Google+ Blueprint for Football: June 2014

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Reasons For Atalanta's Success With Youths

This is the second in a two part series on Atalanta BC.  The first part can be read here.

Given that they are continuously faced by clubs with far larger resources, the fact that Atalanta not only compete well at a national youth level but have actually registered a number of important wins in their history is perhaps the biggest proof of the quality of work that they do.

Contrary to what some presume there are no secrets to their success, just a number of factors that when put together contribute to a system that is far better than most at doing what it should be doing: developing players who are good enough to play for the club at the highest level.

Although this might seem obvious, it is often overlooked when reasons for a youth system’s success are looked at.  No matter how good the ideas, regardless of the quality of the players that are recruited and irrespective of the amounts invested in facilities there can be no success if there aren’t the right coaches in place.

This means that the coaches must be able to pass on their knowledge to those put in their charge; competent people who are the right fit with the age group that they are assigned to and who know how to help the individuals progress.  

But there is more to it than that.  They have to be people who know in detail what the club is trying to achieve and how their teams play.  They know the value that is placed on technique and creativity, attributes that are encouraged here more than anywhere else in Italy.

More significantly, they must be fully convinced that it is the best way to proceed.  If that conviction is missing then sooner or later it will come out and it will show in their work.

True to form, Atalanta are very selective in deciding who gets a job within their Settore Giovanile (Youth Sector) with their preference frequently falling on individuals who have gone through their system or have played for the club.  Their Under 18 side is coached by Valter Bonacina (265 games for Atalanta) whilst their Under 16s are in the hands of Sergio Porrini (100 games for Atalanta as well as a Champions League winner with Juventus).

It has always been that way: current Italian national team manager (and a man with 116 appearances in the black and blue shirts) Cesare Prandelli spent almost a decade working within the Atalanta youth system handling various age groups before he took his first steps in the pro game.

And that is how it will continue to be because it ensures the presence of people who have gone through the experience themselves.  There is no one who can be as convinced about the system’s validity more than those whose careers have largely been the result of the work they did within that same system.

For the kids placed in their charge they are examples of what might be achieved if they work hard enough.  Or, if the coach isn’t someone who progressed beyond playing for Atalanta’s youth sides, there is confirmation that the club will keep on looking out for you regardless of how good you happen to be.

Stay Local
As with most Italian sides, Atalanta have very close links with a number of youth clubs.  These clubs, usually village sides or teams from particular neighbourhoods, get backing from the professional teams either in the form of coaching or else financial (the sums aren’t typically very significant ones but enough to help them cover some expenses like new kits) in exchange for informing them about any particularly talented individual they come across.

It is a very healthy symbiosis where the professional sides put something back into the grassroots game while ensuring that they cast as wide a net as possible to discover talents.

Perhaps the big difference that Atalanta have with the rest is that, as much as possible, they try recruit locally.  That is not to say that there haven’t been exceptions –there have been recruits from South America, Eastern Europe and Africa – but these are largely one-offs.  

Instead Atalanta go for local boys with the main reason again being cultural: these players have less of a hard time to integrate and settle in, making their footballing education run all the smoother.

No One Is Left Behind
At many clubs, the future of a lot of players is sacrificed in order to ensure that the one or two who are seen as the brightest prospects manage to develop and their talents maximised.  Others put their focus on the team results, looking to boost their profile by winning at youth level but without succeeding in the ultimate goal of any youth system which is that of seeing any talent progress into the first team.

Not so Atalanta where every player is important.  The progress of each individual who enters their system is tracked with coaches setting goals for each one which are then communicated and agree by the players.  This ensures that everyone knows what they have to work on and where they need to improve.  Whether they do so, and to what extent, allows the people at the club to determine what comes next and how they can ensure that there is further progress.  There is absolute commitment from the part of the club that when an eight year old is signed everything will be done so that he goes all the way.

The fact that some of these players even get opportunities coaching within the youth sector, allowing to have a career in football even if it isn’t a player, helps reinforce the image of Atalanta as a club that genuinely cares for ‘its boys’.

Equally, their commitment to local players avoids the (common) situation where a player who has come through the junior ages is suddenly forced out with his place going either to someone brought in either from another Italian club or else from overseas. 

Club Culture
Any manager who comes in at Atalanta will be well aware of what the club is all about and must be willing to work within those parameters.  This means that they must be willing to play the club’s young players, giving them the opportunities to grow and show their worth.  This also means that if a player attracts the attention of a bigger side then they must be ready to lose him if a good enough offer comes in.

Atalanta offers managers a great opportunity to forge their reputations – as many have done – but it also offers a challenge that is unique in Italian football.

Current manager Stefano Colantuono knows all about it.  His first spell in charge ended when he moved to Palermo, lured by the promise of a club with the reputation of more heightened ambition than Atalanta.  Yet his time there ended after just a few months; engulfed by the chaos and lack of patience of a club that is the polar opposite to Atalanta.

It is an experience that probably helped him understand and appreciate better both what he has at Atalanta and also what he has to do.  

Out of the fifteen players who made more than ten appearances last season – one in which they comfortably retained their top flight status - six (Daniele Baselli, Gian Bellini, Giacomo Bonaventura, Davide Brivio, Andrea Consigli and Cristian Raimondi roughly 40%) came from their youth team.  Plenty more got their first taste of Serie A with Colantuono testing them to see how they would do.  

Of those who played regularly, the most impressive was attacking midfielder Giacomo Bonaventura who earned an Italy cap and was close to making it into their World Cup squad.  Yet he is unlikely to be there when the season kicks off again in September, continuing a tradition of seeing their best players move to bigger sides.

To replace him, and to strengthen the team, Atalanta look first and foremost within.  That might seem as an obvious place to start but it is a big departure from other clubs’ normal practise.  

In truth, Atalanta do their best to assist their players’ development.  As with many other Italian clubs, they send a lot of players out on loan (in excess of forty last season) all over the country at different levels.  The fact in itself that a lot of these have come through Atalanta’s system is a guarantee of their potential, meaning that there are many willing to take a bet on their youngsters.

The progress of these players is monitored closely.  The main aim is that of seeing how they handle the experience, looking for indications as to whether they can step up.  But it is also a way of putting these players in the shop window, giving them the best opportunity of making a career out of football even if it isn’t in Atalanta’s colours. 

If you enjoyed this article you will probably enjoy our debut e-book Blueprint for Football According To...Volume 1 where six football coaches with experiences from around the world talk about their blueprint for the game.

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Monday, June 9, 2014

When It Is Too Early To Predict

Coming at around the same time that Greg Dyke was announcing his plans for English football which included the proposed introduction of B teams, one would have expected the Under 17s participation in the European Championship of the age category to receive greater publicity.  Instead it went by largely un-noticed until they reached the final (which they won) at which point everyone suddenly got excited.

That England eventually won (and on penalties!) did little to diminish enthusiasm and rightly so because the team was made up of a number of genuinely talented individuals.  Whether it was the best team or not is debatable – the technique of the Portuguese, where every player on the pitch looked an exquisite passer of the ball, was extremely impressive - yet they won when it mattered which is a great lesson to learn at that age.

And that is what these tournaments are for: learning.  Playing against in a different climate against teams who adopt different approaches to the game provide them with challenges that they don’t normally come across, meaning that they have to come up with new solutions in order to win.  These games will serve as the building blocks on which they can build their careers, and the experience will be stored for future reference.  For sure, they will have less fear of penalty kicks, given the confidence with which they dispatched them.

Inevitably, this point got lost once they won with the effort going instead on identifying which player could be billed as the most talented of this generation.

The truth is that it is very difficult to predict what will happen to any of these players.  They are too young and their bodies have too much development to go through to be able to discern what will happen of them.

For proof of this one only has to look at the list of top scorers from previous editions.  Going through the five editions held between 2005 and  2009 (i.e. players who today are aged between 21 and 26) the only one that you could probably count as a genuine star of the game is Toni Kroos.  Others like Victor Moses and Luc Castignos have had fairly respectable careers so far and could push on to reach another level.

The majority, however, have descended into anonymity.  Players like Lennart Thy, Yannis Tafer, Manuel Fischer, Tomas Necid and Tevfik Kose have ended up playing in lower divisions or minor leagues.  Not that there is any disgrace in that, anything but, yet it is a far cry from what their early success hinted could lie in store for them.

For a lot of players, those age category tournaments end up being the highlight of their career, something from which there are two lessons to take.  The first is one that is often mentioned which is that at those ages it is more important that players learn rather than winning.  But, and this is the second lesson, if they do win it is important that they be allowed to enjoy the experience because it might, literally, be the only one shot of glory they ever get.

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Friday, June 6, 2014

Atalanta: The Italian Talent Factory

This is the first in a two part series focusing on Atalanta.  The second part can be read here.

When people talk about clubs who have managed to develop a system that consistently brings through talented players, they’re usually referring to the big continental giants whose success stories are well known; teams like Barcelona, Ajax, Manchester United and Bayern Munich.

There are, however, other clubs who are just as successful – perhaps even more – at developing players but whose work gets far less recognition because they do not have the same platform on which to showcase their results.

Atalanta is one of those clubs.  When in 2011 the CIES Football Observatory ranked clubs by the number of players whom they had produced and who were playing top flight football across Europe, Atalanta came eighth, the highest placed Italian side on the list and ahead of a lot of continental heavyweights whose investment far exceeds theirs.

Yet, outside of Italy they are virtually unknown something that is partly down to the fact that except for a Coppa Italia won in 1962 they have never registered any success at national, let alone international, level.  This anonymity is also caused by the way in which their model works which, stripped down, essentially equates to this: bring a player through, give him room to develop, sell him, plough back the money into the system and bring the next one through.

It is an efficient and self-sustaining model that has seen the club develop into the biggest ‘provincial’ side in Italian football, something that is a success in itself.  Of course, the fact that their young players keep finding room in the first team – something that the regular sale of top players ensures – is one of the reasons why they are so good at it; players simply get the opportunities that they wouldn’t necessarily get elsewhere.

What this is not, however, is a strategy that allows whoever is managing the side to build year on year.  There are years that are better than others (and, conversely, some which are worse than others) but long term success is unlikely.

That is something that is accepted and embraced.  Fans might not enjoy seeing  one good player after another getting sold so that they can fulfil their potential elsewhere yet they’ve come to realise that this strategy has allowed them to progress beyond many other clubs as well as giving them occasional joys of bloodying the noses of the big sides.

It is a system that works well for them.  Yet it is also one that is always in danger with predators lurking everywhere.

Whereas other Italian clubs have traditionally given Atalanta time to develop their players, making their moves only after they had played for the senior side and proved that there was more to them than potential, English clubs aren’t that patient.

Over the past decade, Atalanta have lost three of their brightest talents – Samuele Dalla Bona, Vito Mannone and Jacopo Sala – to Premiership clubs as soon as these players were out of school.  There could be more losses along the way with fifteen year old Christian Capone being rumoured to be interesting Liverpool.

With Atalanta receiving little or nothing for these players, the risk is that their whole model can be ruined.  The simple truth for them is that they need to generate certain amounts in transfer fees to keep on funding the whole system, something that is unlikely to happen if their brightest prospects are stolen away before they’re anywhere near reaching full maturity.

Unfortunately, there is little that they can do.  Their best option is to point at the lengthy list of players that have managed to play at the highest level thanks to the education and opportunity that they got at Atalanta.  It is a strong argument and, hopefully, one that will ensure that the list keeps growing longer.

The Atalanta Production Line
Atalanta have always been proficient at developing players with the likes of Gaetano Scirea and Antonio Cabrini – both of whom would go on to become Juventus legends – as well as Roberto Donadoni coming through the ranks.

Yet the club really pivoted its attention on to youth in the late eighties, providing Italian football with some of its finest players.  Here are some examples. 

Riccardo Montolivo
Spotted as an eight year old, he would make his first team debut ten years later at the start of a season where Atalanta where in the Serie B.  His talent immediately came to the fore and he promptly became a regular helping the side to promotion.  The following season he would retain his place in the side and, even though Atalanta would go on to finish last, he had shown enough for Fiorentina to move in and sign him.

Alessandro Tacchinardi
Having initially started out at his home-town side of Pergocrema, Tacchinardi was signed by Atalanta and placed in their youth sides.  In 1992 he made his first team debut and immediately caught the attention of Juventus who would sign him before he made ten appearances for Atalanta.  It would turn out to be a wise choice as Tacchinardi would go on to form one of the best midfields in Europe.

Massimo Donati
After progressing through all the youth ranks at Atalanta, Donati made his first team debut at the start of the 1999-2000 season going on to make 20 appearances as the side successfully battled to get out of the Serie B.  He would play even more the following year (26 appearances) in the Serie A convincing AC Milan to make a move for him. 

Giampaolo Pazzini
Pazzini was in the same youth side as Montolivo and, like him, made his first team debut in 2003-04, scoring nine goals as Atalanta won promotion.  The following season he found goals a bit harder to come by yet, even so, he wasn’t allowed to finish the season at the club because by January they had received an offer from Fiorentina that was too good to refuse.

Domenico Morfeo
Of the players on this list, Morfeo is perhaps the least known yet he was a supremely talented player who perhaps should have made more of his abilities.  Spotted by Atalanta as a fourteen year old, he made his debut at just 17, scoring three times in nine games.  Despite Morfeo’s contribution, Atalanta were relegated that season and, strangely, he would only play a bit-part role in the following season as they successfully won promotion back to the top flight.

Once there, Morfeo would get a starring role scoring eleven times in thirty appearances.  Having survived relegation, Morfeo opted to remain at the club but injuries restricted him to 26 appearances (and five goals) as Atalanta were relegated.  That summer he moved to Fiorentina.

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