Wednesday, 28 September 2016

Scratching the surface - AFC Ajax study visit

"You are the coach. You are responsible for the system and the philosophy." 

These were the words of former Dutch international and Ajax legend, Sonny Silooy. Sonny was presenting to us the Ajax philosophy that is admired across the footballing world.

We also took a tour of the Amsterdam ArenA. 
Sonny himself is a great example of what the club do so well. Players who are entrenched in the Ajax framework, who have been adored at the club in recent history are welcomed back to the club with open arms to help the next generation learn and flourish. Another example is Johnny Heitinga, now coaching with Jong Ajax, the club's under 23 side. His experience in the game and understanding of the club's philosophy is vital. No one is brought back on a whim however, they still have to be the right person for the club and they are paired with a trainer-coach at each age group.

We were fortunate enough to have exclusive access inside De Toekomst, the famous training centre of AFC Ajax. Ajax's record for producing talent is in a league of it's own. 'De Toekomst' translates to 'The future' in English - something held dearly as key at this club. The two days spent at the centre were incredible, hardly enough, but incredible.

For the duration we had the wisdom of Eddie Van Schaick, who has been at the club for nearly ten years as a coach and now consultant, sharing his wonderful wealth of knowledge with us.

Taking and giving responsibility

Responsibility comes from top to bottom. The club strive to improve their model everyday. The coaches have an obligation to those that are selected to play for the club. There is no screaming and hollering at this club - there is a quiet seriousness about the place but what is important is that the players are treated how they should be, as people. The coach must connect with them on all levels, not simply as footballers. Patience is a key quality of a coach at this club throughout the age groups.

The responsibility handed to players here at De Toekomst is in stark contrast to what I have witnessed at English clubs where, without wanting to generalise, players are often handed everything on a plate. The tools are given to the players, but it is what they do with them that is most important. "The most learning happens when a player takes it upon themselves" says Eddie. They are keen to see players putting in the extra work to develop, as that is what makes the difference. Additionally, the players do not need telling to leave the area clear, bring kit, move equipment, collect the footballs in. This shows on the pitch - the players are quick to correct each other, to help each other and make decisions with their own minds.

Planting the seed

Everything done within the academy is so well thought out and to the smallest detail. In their incredible dome facility, there is a performance testing area that analyses an individual's movement. This is done to create an awareness of what you are doing. "Everyone has their own individual technique" and rather than correcting someone, they want them to understand and feel comfortable within their own style.

'Power Hill'
Out on the athletics track, players can take part in a variety of activities. Basketball hoops and mini courts are in place aimed at goalkeepers and attackers so that they can train the mind to be wary of rebounds. 'Power hill' is a steep track and it is easy to think of the old school 'hill runs' when they show us this but work on here is often done with the ball or devised into a game. "They don't even realise it's training". On the small pitch (almost street football like) grids are etched into the markings to promote positional play, a key component in Ajax's philosophy. Here they are encouraged to play 3v1, 4v2 possession games and concentrate on their spacing. The aim is that these things will fast become second nature to the players.

This is much like the practices we witnessed in training at several age groups. Whether it is a technical practice, possession game or small sided game, the conditions are set to replicate Ajax's footballing philosophy and system. Once again, this is so simple yet so effective. A simple attacking (unopposed) technical practice that the under 17s worked on showed the players exactly the type of passes they are looking for and exactly the movements when running into the box.

After watching the Ajax under 23s training, one criticism Eddie had was that in a technical passing practice the first pass in the sequence went wide. He felt that the first pass should go centrally as going wide straight away created a dangerous scenario if possession was lost. Once again, it is the small things but this is what makes them stand out amongst the best.

"They are playing to win within the framework of Ajax"

In Holland, academies play against each other every season in a league system. This, they feel, is important for the players to understand that the aim is always to win. This is always a topic of great debate in England, as we have seen the shift away from league formats until after the age of eleven.

I believe this is a case of culture. In England, there has been a need to come away from the win at all costs mentality that hinders many young players development. In Holland, certainly at Ajax, development takes priority already where they still have a league format. There is no need to take the incentive of winning away.

Games are played in four blocks (they have only recently come away from the traditional two halves) and at the younger ages are now played as "twin games". Because academies generally have around sixteen players in each age group, at the younger age groups they play two games next to each other. Previously this was not the case until Ajax pulled out of the league system a couple of years because players were not getting enough game time. 

Eddie states that "The game is for everybody". Once again they reaffirm the obligation to the players they have selected. They all deserve the opportunity, equal playing time is insisted upon. When it comes to international tournaments, this is relaxed slightly but each player still gets significant time on the pitch.

The club has set systems that they are keen for the coaches to use at different age groups. At under 9 for example, in six a side they would like the team to play with one goalkeeper, two defenders, one central midfield and two forwards. At eight a side, which is the next step it is a 1-3-1-3 formation. And at eleven a side, it is the typical 1-4-3-3 that Ajax are associated with.

Fun and T.I.P.S

"Fun is number one".

This will come as no surprise but at De Toekomst fun is a key component of learning. Not only does the most learning come when an individual is having fun, but the playing philosophy of Ajax lends itself to the players' enjoyment. They have the freedom to attack and express themselves. At the younger ages, not a great deal of importance is placed on shape. As they get older, the players are encouraged to push each other and themselves but at the same time they embrace each other as if they are family. Each player has a lot of personality and when we were fortunate enough to witness the
games throughout the age groups, there was a great deal of it on show.

Ajax used the famous 'T.I.P.S" model for their development and assessment of players. Technique, Insight, Personality and Speed. If a player has all four in abundance, they are seen as golden. This model does not disregard physical ability but size and maturation is clearly not something that comes into the thinking, a reason I particularly like this model. Focus on what you can control!

In phase one, ages 8-12 players at the academy train four times a week for two hours. When it comes to phase two, however, between 13-16 the length of sessions is reduced to an hour and a half. This is because of puberty, school and other pressures that come with growing up. By the age of twelve, the coaches will know the potential of the players and this is where they need to be patient. It is refreshing to hear about.

Only scratching the surface

This was simply a snapshot of the work that goes on at this world class set up. There is so much more that I could have, and probably should have, added (feel free to ask anything below in the comments). Two days was simply not enough as there was so much more to learn about and further detail to cover. However, I did learn an incredible amount and the experience did leave me with further enthusiasm for improving my own coaching and to visit more clubs. These widened experiences can only be positive and are something I would do again in a heartbeat.

This study visit was made possible by Murray Jones and Euro Football Tours and Events. They have links with many clubs and have covered many different clubs too. I wholeheartedly recommend attending one of their events.  You can find out more at:

Monday, 29 August 2016

The curious case of Ross Barkley

August 20th 2011. Everton continue their traditional slow start to a season under David Moyes with a dismal one nil defeat at home to newly promoted QPR (beaten 4-0 by Owen Coyle's Bolton the week before). There is, however, one positive to come from the game.

A sparkling performance from a Premier League debutant lifts hopes. At just 17 years old this boy seems to have it all. He is strong, he can run with the ball at great speed, he is inventive and he has two good feet. 

Five years on though, and the jury is still out on Ross Barkley. 

Injuries, loan spells and an unsurprising lack of trust from David Moyes in a young player sees Barkley's development stall. Loan spells at Sheffield Wednesday and Leeds do little to persuade Moyes to select Barkley.  

In comes Roberto Martinez as Everton manager - the young attacking midfielder thrives. They come devastatingly close to Champions League qualification but in the year of a world cup there is surely a chance for Barkley to announce himself on the world stage?

Barkley makes his debut against Neil Warnock's QPR
Except Roy Hodgson is England manager. After an exciting performance against Ecuador, Hodgson is critical of Barkley, making his first England start. Despite clearly being the best player on the pitch, Hodgson bemoans his decision making asking journalists why they don't obsess on someone else. In Brazil, Barkley is limited to cameo appearances from the bench until England's fate is sealed and they are knocked out. This is fairly typical of Hodgson, but it also sums up people's opinions on Ross Barkley in his career so far. 

There just seems to be a reluctance to accept and trust him as a top quality footballer. 

Take last season as an example: In 48 games, Barkley scored 12 goals and assisted a further 11. Not only was that his most effective season to date, one in which he was nevertheless widely criticised by fans and pundits alike, but the 23 goals he contributed to in 2015-16 was bettered by only Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy of those selected for Roy Hodgson's England squad for the European Championships. 

How many minutes did he get in the tournament? Zero. As England toiled and struggled against Iceland, in a performance desperately lacking someone willing to take a risk, who would run at defenders, Ross remained sat firmly on the bench. 

Maybe it's an Everton thing?
As Everton struggled under Roberto Martinez last season, so did he. In the second half of the season he lacked confidence but when he raised his game he raised his team. In the FA Cup semi final against Manchester United him and fellow England international John Stones were at the heart of everything good as Everton pushed them all the way. In the game Barkley created several chances (particularly for Romelu Lukaku) that went begging. Had one or two gone in, would he have been hailed as the star man? 

For a player who is as close to the complete package as England are going to get, why are people so cautious of him? Turning 23, he clearly has his best years ahead of him and what he badly needs at this point is an England manager who will invest in him. 

This brings us on to the new England manager, Sam Allardyce, who has left Barkley out of his first England squad in charge. While Allardyce brings a different approach, you have to be puzzled that he did not select Barkley in a squad that contains Theo Walcott, Michail Antonio, Jordan Henderson and names Wayne Rooney as a midfielder. 

Having stumbled across watching his debut against QPR that day I was sure Ross Barkley was set to become an England star for years to come. He still can, but I now have a nagging feeling that we could be about to waste one of the most talented players in a generation. 

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Home comforts

Sean Dyche thinks that English football managers get a hard time.

He says that if he was foreign he'd be hailed as a genius. Now I am actually a fan of Dyche, I like the values he instills into his teams, I like what he has done on a fairly limited budget but I don't know many foreign coaches who have been called a genius who's sole title is the Championship (having got relegated the season before).
I may not be willing to say
 this to his face though...

He says he was criticised for playing a four four two formation with Burnley in the Premier League only for Claudio Ranieri to be lauded for his approach with the same system just a year later.

But here is a thought for Sean Dyche. His Burnley side that year were relegation favourites, just like Leicester the season after. Burnley were relegated, Leicester won the league by ten points. Dyche was unable to find a system that got the results needed to survive, while Ranieri was able to extract incredible performances from previously limited footballers to create history. Ranieri was also able to adapt their strategy as Leicester became harder to beat as the season went on. So there is certainly more to it than Dyche claims, don't you think?

When I read interviews with English coaches who have spent time abroad, I often see the same thing said. The other nations think we are arrogant! And this from a young English manager does little to dispel the myth.

When you look at the current crop of young coaches coming through it's no wonder there is a majority of foreign coaches at the top level of English football. There was a real struggle to find viable English candidates for the national team manager's job. Eddie Howe has done an excellent job, producing excellent football with Bournemouth but who else is there that really strikes you as a potential world class manager? Lower down the divisions, there are promising young coaches, but it is up to them to prove themselves.

Ajax's 'De Toekomst' which means 'The Future'.
An open access facility.
Something that has summed it up is the recent ventures abroad from British coaches ending in failure. Both Moyes (who also performed miserably when given arguably the biggest job in football) and Gary Neville were both sacked within a year of being appointed at Real Sociedad and Valencia. The Premier League is hyped up as the most challenging league in the world but when tested abroad the last English manager to have any success is the late Sir Bobby Robson nearly twenty years ago. We have to do more to raise our standards.

It is however positive to see coaches taking the plunge and working abroad in many different roles. For English coaches to become more rounded and adaptable it is vital that they pick up these experiences. Hopefully it can become the norm rather than simply an exception.

I know that one of my ambitions is to work abroad, whether that be in senior football or developing
young players. In fact, next month I am fortunate enough to be visiting one of the best youth systems in the world at De Toekomst, Ajax's famous academy set up. You can expect a blog on that trip!

The open nature of academies across Europe is in stark contrast to academies in England. Everything is top secret. You have to have some form of identification or permission to get in to places. Rather than share ideas, you get the feeling that clubs are more worried about other clubs gaining an edge on them. While you can understand it to a certain degree, particularly from a financial view, it is still disappointing that this is the attitude we have.

This may be the next step for us as a nation in terms of developing better players and coaches! We have been going in the right direction (Youth Award, change in structure of coach education, England DNA) but this would enhance what is already a positive process.

Thursday, 7 July 2016

Onwards and upwards

We are well and truly into the inquest of the catastrophic exit to Iceland last week.

The Football Association are now on the hunt for a new man to lead the English national team, and the questions are being asked of the players we are developing, and how we are selecting them.

For me there are still positives to take, mainly from the group stage performances. They did not perhaps yield the results we wanted but the approach and style England played in pointed to a more positive future for English football. One poor performance does not change all of that, in my opinion.

Here is a video I developed throughout the tournament. After last Monday's game I was not sure if I would go through with this but I felt it was better to have some perspective and recognise that this is a process and that there are going to be some testing times.

Just look at Wales as an example of this. This tournament has been a long time coming for them, starting with John Toshack promoting young players, continuing their development with Gary Speed and now Chris Coleman is reaping the rewards.

You can download the video here:

Dan Ashworth, technical director, and his team have faced some tough criticism. Questions are being asked as to whether the 'England DNA' is worth pursuing.

If we scrap this plan in it's infancy how can we ever hope to create an England side that looks like it knows it's roles and responsibilities throughout the team? This is a long term plan, one which could be a serious game changer for English football. This is where the country needs to believe even more in this 'journey'.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Too much too soon?

Search for Xavi Simons on the internet and you will get hundreds of thousands results, videos with over fifty thousand views and twitter accounts fawning over him. You would be forgiven for thinking this is quite a high profile person.

In fact, Xavi Simons is a twelve year old boy. A twelve year old boy with a lot of talent granted, but someone who surely should not be exposed to such scrutiny?

There is a Daily Mail article online (forgive me) from January this year about how a host of clubs are
"tracking" him and have been in contact with the boy's father. Not only is that just plain wrong on a footballing level, but for me it is morally wrong. 

Named after his Dad's favourite player 
I'm not convinced that a twelve year old is ready to receive such attention. It reminds me of the stories of Sonny Pike who was once heralded as England's great new talent. This was over twenty years ago, before the age of Facebook and Twitter, but the young lad struggled to cope with the pressure. Pike was shoved into the spotlight and it was detrimental to his football career. This was a kid who just needed to enjoy doing what he was good at - playing football! 

I have no doubt that in these times players are better looked after and better prepared for the attention that comes with being a young footballer. At Barcelona, Xavi Simons is in a great place and I hope his family is not lured in by the financial riches other clubs may offer him to sign for them. In the long term where is better for your football education than La Masia? 

This is not just an isolated case either. Young footballers in England receive a lot of attention on social media. 

There is a boy who signed for a a category 1 academy from the club I coached at. He came to us having arrived from Germany just days before,  instantly we knew he was not going to be with us very long. He had joined the club he is currently with within a year. Brilliant for everyone. 

His father keeps us updated with his progress (unlike the club) and we are very grateful, but even without that it would still not be difficult to keep track of how he was doing anyway. The boy has an Instagram account with thousands of followers. 

You can see from his updates that he is excelling. He is an under thirteen, like Xavi Simons, that plays several years above his own age group. He has even been on the bench for the under eighteens this season. He regularly goes away to tournaments and wins awards. 

On every post, comments such as 'you've made it', 'baller', have the potential to feed his ego but are relatively harmless if he has a level head and his club will make sure a player with such potential will not let him get carried away. However, he has already been subjected to comments such as 'you faked your age', amongst more claims that he is making it all up (he is not). 

He should not have to deal with that. At some point, someone may wind him up on the wrong day and he could get himself in to some trouble. 

Someone who has impressed me with the way they have kept them self under the radar is Marcus Rashford. Obviously not on the football scene, where he is one of the biggest talking points in a season that has been ridiculous enough in England, but how he has managed himself (or been advised to) off of the pitch. 
Just takes everything in his stride

When a young England player bursts on to the scene the media are always well prepared to pounce and make a story out of these young adults for the wrong reasons. Jack Grealish, Jack Wilshere - maybe it's in the name - are just two examples of players who have struggled under the spotlight. Aside from his new contract we have heard little of or from Rashford away from football, which can only be a good thing. 

It is no surprise that with every new challenge he has taken it in his stride, a reason why he deserves to go to the European Championships. Theo Walcott was famously taken to World Cup ten years ago at seventeen having not yet played for Arsenal, but this feels entirely different. Rashford may not play in the tournament in France this summer but his place in the squad is absolutely on merit. 

Hopefully he will be used as a shining example for young players to follow. Stay focused, keep your mind on producing consistently and good things will come. What surprises me is the rush everyone is always in.  People make poor decisions based on wanting to do things far too quickly and young players leave environments where they were thriving because a bigger club offers them huge financial incentives. 

In an ideal world, young players will be allowed to develop in their own time and not impacted by false expectations. It is simply unfair on these children. And that is just what they are, children!

Kick It Out have launched a campaign to tackle football-related discrimination across social media and raise awareness of the impact of online abuse.
Visit the ‪#‎KlickItOut‬ microsite here for more information!
Here are pictures of me and players from my under 7s side supporting the campaign! you can take part by printing off a sheet from this link:…/We-need-KlickItOut-because-Print-Ve…

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Guardiola: Success or failure at Bayern?

It is the 33rd minute at the Allianz Arena in the second leg of the Champions League semi final between Bayern Munich and Atletico Madrid. Javi Martinez has just won a penalty for Bayern.

The score is already one nil in a game in which Bayern have so far comprehensively outplayed Atletico, who look unusually unnerved by the occasion and Bayern's devastating performance. Up steps Thomas Muller. If he scores, this tie is surely over, there is no coming back for Diego Simeone's men. But if he misses...

What if Muller had scored?
It is quite timely that I had just finished reading Pep Confidential before this crucial fixture earlier this month. If you haven't already read it (why!?), Marti Perarnau follows Pep Guardiola in his first season at Bayern Munich. It is a fantastic insight into the genius of Guardiola. This is a man with an obsession, but with a fierce passion to deliver success through his ethos and values. In the book, for example, you learn quite how furious he is with himself for betraying his own beliefs in the semi final tie where they are beaten by Real Madrid in that season. 

It can be a fine line between success and failure. When Thomas Muller missed that penalty, it gave Atletico some belief back. Beforehand they had looked hopelessly lost, but this was their reprieve. As it was, Antoine Griezmann's second half goal proved crucial as they won on away goals.

And now, Guardiola has been branded by lots of critics as a 'failure' in his three seasons at Bayern. Here are the raw statistics of his tenure.

Games: 161
Wins: 121
Draws: 21
Defeats: 19
Goals scored: 396
Goals conceded: 110
Trophies: 7

A pretty astonishing record. However, to quote the man himself, "titles are just statistics". I believe we have to look beyond these when judging his time in Munich.

Guardiola seeks to develop his players understanding
of the game
Guardiola was tasked with creating something that would last beyond him, a legacy to make Bayern "a global player", in the words of Uli Hoeness. He has innovated once again with his 'inverted full backs' and Bayern are an incredible team to watch.

No one exemplifies Guardiola's work better than David Alaba. Under him, Alaba has become, in my eyes, the universal footballer. You could play him in practically every position on the pitch and he would give you an eight out of ten performance. He is incredible.

Who better to ask about the head coach's time than the players? Phillip Lahm, a man who had won almost all there is to win before Guardiola even arrived at the club said this:

"You’re always measured by the number of trophies but he developed a lot of players with the way he thinks about tactics, the way he analyses games and prepares teams for particular opponents. He really helps players develop and he even helped me improve at the age of 30. You’re right — with Pep it’s more than just about winning trophies."

Thomas Muller also branded it a disgrace that people might consider Guardiola a failure. The connection he made with his players is quite evident.

What it boils down to, ultimately, is how you define success! For some, Guardiola came into a ready made club who had just won the treble and had it easy. Therefore, anything but winning every trophy available is unacceptable. But how many teams have ever won the treble in succession, or even close together? Not so many, and maybe only when they have been reinvented as a team (see Luis Enrique with Barcelona last season) as Guardiola has also attempted to do. 

For others, success is to implement your beliefs on a team. To develop the players individually and collectively. I believe that this is where Guardiola's philosophy leans towards. Regardless, no one will be more critical of him than himself. He will scrutinise every move he made and what he could have done differently.

As someone who enjoys coaching young children, success to me is seeing them enjoy the game and develop as a player and a person. Quite a different world to working at the elite level, but I like to think that Guardiola tries to be quite brave in having some of the values even at the top level. 

Monday, 16 May 2016

England DNA to come to the fore?

The announcement of the England 26-man provisional squad for European Championships has generated plenty of discussion. Who will go? Which three will be dropped? Who was unfortunate to not make the squad? And that will only continue and increase as the build up to the tournament progresses.

Reading through the list, I am enthused. Since the disastrous World Cup campaign just two years before the squad has really improved. We appear to finally have a squad of players with high levels of technical ability and the tactical awareness to play in different systems of play.

Dan Ashworth - director of elite development
"England teams will play with tactical flexibility, influenced by the profile of the players and the requirements of the match or competition." 

That is the formation statement made in the England DNA document. Should we look back at recent England games, the Germany friendly stands out as a relevant example of this. Upon changing from the 4-3-3 to the 4-4-2 diamond, England increased their control on the centre of the pitch and with the addition of Jamie Vardy to the front two became more of a threat to the German goal. They changed shape due to the requirements of the game and it proved successful.

While the England DNA was only officially launched at the back end of 2014, under 18 months ago, it does appear to be bearing fruit. This report was developed by Dan Ashworth and his team. How accountable Roy Hodgson and his staff are to align the senior team with this philosophy is hard to tell however the signs are certainly there that it is being bought into.

Coming into the tournament England have one of the youngest squads around. Players such as Dele Alli (formerly coached by Dan Michiche - coach in the England youth set up), John Stones, Eric Dier and Raheem Sterling all fit the mould. These are players who can intelligently play in different roles for the team, are comfortable in possession and exude confidence. What better way to showcase the England DNA than with a young vibrant England squad making a fist of it in France this summer?

For those that are sceptical of the new direction the Football Association are looking to take English football in this is the chance to sway opinions. A positive performance - and I don't think anyone is demanding England bring the trophy home - may encourage clubs, coaches, players, to adopt this philosophy.

Alli and Dier are examples of players comfortable
playing in a number of roles 
The production line of talent appears to be working to good effect. England now have teams at every age group from under 15 to under 21. For those starting their 'international journey' , as described in a webinar by Dan Michiche, at just 14 years of age this allows them to experience the England set up. They can begin to develop an understanding of the England DNA and the expectations placed on them from an early age which could benefit the player in years to come.

More age groups allows more players to enter the system. Much has been made of the lack of English talent available to the manager so this could be an interesting way of developing the pool of talent. A glance at the England under 19s squad includes; Patrick Roberts, Reece Oxford, Ademola Lookman, Lewis Cook. It's an impressive looking squad. All players I would have thought could play at higher age groups, further highlighting the talent that is there to be developed.

Coming back to the senior team, this tournament could be very important for the development of English football. If elements of the DNA playing philosophy (In possession, out of possession, transition phase) are evident in the way the England team successfully this summer it will show huge progress and bode well. There will be reason to believe in something that a lot of time and money has gone into.

I myself hope to have the time available to analyse England's games in relation to the playing philosophy that the England DNA presents. It will be interesting to see the difference in style compared to the world cup in Brazil, with the DNA launched just six months after too.