Monday 14 October 2013
In the first of two articles looking at how the Premier League is seeking to build a world-leading coaching fraternity through the Elite Player Performance Plan, Peter Lansley, a journalist who is also an FA Level 1 coach, reports back from a Leadership Event at Aston Villa that sought to broaden the minds of the people entrusted with creating the next generation of Barclays Premier League footballers.
When Edorta Murua returned as director of the academy at Athletic Club Bilbao two years ago, he organised a trek up a local mountain for all the players, junior and senior, at the Spanish club. As they embarked upon their mountain hike, players were invited to group not in their teams or age bands but according to their positions.
What is Lezama?
The Lezama is the training facility where all the Athletic teams train and the academy is based. First built in the 1970s the Lezama academy was remodelled in 1995, when Murua joined, initiating a common plan for the club to build from youth upwards, but at several junctures, the philosophy has been tweaked.
"So the forwards set off on the journey with other forwards, from the second team down to the mini-Lezemas [juniors]," Murua said. "The older defenders walked with the younger defenders. They talked about their position. They also discussed what it means to them to belong to this football club."
Murua was seeking to devise new ways to challenge his players to think outside the box, to step outside the comfort zone of their usual peers, to see themselves as individuals within a team, with a responsibility to express themselves.
This notion of learning more by gaining new experience was one of the reasons why Murua was at Aston Villa's Bodymoor Heath training ground last month. He spoke to a select group of 50 coaches, primarily from top-flight clubs, but also with representation from Football League sides and FA coaches based at St George's Park.
The Premier League puts on these Leadership Events three times a year in each of the "Performance Pathway" age-groups of 9-11, 12-16 and 17-21. The events are about clubs sharing best practice - the coaches heard from Aston Villa's Head of Coaching Steve Burns - but also learning from those, like former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan, who can pass on their knowledge from succeeding in an elite environment. Murua was invited because of his and Bilbao's expertise in empowering the player.
His thinking has underpinned the Basque club's constantly evolving structure since he first took charge of the under-11s 18 years ago. Murua places the individual above the team, when it comes to developing players, but only so that the team can become stronger.
"It's not about the team, or Saturday's game, it's about that player understanding what his role is and where it changes if he steps out as a right-back into midfield," Murua told his audience. "The game now changes and the responsibility changes. Tactically, you can see how players in each area would have a very good understanding there [at the academy] from a very early age."
Murua said that winning matches with good players was not difficult but training with them was more of a challenge.
"The first challenge is about accepting risk," he said. "Competing is different to winning. To compete is not just against an opponent, but against ourselves, to recognise our weaknesses and how to improve ourselves. In football, there are many sources of information, for instance from the internet. How do we turn information into knowledge? The difference is not only training the player but educating the player.
"The player is at the core of our process because he is the one who is going to be making the decisions on the field of play - we cannot be shouting out his ideas for him from the touchline. We need him to take control. We need autonomous, self-thinking players. So the first people who need to understand this are the coaches, who need to ask, 'what are our blockages?' and prepare themselves to transmit the positives to the players."
A key element of the Leadership Events is that guest speakers not only talk about their work in the classroom but demonstrate it practically on the training ground. On an adjacent 4G pitch at Bodymoor, Murua used a group of Villa's Under-15 academy players to put into practice his theory of how players must learn how to "change the chip" in their mind after a transition in play from possession to playing without the ball.
"Context is provided by the variables," he said. "The ball, the opponent, the space and his colleagues. We must not drown the ball. It must have its own space."
were formed by British steel and shipyard workers and Basque students who had been at school in Britain at the end of the 19th century.
Since 1929 Athletic have won eight league titles and have produced talent such as Javier Martinez, Ander Herrera, Fernando Llorente and Iker Munain, even though the club almost exclusively source only from the Basque Country, allowing them a pool of just 1.6million.
The club are renowned for a tradition of an aesthetically alluring passing game.
To do this he puts in place a session where four players patrol each edge of a box with an additional team-mate within the square facing two opponents. This 5 v 2 scenario focuses on the player in the middle becoming a creative, No 10-type, finding space to receive from team-mates in more fixed positions. The practice then evolved to include a further two opponents in a 5 v 4 with four mini-goals in the corners of the expanded area to replicate more closely a match situation.
Watching on, along with the rest of the club coaches, was Terry Westley, who, as the Premier League's Senior Club Support Manager, has been the man tasked with delivering the Leadership Events.
"We talk about master coaches, whether it's in football, cricket or the cycling world," Westley said. "If we're going to create an elite performer, you need a master coach, and I'd put Murua in that bracket. By listening to him, his detail in his preparation, he understands completely the difference between the individual and the team.
"He is not saying that what works at Bilbao might also work at Aston Villa, Chelsea or West Bromwich Albion. What he is doing is giving these coaches the benefits of his education. So we now have 50 coaches who go back to their clubs, pass on that knowledge and think about how it might work for them."
For the Premier League's Director of Youth, Ged Roddy, Murua's presentation justifies the existence of the Leadership Events, enabling Premier League coaches to learn from those that have worked and delivered in an elite environment.
"We are seeing children being empowered, becoming effective learners, taking control of their own environment, so they are becoming autonomous," Roddy said. "That's what our best coaches do.
"We're not saying it doesn't happen over here, because it does, but this is an opportunity to look at someone else and another system with a track record of producing top players. Like Edorta's mountain hike, this is a journey where we expose our coaches and their clubs to best practice and then see what that can do to improve English football."
In part 2, we will hear how former England cricket captain Michael Vaughan and Aston Villa's head of coaching look to get the best out of talented youngsters and how important psychology can be for coaches.