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Talking Tactics

Academy fun factor essential for player growth

Adrian Clarke 28 Jul 2017
Marc McLaren, Wolves

Emulating iconic scenarios and always changing positions, Adrian Clarke finds out how youth coaches like Marc McLaren make learning tactics enjoyable

Adrian Clarke begins a three-part series uncovering the secrets to successful coaching at youth level.

Clear philosophy

Learning about tactical awareness is a key part of every young player’s education. But coaching it at Academy level must be a challenging task.

One would think that compromises between a player's development and the club's needs are constantly being made.

Overloading on information has the potential to be counter-productive among teenagers and dramatic shifts in strategy at first-team level can also create confusion.

So does this mean the approach to tactical tuition within Academies is fraught with complications?

Not so, according to Southampton’s Academy manager Matt Hale.

"Anything we do between the ages of nine to 23 is aligned and does not change, irrespective of the senior team structure," he says.

"The Academy philosophy is settled. Our job is to teach players the principles of the game, and we choose to do that within a fluid 4-3-3 formation. Irrespective of who the first-team manager is, that would not change.

"We coach them when to press, when to drop, how to get compact, when to get wide, so whatever shape those boys then go on to play in [in the future] they should be well equipped."

"Anything we do between the ages of 9-23 is aligned and does not change, irrespective of the senior team structure"

Matt Hale, Southampton Academy manager

Huw Jennings, Academy director at Fulham, sees things similarly: "We have a very clear philosophy of how we want to play, and that underpins all that we do.

"In the early age group games we don’t take into account the opposition’s strategy, likely style of play, or look at an approach on how to combat it.

"Our focus is solely on the reinforcement of our own key principles, usually within the framework of a 4-3-3.

"In the younger age groups we focus on what a player's individual needs are. After that we look at individual needs within a team context, and from 15 onwards we start to look at tactical features for the team."

But he concedes: "The coaching of tactical awareness is definitely changing. The game has become more tactical in general, and therefore the impact on youth is inevitable.

"We certainly spend more time with our own players on tactical development now."

Don't limit to one position

Since the introduction of the Elite Player Performance Plan in 2012, players under the age of 12 can now only feature in competitive 7-a-side or 9-a-side matches.

Playing on smaller pitches naturally leads to more experimentation positionally, and that is a huge plus according to Wolverhampton Wanderers Under-9s coach Marc McLaren (pictured top).

He explains: "At nine or 10 in those early foundation years we get them to do a lot of switching around position-wise.

Rio Ferdinand, Man Utd
Marc McLaren says that six-time PL winner Rio Ferdinand, who began his career at No 10, is a prime example of why Academy players should not stick to one position

"Sometimes we might ask a striker to play at right-back just to give them that experience in a game. We don't want to pigeon-hole them too early.

"If those boys stay in the same positions, and don’t get through, we won’t know what other talents they had, or what they could have achieved in another role on the pitch.

"You only have to look at players like Rio Ferdinand who started out as a No 10 and went on to become one of England’s greatest centre-halves, or Ashley Cole, a striker who went on to play over a 100 times at left-back."

Lee Smith, the lead foundation phase coach at Southampton backs up that theory.

"There’s a philosophy throughout our club to be phase-specific," he says. "What that means is that at ages 9-10 there is more emphasis on playing in different positions.

"After that we narrow things down so that they’re in the positions that suit them best, focusing harder on understanding their specific roles, and responsibilities for the team."

Relevant, realistic, repetition

So, how does a coach within an Academy go about the business of raising a young player’s tactical awareness, without burdening them with too much information?

Arsenal Under-14s coach Greg Lincoln explains: “When I coach tactics I sometimes focus solely on one area of the pitch, perhaps only working in one of the thirds.

"One of the FA’s key slogans that I like is 'relevant, realistic, repetition'. So as coaches we can work on something, but we have to ask ourselves how relevant it is to a match situation.

Liverpool v AC Milan
Wolves coach McLaren will often emulate real-life scenarios, such as when Liverpool were 3-0 down to AC Milan in the UEFA Champions League final, to keep tactical sessions fun

"It’s about exposing the players to those situations where they must process information and then produce the right action.

"Personally, I think technical and tactical development goes hand-in-hand. Everything comes back to decision-making and understanding where the space is."

Keep the fun factor

For the younger boys a more fun approach works best when it comes to getting the players to think about tactics, adds Wolves Under-9s coach McLaren.

"I often throw in a scenario in the end-of-session game," he says.

"I might say it’s Liverpool v AC Milan, you’re 3-0 down and you’ve got 10 minutes to get back into the game. I’ll ask the boys how they are going to manage that, and they’ll obviously change up their style.

"For those on the Milan team I may say you’re winning, so it’s important you keep the ball. I’ll say they have to make five passes before they can score.

"It’s funny how some kids are so switched on to it. When a ball goes out of play they’ll take their time and try to run down the clock, or take it into the corner.

"That’s all done themselves, they get no prompting from us to do that."

In part II tomorrow Adrian Clarke on video analysis within Academies

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