Make the Dream Come True
By Kevin Graham
Ever since the phrase “Total Football” football was coined in the 1960s and 70s, the rest of the footballing world has put Holland on a pedestal as a prolific producer of talented young players. Whilst the style of player produced has probably become slightly more pragmatic these days, there is no doubt that the opportunity to visit two top academies from Eredivisie clubs is one not to be missed.
The former Brentford, Grimsby and Exeter striker Murray Jones has developed a fantastic model to provide coaches with just that opportunity. Jones - who also coaches at QPR’s Academy - developed his company Euro Football Tours and Events to do this and working with their partner in Holland, Total Soccer Tours, provided 40 coaches with 2 fantastic days visiting AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord.
I have to confess that as I made my way down the M1 to Luton Airport, I had some preconceived ideas and expectations about what I was about to see. I had visions of a production line of young players being given a ball and a largely “go play” mandate from the academies, a bohemian kind of football I’d envisaged that focussed almost solely on technical creativity and expression, with a light sprinkling of tactical freedom to go where they felt necessary in the context of a game situation.
I was largely wrong, and what I found was two very different ways of producing and developing talent - and they are without doubt producing the goods on that score - but using a range of methods, some of which have been dismissed by the English game as antiquated or of little benefit. It challenged our way of working on a number of levels.
The visiting party arrived at AZ Alkmaar’s Academy complex less than a mile from the club’s AZ Stadium and we were immediately met by the club’s Head of Performance and Development, Marijn Beuker. AZ are a small club in comparison with the traditional giants of the Dutch game but have experienced success fairly recently, due largely to the funds provided by one man in the 1990s and 2000s.
When that one man went bankrupt, the club had to face some harsh financial realities and as a result, the last 5 years have largely been about restructuring a club and developing a model that is sustainable - the club's reliance on the academy being absolutely critical - underlined by the fact that 10 of the current first team squad are homegrown.
Beuker gave us a great presentation on the club’s philosophy and goals. Working with the end in mind was a theme that ran through everything they do, whether that’s as a club, a team or as an individual player or coach. Given the air of financial austerity, AZ look to distinguish themselves with knowledge and content because they can’t do so with finance. The fact that the club has hired Billy Bean - he of “Moneyball” fame - as an advisor gives you some insight into their strategy.
In terms of player development, AZ look to produce independent thinkers who take responsibility for their own development and who, crucially, really understand the game. Tactical awareness and decision making on the pitch are key. As such, the coaching style is very much an empowering one - there is no shouting and very little instruction. Challenges are made to the players but coaches welcome their feedback and encourage them to find their own solutions to a problem they encounter. Reflection on performance is important and consequences must be acknowledged. The output is measured using a range of materials and methods - players cannot argue with the facts and must take ownership to address problems.
The support the players and coaches receive is considerable - the use of advanced football analytics, sports science and psychological/social support structures means that there are no excuses, but the players must often engage proactively to get what they need. For example, a player struggling with a recurring injury is encouraged to seek support from a range of different resources to help address the issue and the appointments must be organised by him, not the coaches.
These resources also help the coaches to manage talent effectively. The players’ progress is very closely monitored and issues like biological age are considered very important. Late developers are cherished and patience is applied - many top players have late birth dates in the school year and the fact that they don’t appear on the radar of top Dutch and English clubs’ scouts due to physical limitations is a benefit to a club looking to develop and profit from their talent production line.
The players train 8 times a week, with a competitive games schedule in addition - and the latest league tables are displayed around the training ground for all to see. Whilst the club is patient and development over a longer period is accepted, results on a weekend remain at the forefront of their mind at all times.
In terms of style, the club's de facto set up is 4-3-3, keeping possession is critical but playing forward at speed if at all possible, and they look to press high with intensity to regain possession. Transition and the recognition of transition is key - I’m pretty sure we’ve all heard that before so no major surprises, particularly given the Dutch preference for 4-3-3.
Academy Director Aloys Wijnker gave us a very good insight into what is clearly a very stable model and one they truly believe in. Many of the coaches at the Academy have been there for years, and Wijnker recognised the importance of developing coaches just as much as players.
Caspar Dekker, the club’s U17 Coach, put on a defensive session for us to observe and then later, once we’d had the opportunity to quiz him on the session and his methods, explained his journey as a coach. As someone who had been recruited from Amateur football, he recognised that his style has completely changed during his 8 years at the club. From a ball focussed shouter to a patient, reflective and guiding influence, it was clear that his passion was for developing young players. This was underlined when he stated his ambition was not to become 1st team manager but Academy Director.
Wijnker was keen to stress that whilst they were very open and transparent about their approach, the difference between good and great development is in the personal touch, the relationships and the guidance his coaches provide the players.
Another key factor for AZ is their focus on developing strong links with local amateur clubs - they recognise the importance of working with and sometimes within these clubs to get the right recruitment culture and to ensure that these clubs form an extension of the academy with the same vision and approach.
This is even more important when you consider that players only come into the academy at the age of 11. The relationship with the players' school is also a priority for the AZ academy and it's clear that they manage the environment well to maximise the players’ opportunity to develop.
The sessions that we saw (U17s and U12s) were both really well structured but nothing particularly ground breaking in terms of content. The responsibility and maturity of the players was very evident, as was their will to win.
The U12s play with a lighter size 5 ball and next year will play twin games in an 8 a side format against other clubs before moving up to 11 a side the year after. Position specific responsibility is not really impressed until the age of 15 though they encourage the natural development of a player as positional awareness develops and the process naturally makes positional preferences clear.
Whilst AZ are not a rich club, they seem to get the best out of their resources and the vision is one that everyone at the academy clearly buys into. The walls inside are adorned with pictures of successful AZ teams and the motto ‘Maak je drommen waar' - make the dream come true. With 30 AZ based internationals between the current U15 to U21 national age groups, it is clear that the model is well established and has been working for some time.
There was nothing particularly ground breaking, though I would argue that the sum of the parts, and the belief in the approach, felt quite refreshing. The quiet assurance and confidence in knowing that the Academy is just as important, if not more important, than the 1st team is evident.
There is a nice balance between being demanding with players and being patient enough to allow them to develop over a longer period of time. There was precious little arrogance or ego on show, the welcome was very warm and open but you left feeling that this place was going to continue to produce Dutch internationals for years to come.
Barely a week after visiting the club, AZ were awarded with the prestigious Rinus Michels award for the best academy in Dutch football for the first time, underlining just what a privilege it had been to be there.
This is the first in a three part series. Next week, Kevin Graham will talk about his visit to Feyenoord. If you're interested in Kevin's views on football and coaching, he was one of those featured in our e-book Blueprint According To...Volume 1 (US version here).