Coaching Insights

Lewtas: 'PL2 supporting player and coach development'

By Adrian Clarke 14 Aug 2023
Barry Lewtas , Liverpool

Liverpool U21s head coach Barry Lewtas speaks to Adrian Clarke about the all-round value of the Premier League Games Programme

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Taking time out from his hectic schedule, Liverpool Under-21s head coach Barry Lewtas has joined us to discuss the Premier League Games Programme for professional footballers at that level.

Player development is his No 1 priority, we know that.

His role at the top end of the academy structure is geared towards preparing talented youngsters for the rigours of senior football, hopefully at Anfield, but if not, elsewhere.

So, we kick off with a straightforward but also mildly challenging question - how much do the matches matter at U21 level?

With a smile on his face, 42-year-old Lewtas is both quick off the mark and unequivocal with his answer.

“I want to win, the players want to win, and certainly from my experiences the dugout next to me normally wants to win too,” he says without hesitation.

“If you had a group of players who crossed the line and didn't want to win, I think you've got a few problems, so that's the beauty of having the Premier League 2 and opportunities for the boys to play in different competitions too.

Preparing for senior football

“As coaches we are trying to prepare them to play senior football, so if we were to take that winning element out, I just don't think we'd be doing our job.

“Are we constantly looking at the league table? No, we're not,” he continues. “But are the lads? Possibly. So, it’s about trying to find that sweet spot where it matters, but it’s not our sole focus.

“As you go through the academy structure it shouldn't look like Under-9s football when you are in the U21s.”

Lewtas helped to steer Liverpool Under-18s to FA Youth Cup glory in 2019 before moving into his current role the following year.

Liverpool FA Youth Cup winners 2019

Last season was successful for his side in terms of results, as the Reds finished in second spot behind PL2 champions Manchester City.

Standard-wise he was impressed with the competition.

“We've got to make sure that the Premier League 2 is always strong, always competitive, and last term it really was," adds Lewtas.

“There was a real vibe around the younger players involved, and I thought it was a fantastic season.

Time to develop

“I firmly believe PL2 allows players to stay in the game for longer, and that’s a real positive because some are a little bit later in their development and need longer to grow, develop, and flourish. Not everyone's ready at 17 for senior football.

“PL2 gives those players who aren’t out on loan an opportunity to shine.”

The EFL Trophy is another competition that is part of the Under-21s Games Programme at Liverpool.

Up until 2022/23, Lewtas had been a little frustrated with the scheduling of matches, citing a clash between the competition’s fixtures and international breaks.

This denied a number of Liverpool’s brightest young talents the opportunity to gain invaluable experiences.

Last season this was less of an issue, and although he is yet to gain a point in the tournament, Lewtas praises the chances it offers.

Isaac Mabaya, Liverpool
Isaac Mabaya and his Liverpool U21s team-mates gained valuable experience playing against Salford City in the 2022/23 EFL Trophy

“When I’m speaking to league managers who are looking to take players on loan, it tends to be Papa John's [EFL Trophy] games they use as a reference. That’s been interesting for us,” he reveals.

“We played Salford City last year and Matt Smith was up front, who is a very big guy. When clubs talked about some of our centre-backs after that encounter, we had a body of work there to say, ‘Well, actually we played against that big No 9, and this is how we coped’.

Gaining experience on loan

“Showcasing our players is vital because loans are so important. The EFL Trophy can give them that exposure to go out on loan and experience more senior games.”

Every coach of an U21s side who participates in this competition faces differing challenges compared to their week-to-week norm.

Coming up against polar opposite styles of play, and opponents who are much physically stronger than their own players, often forces coaches to widen their tactical thinking.

Lewtas firmly believes the EFL Trophy has helped him develop.

“I've learnt an awful lot stepping into that arena,” he says. “We have played some games where we've been so dominant, but then our opponents have changed their style with a flick of a switch and gone direct on us.

“I remember a game at Wigan where we led 1-0 at half time and we were fantastic. We ended up losing 6-1! They brought two big guys on up front and went long to great effect. Afterwards I was reflective on that, and it made me think about how I’d prepared the boys for that type of direct style of play.”

Learning curve

We ask how he tried to handle those challenging circumstances, and what he focused on to ensure his players’ learnings were valuable.

“If I told them we were going to kick it long, it would just come straight back at us, so that’s not what we’d do. I think the focus is on how we control the game, how we dominate the ball, which is key because if we don't look after the ball, it can become a really tough physical examination.

“Defensively, we talked a lot about how we apply pressure to their man on the ball, we worked on picking up second balls, and shape-wise because EFL 'keepers can kick it so far we also had to adjust how high our line was.

“The learning experience is massive, and I find us throughout the season constantly referring back to those Papa John's games in our video and analysis work. Watching how we dealt with certain situations and how we managed games is important.

“Those matches are all interesting, fantastic experiences. I just hope we can get one over the line in terms of a win this year!”

International Cup experience

The Premier League International Cup returned last season, following a three-year absence due to the pandemic.

Running since 2014 it is an Under-23 competition featuring 12 English clubs and a further dozen invited teams from around Europe.

Three over-age outfield players are permitted, along with an over-age goalkeeper, and all the matches are played in England.

Liverpool Under-23s, managed by Lewtas, were knocked out in the last eight by Crystal Palace last season.

Layton Stewart, Liverpool, David Ozoh, Crystal Palace
Liverpool's Layton Stewart and David Ozoh of Premier League International Cup finalists Crystal Palace, in quarter final action

The Eagles were eventually beaten 3-1 by PSV Eindhoven in front of 5,941 in the final at Selhurst Park.

Reflecting on that experience Lewtas says, “The Premier League International Cup has given us something really different. We played against teams like Braga, who sent their B team, a side that plays full-time in a lower division in Portugal.

“They were very much a senior team and knew a few more tricks of the trade in terms of how to manage themselves. They actually went down to 10 men in a 0-0 draw, but we found it really hard to break them down. They were ever so well organised and mature in their mentality.

“I like the fact that the Premier League International Cup has given us a taste of playing against more senior international players. It’s been a real good experience for me, and the lads.”

European experience

Making up Liverpool’s Games Programme in both 2021/22 and 2022/23 was their Under-19s’ participation in the UEFA Youth League.

Topping their group and winning their last 16 tie in both campaigns, Liverpool exited at the quarter final stage in successive years.

“These games are unbelievably competitive, and they provide a really important part of a players diet because at a club like ours, first team debuts sometimes come in European games,” says the former Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic Academy coach.

“It provides our boys with experience of different styles of play, different behaviours, different referees, and playing in different kind of atmospheres. Some of those factors in games abroad can affect decision making and behaviours, which I think is part of the theatre.

Liverpool team v FC Basel 1893
Liverpool U19s line up in Switzerland before facing FC Basel 1893 in the UEFA Youth League

“We have experienced some unusual situations,” he continues with a wry smile. “One that springs to mind is away to Napoli when we were a goal up in injury time, when suddenly three balls ended up on the pitch at the same time.

"My boys didn’t know which one to play with, and unfortunately the ball we thought we were using was not the one that ended up in our net!! Dealing with things like that is all part of the experience.

“It's also a chance for us to look at our own and see how our boys measure up against other U19s across Europe,” he adds. “That's been something that's been important for me, as you need to look outwards.

“For me personally as a coach that competition offers such an opportunity to learn.”

As we touched on at the start of our interview, the role of an U21s coach can leave one or two lines blurred.

Results matter to a degree, but they are not what somebody in Lewtas’ position are usually judged on.

Performance versus results

We ask if he ever feels the heat if there is a downturn in form?

“When I first became the U18s coach I maybe judged myself a little more on game results, but as I’ve got a little bit older, I have learned how to reflect. It’s important to understand how you check yourself after games," he says.

“I've been really fortunate with the staff I've worked with at this level, using them to sometimes bounce frustrations off. This is football and you have your own professional pride. It's our team against their team and we all want to collectively succeed. 

Jurgen Klopp, Barry Lewtas
Barry Lewtas talks tactics with Liverpool first-team manager Jurgen Klopp

“After three seasons in this role I now feel comfortable with the pressures,” he continues. “I understand what they are, and the main pressure is on how we are developing these excellent young players. Mentally, tactically, physically, technically, it's vital for us to be developing them properly. That is the priority.”

Before concluding our conversation, we ask if Lewtas is satisfied with the Games Programme at U21 level.

Without a pause he replies, “Yes, I’m very happy with it. If we see any gaps in the schedule, it's for us as a club to fill them with behind closed doors matches at training grounds.  

“At Liverpool we're in charge of our own players development. The Premier League provide a fantastic programme that helps us so much. If we need to supplement it, that’s what we’ll do.”

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