by their affiliation to a club with the obvious repercussions - both immediate and for later in life - if this link is severed.  The big fear is that of ending up with someone who is bitter, unable to move one and who spends his time thinking of what might have been.

It is difficult, if at all possible, to prepare a child for the devastating blow they would feel if told of not being kept.  Which is why most parents simply hope that they never have to go through that experience.  No matter how much they try to push it to the back of their mind, however, that fear remains and the more they progress the greater the build up of anxiety.

Communication? What Communication?
Making matters worse is the lack of communication that often is forthcoming from those running the academies. The parents don't know whether their child is doing well enough to be kept on or not.  They have limited information and occasionally this is misleading; being led to believe that their kid will be retained only to then find out that he isn't.

Coaches know what kind of impact a negative piece of news can have on a young person's life which makes it understandable that they try to avoid giving it until they must.  Yet all this does not foster a healthy environment much less diminish the stress on the parents.

Even when the issue of whether a player will be kept on is addressed, the set-up can display a lack of understanding.  Traditionally, especially in the older age-groups, towards the end of season players are called in to the academy directors' office where they are told whether they're being kept on or not.

It is a stressful moment that is not made easier by the knowledge that your team-mates are outside the same office waiting to learn their own fate.  The last thing that any player who has just been told that he won't be kept on wants is to go out and face his friends.

That lack of communication is present in other areas.  There are few people involved in football who do not feel that reducing pitch size for the youngest ages hasn't been of a benefit for their technique.  Equally, few dispute the validity of not putting too much pressure on winning to allow the children to develop their spirit of play.

Few, that is, other than some parents who can get frustrated by the lack of desire to win (and win at all costs) displayed by coaches. They feel that this is putting their child at a disadvantage, especially if the coaches opt to change around the position of the players.  It is a move aimed at giving the child a better understanding of other roles but that can be difficult to appreciate for a parent who is only seeing his son struggle to make an impact.

The Matchday Experience
All of this, understandably, makes the games that the kids do get to play high pressure affairs for the parents who see them as being pivotal for their future.  Much of the tension revolves around the possibility of their child playing badly or committing a serious error.  Yet there isn't just that.  They know that a defeat or a bad performance will result in a moody child for hours if not days.

Football Taking Over
Even though they don't resent it, slowly their child's career ends up eating away at the parents' free time.  Training three or more times a week along with the games means a lot of travelling.  

This not only means an added expense either in fuel or in transport - which not everyone is comfortable in (or capable of) paying - but it also means a lot of time spent in the car as well as late nights before arriving back home.  For some it even means using up their time off work.

All that pales into insignificance when compared to the demand on a parent's time does to their relationship with any other children there might be in the family.  With so much energy spent on ferrying one kid around, there is bound to be jealousy and recriminations.

Football: A Parent Trap
Getting to the top in football, like in any other sport, will always be a tough ask and the vast majority of those who take up the sport won't make it.  Anyone who enters the system knows that.  Similarly, if they want to succeed in developing players, academies have to make tough decisions and that is something that everyone can understand.

Yet the fact remains that for a parent there is nothing more precious than their children and that is something that anyone involved in youth football - particularly at academy level - should keep in mind.  Understanding the anxieties and difficulties those parents face over their children, and looking to minimise that stress, might not lead directly to the development of better player but it will certainly make the lives of those involved significantly easier.

This article is based on the work carried out by Chris Harwood from the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University, along with Ashleigh Drew and Camilla J Knight.  They conducted a series of focus groups with parents whose children are at different stages in the academy process with their findings were published in a paper titled "Parental stressors in professional youth football academies: a qualitative investigation of specialising stage parents".  Blueprint for Football would like to thank Chris Harwood for granting us access to this paper.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Do Great Players Make Great Coaches?

Given the changes that the club is going through, the appointment of Ryan Giggs and Phil Neville as part of Manchester United's coaching staff provides a reassuring link between their successful past and a future which they hope will be just as positive.  Here are two players who have played significant roles in that success and, as such, will be able to help fill some of the vacuum left by Sir Alex Ferguson's departure.

They know what made United so successful in the past and they have the experience of what it takes to win year after year.  That knowledge bank is what David Moyes has secured by giving them those roles, just as much as he has their coaching abilities.  If there's a player who doesn't listen when someone who has won as much as Ryan Giggs gives him some advice then he shouldn't be playing for Manchester United.

That of giving such key roles to former players is a pretty established procedure at certain clubs, in particular where there is an especially strong desire to protect the club's DNA.  At Barcelona, for instance, a lot of the coaches have played for the club and former players have a monopoly on the coach's role of Barca B.  

Similarly, when Johann Cruyff briefly returned at Ajax one of the changes he insisted on was the appointment of some of the club's former greats in key coaching roles.  Although not all were his choices, this philosophy is reflected in the presence of Frank de Boer as first team manager, Denis Bergkamp as assistant manager, Jaap Stam as defensive trainer and Marc Overmars as technical director.

Given that both these clubs have been pretty successful in the recent past then it follows that the practice of appointing former players is a good one.  Yet it is not necessarily the case.

Because, whilst it is undeniable that their experience and knowledge of what it takes to win can be valuable, it can also lead to a lack of innovation.  Insularity in football can have a devastating effect, distorting one's ability to find new solutions to new situations by insisting on repeating what has worked in the past.  It is why there is a lot to be said for coaches who perhaps didn't have as great a playing career but who have instead slowly learned  how to carry out their jobs as coaches at different clubs and different situations.

Coaching - and managing - are extremely complex roles particularly at the highest level and it is always a huge risk when such a job goes to someone who hasn't proven himself elsewhere.    In the history of the game there are far more examples of great players who proved to be mediocre (or worse) at coaching then the opposite.

That, perhaps, is what Moyes is trying to avoid.  By appointing a some of his former coaching staff he is hedging his bets; if Giggs and Neville prove to be good enough then his move will be judged as a masterstroke, if not then they can slowly be eased out.

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Thursday, July 11, 2013

The Need for Style

Given that he had a team that contained the talents of David de Gea, Thiago Alcantara, Iker Muniain and Isco, it is tempting to assume that Julen Lopetegui's job as the Spanish Under 21 manager is a fairly easy one.  Yet there was more to Spain as they won their second consecutive European title then a collection of talented players; their typical play based on short passing and intense pressure placed those talents in a position to excel.

Again, the temptation is there to generalise and assume that a Spanish national team playing that kind of football is a given; that it is automatic.  Yet it is not.  Players spend only a fraction of their time with the national team and during such restricted time-frames it is practically impossible for them to 'learn' a method of playing.

So how do Spain manage to play in that manner?  An explanation was provided in part by Lopetegui himself who said "We have a crystal clear philosophy on how to play football...ultimately for all Spanish national team football  we want to have many players near the ball, and we want players with great technical repertoire. That is why we include players with these qualities."

That then is the secret: a system built around a specific type of player and a type of players that make the system work.  

The starting point, however, is to have an idea on how the team should be playing.

"For me, it’s the basic," says Jordi Pascual a Catalan coach who has written books about the Spanish style of play. "If a coach doesn’t have a very clear idea about how his team is going to play, how can he prepare the activities when training? What is he going to say to the players? Of course, it’s clear that you have to know the players that you have, as not all them can play the same way. But it’s not “this” or “that” style. It’s to have “A” style, no matter which one."

Pascual is a coaching veteran with the current one being his 24th season as a coach. "I started coaching when Johan Cruyff arrived at FC Barcelona. So, the “Dream Team”  and the “possession style” is the biggest influence I have had," he says.

What he has learned, he is trying to share through his books.  "It’s about developing a way of playing," is how he describes his latest contribution Developing a Style of Play. "That means that from the moment you choose a style (whatever it is: possession, counter, direct, etc.), with the formation used, roles and responsibilities of players and the way of training it. I’m always going on that the training has to be according how you play. This means that the exercises, activities, drills have to be prepared accordingly. Train as you play."

As the Spanish experience highlights, it is not simply a case of deciding a set way of playing and enforcing it on players.  "The most normal thing is to look for players that fit to the idea (style), but you’ll have to adapt. More or less, but you’ll have to do it."

This also requires flexibility so that systems can be change when new players come it.  "You always have the “big picture” in mind but at the same time adapting it to the new players you have. Not all wingers are the same, as not all central midfielders or players in whatever position. So, you have to adapt."

Nor is it possible to simply copy what the Spanish or the Germans are doing.  "Nothing can be copied," Pascual confirms. "You can take ideas from here or there but finally you, and your players, of course, will make an “own” style. It can be similar to this or that but it won’t be the same as any other. Always we - all of us - have to adapt to what we have."

Adapting and realising what their way of playing was certainly helped the Spanish evolve from the historical failings of the Furia Roja (Red Fury) to the success of tiki-taka.

"I think that the key point was to believe in the model: “this is what we do and we are not going to change it”. Add to this some players incredibly gifted to play football plus some coaches not being afraid to put young players in the squads and, probably, you’ll have the answer."

As Pascual noted, it helped that Spain began developing some fantastic players.  "I suppose it has something with the players," he says as he tries to determine how come so many creatively brilliant players emerged. "Spanish people are, in general, smaller than in other countries of Europe so, they have to use the “weapons” that they have: ability, gamesmanship, etc. Also, football has been played for many years in the street. But, of course, I think there are many different aspects, as can be good coaching or the classical 'latin improvisation'"

What is certain is the lack of attention devoted to the physical strength of players. "What importance do I give it? None. Football is a global concept. This means that you can’t separate technique, tactics or the physical. All go together and must be trained together. You play football, so you have to train football. In this aspect, I’m a big fan of Mourinho when he says that a pianist doesn’t do laps around the piano for warm-up, so, why should football players have to run laps around the pitch?"

Jordi Pascual holds UEFA “B” and UEFA “A” licenses, together with a “Monitor Course” (similar level to UEFA “C”) awarded by the Catalan FA. He also holds a Degree and Masters in Management of Clubs attained at a private coaching school in Barcelona.  He is also the author of two books Coaching Spanish Soccer and Developing a Style of Play as well as writing on his blog Football Pirineus.

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Friday, July 5, 2013

The Blueprint According To...Kevin Graham

After making over 200 appearances for a number of clubs in the upper reaches of the non-league pyramid - Whitby Town, Guiseley AFC and Goole AFC - Kevin Graham ended his career playing for St Martins AFC and the Guernsey's national team having returned to the Channel Islands where he had grown up.

Once that career had come to an end, he took on new roles helping out in managing Guernsey Athletic FC as well as scouting for a number of non league teams.

His most significant appointment, however, came in February of 2012 when he was appointed as manager of the Guernsey national team and this year led them to a win in the Muratti vase.

Blueprint for Football: Let's start with the basics: what got you into coaching and how long was that?
Kevin Graham: As a player I was always the one with the mouth, the centre half who pumped his fist and gave out the instructions. As a result, from a fairly early age I was often asked to take responsibility beyond that of just simply playing.

When I moved back to Guernsey after playing in the UK for sides like Whitby Town, Guiseley and Goole, I was immediately given the chance to share what I'd learned with lads playing locally and that was formalised when I finished playing. Tony Vance asked me to assist with the preparation of the Guernsey side that competed in the Island Games in Aland nr Sweden in 2009, focussing on the defensive side of the game particularly, and I've been involved in coaching and management pretty much ever since.

It's fair to say that I have been afforded opportunities because I'd played at a decent level which I otherwise would probably have had to wait for.

BfF: Have you had any mentors in your career?
KG: I have been lucky to work with some great managers and coaches I've the years and have learnt from each of them. Colin Fallaize, Guernsey FC's assistant coach, has been the most inspirational gaffer to work with and play for. His approach to man management and physical conditioning/preparation is incredible and he's a man mountain of a man for me. I learnt a lot as a player from Harry Dunn, one of the most experienced gaffers in non league football and my gaffer at Whitby, and Steve Richards who was my boss at Goole. Ricko played quite a lot of football for Neil Warnock and having seen a lot footage of Warnock, I feel like I know his methods pretty well as a result of my time under Ricko! The game has moved on but some old school methods still work, particularly when it comes to man management.

I have learned a lot from working with Steve Sharman my assistant in the Guernsey job and the best technical coach I've ever worked with, and I have a close relationship with Tony Vance still - he's a fantastic young manager. I learn from working closely with him and if he lived in the UK, I’m quite certain he would go a long way in the game.

BfF: What is your coaching philosophy?
KG: I think having a rigid coaching philosophy can be the downfall of some coaches - for me the key is to ensure you are capable of adapting to the circumstances. 

Ideally I like to develop an understanding in a group of players that means they are comfortable with a number of different styles of play.

I also think that simplicity is important - there is a lot of information in the coaching domain but you have to identify the most important stuff and ensure your players focus on that and never lose sight of it.

BfF: Is winning important for you?
KG: Absolutely - I am very much results driven. Winning isn't just about trophies though. If I sat down with my Chairman and we agreed that, for argument's sake, a top 10 finish represents progress, then achieving that is winning for me.

Development of players and groups of players is the best way to win, and the most satisfying. Modern football at all levels is full of unrealistic targets and timescales. I intend to manage in the UK in the future but I would only do so at club where I felt the Chairman and I both bought into a realistic goal.

Muratti football is all about winning - nobody cares about development for the 90 or 120 mins against Jersey, but even then we always have a plan to get to that ultimate goal, albeit in a relatively short period of preparation time. 

BfF: Guernsey had a good enough record in the Muratti base before you took over.  Was it difficult to win over the players? What advice would you give to coaches who are going into a new dressing room?
KG: It's an interesting dynamic - the vast majority of the boys are used to doing things a certain way with Guernsey FC and then they have a week or two at a time with us.

Having played with or coached most of the lads before, I didn't have to worry about winning them over - there's respect established already, and it goes both ways.

I think with a new group of players you need to set out your basic expectations and ask them to buy into that. Once that's done, you need to listen and learn about them just as much as you need to communicate to them. Know your players! If you are good at what you do, you'll win them over if any of them have doubts. If one or two don't buy into the concept of team, which means respect going both ways, then they should know where the door is. Team is everything for me.

BfF: What do you prefer: a talented player who doesn't value work or a hard-working but not as talented player?
KG: Definitely the latter. If you watch the world's very best players, their focus and work rate are what make them truly great. Ronaldo learnt that from Sir Alex Ferguson, and then became one of the best because he was involved in the game for 85 minutes instead of 55 minutes, so he produced the goods on a more consistent basis.

I accept that exceptional ability will get you a goal out of nothing and you need that ingredient in your team if you can get it - hard work and organisation only gets you so far.

Improving the team by 10% because they all work hard in and out of possession is better than bringing one player in who is 10% better than his team mates. There are enough talented lads with a decent attitude out there - those who don't work hard may find another manager who'll accept that but I won't.

BfF: If you could change one thing about football in your country (either UK in general, the Channel Islands or a combination), what would that be?
KG: In the UK, it's got to be the way we bring kids through the system. Parents and coaches who want the 10 yr old to win at all costs are damaging their technical development. We need footballers who are adaptable to different styles and that simply isn't visible to me. The technique of some supposedly elite footballers I come across is really disappointing.

In Guernsey, a bridge between the island and the UK (or France I suppose)! The talent on the island is considerable considering the size and population but the mental conditioning is not there because of the size, culture and lifestyle. Guernsey FC has given the elite players a great opportunity and the resultant development in the players' performance has been clear for all to see. The bridge idea may not be realistic but more focus on giving young Guernsey based players exposure to football outside the island will reap rewards I'm sure.

Kevin Graham writes about football for the Huffington Post and can be followed on Twitter.

Monday, July 1, 2013

The True Meaning of Moneyball

For those whose attention is focused solely on football it might come as something of a surprise to learn that there are other sports (well, apart from the obvious that is baseball) that are looking to adopt the 'Moneyball' concept.

Yet when Dave Brailsford* was launching the professional road racing outfit Team Sky, it was precisely to Moneyball that he referred.   Only that he wasn’t referring to an extensive use of statistics (even though those play a key role for him) which is what many mistakenly believe this book is all about but rather on the willingness to look at established practices from different angles to see whether matters can be improved by doing things differently

“What he did was take a really refreshing, clean review of the standard thought processes that had developed over a period of God knows how long,” he said when talking of Billy Beane, the key figure in Moneyball.

Brailsford, however, doesn’t simply talk about working in such a manner; he lives it.  Everything is analysed and people are constantly brought in from other sports so that they can look at and question particular habits.

Indeed, the British Cycling team have developed one of the most fascinating concepts in world sports: marginal gains.  Essentially, there is a whole team of people who look into matters to try and identify areas where benefits – even small ones – can be gained by changing the way things are done.  The belief is that if you accumulate enough of these small margins you will have a big enough advantage over your rivals to win.

In all this there is a very powerful message for those involved in football.  It is far too easy to get lost in your own world; to believe that something should be done as it has always been.  In fact, history proves that usually that isn’t the case and that it only takes someone to think about doing something differently to prove that.

Equally, it is far too easy to being reactive to what happens in your own world but often that allows you to be second best at most.  It is easy to react to what the French have done, or what the Spanish have done, or the Germans.  Yet it won’t make you unique and it is unlikely that it will make you particularly strong.

That will only happen if you try to learn from as many sources as possible.  What has led to the success at British cycling?  Why do the New Zealanders produce so many fantastic rugby players?  How come so many world champion long distance athletes come out of Kenya?

Be mindful of when someone, somewhere is doing something great.  Absorb what lessons they might have.  See if you can adapt them to what you’re doing.  Repeat.

Do that often enough and you will build an advantage that others will find it difficult to match.

*For those who aren’t aware of who he is, Sir Dave Brailsford played a key role in the transformation of British Cycling from also rans to the dominant team at the Olympics.  If you want to learn more about his ideas and methods, then I recommend the recently published e-book  “Mastermind: How Dave Brailsford Reinvented the Wheel"

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