Google+ Blueprint for Football: Developing Players The Dutch Way – Comparing AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord

Monday, June 8, 2015

Developing Players The Dutch Way – Comparing AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord

By Kevin Graham

This is the final in a three part series with the first parts – dealing with AZ Alkmaar and Feyenoord – can be found here and here respectively.

The two clubs were different in many ways, particularly so on the following:

The amount of football, and training in particular, the kids get at the two clubs differs greatly due largely to Verheijen's influence and physical periodisation methods at Feyenoord.

Feyenoord believe in 11v11 team development from a young age whilst AZ only work on that intently in the latter stages of the players' journey through the academy.

AZ take a more holistic approach to development and utilise a more comprehensive and innovative range of methods to support each player's journey.

Feyenoord place more value on experienced coaches most of whom have played professionally.  They also embrace young players with challenging characters and difficult behaviour whereas AZ appear to recruit more responsible, well behaved and conventional kids.

The environments and communities that form the backdrop to the two clubs are very different - Rotterdam's more industrial and gritty profile contrasts greatly with the relatively privileged and sleepy feel of Alkmaar, and this was reflected in the two clubs' academy environments.

Despite getting the clear contrasts evident there were a number of similarities between the two clubs:

The recognition that talent alone is not sufficient for a player to develop into what he is capable of becoming, and that players must recognise the value of hard work from a young age.

Both clubs recognised the need to supply the first team with a steady stream of academy graduates and that some of those would be sold to ensure the long term financial viability of the whole club.

Neither club wrapped the players in cotton wool and key criteria for measuring development focussed on the player’s ability to make independent decisions on and off the pitch.

Both clubs invest heavily in the relationships with local amateur clubs.

Relationships with the players' school seemed to be very joined up with the school
supporting the players’ football development and the clubs supporting their education (one first team squad member at Feyenoord was once told by the club not to attend football activities until his grades improved sufficiently - a year later!).

Both academies took a long term view when it came to developing players - they are patient with players and staff, which leads to a very stable environment compared to many UK academies.

Regardless of the development focus, results matter at all age groups!

How do they compare with the English approach?
The general consensus from those in the travelling party who work in the professional game was that there was nothing groundbreaking or revolutionary in the coaching methods or football development agenda. I think the differences between what we saw in Holland and what we see in UK academies lies largely in the environments and cultures of the two respective countries.

As with any observation exercise, there are ideas and concepts from the trip that we as coaches can all reflect on. For me, the benefits of team development driving individual development in an 11v11 context were clear to see at Feyenoord - because of the small sided game preference driven by the FA, it is something that has largely been frowned upon in England, considered by many to be an aged concept. 

Similarly, the value placed on winning games, even at a young age, in Holland would probably be frowned upon in England but it feels to me like the Dutch strike the right balance between development and winning and perhaps we have gone too far in our attempt to impress the point that winning is not the be all and end all. 

I also found it quite interesting that neither club placed much emphasis on the use of overloads in training sessions, something we see a lot of in the UK, and again this stems from their belief that everything should be considered in an 11v11 context to replicate the challenges in a competitive match.

I would add that the FA's 4 corner model and it's reflection throughout coaching ideology in England seems to be more engrained than it is in Holland - AZ's approach is viewed as quite revolutionary but it doesn't appear to be any more advanced than the methods deployed in much of the English Academy system. 

It's also important to note that there is no Dutch equivalent to the EPPP - the respective clubs are not constrained by compliance and so can progress with a model much more of their own design. That explained the reason for some of the differences between the two clubs and it just felt right to me. I’m sure many English Academy coaches suffering with writer's cramp will agree!

The Dutch Eredivisie is not nearly as strong in commercial terms as the English Premier League. There is an acceptance that players will leave Dutch football for financial reasons but rather than be bitter and twisted about that, the Dutch clubs use that to invest in their own development. The fact that the Dutch league is not so competitive in terms of finance and commercial might means that patience, stability and a long term view on the development of both players and clubs alike are the order of the day.

I think placing the Academy at the heart of a football club's vision and values works in Holland. I also think it can work in England for all but the elite - by that I mean the Champions' League contenders. That said, while English football clubs continue to be courted by potential owners with vast financial resources, it's unlikely that we'll see a massive cultural shift. 

Regardless, what we saw was a sustainable business model built on the back of academies that know how to develop young players. It was more pragmatic, less creative and less free spirited than I expected it to be, and you could even argue some of the methods were old school. But crucially, it is working.

Final Words
Travelling with this group of coaches proved to be a fantastic opportunity in itself - sharing ideas and experiences with coaches from all sorts of different backgrounds was a great learning experience in itself.  Euro Football Tours and Events who organised this trip are on Twitter.

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).

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