Manchester United visited Everton Football Club for a crucial Barclays Premier U21 Development League (BPDL) game on a damp and chilly night in March 2015. The game matched United, the league leaders, against an Everton team in seventh place needing a win to get within only one point of the Manchester club. Both teams have an outstanding reputation for the development of successful professional players and Everton’s first team frequently feature several players who have come through their youth system. Their most notable product being the present Man United and England captain, Wayne Rooney. United’s youth system, of course, has produced the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, and the Neville brothers to mention just a few.
Everton, a large borough in the city of Liverpool, is the home of Everton F.C. and play some of their U21 games at Haig Avenue, the home of semi-professional minnows, Southport Football Club. Southport is known as a sleepy sea side resort, but Southport Football Club has been home for some high profile players including Tony Waiters, the great English national team goalkeeper and Canadian World Cup head coach. Southport’s ground (in England a stadium is often referred to as “ground”), holds only 8,000 people, but football lovers have a wonderful opportunity to watch tomorrow’s stars whenever the U21 Everton “Toffeemen” play there.
The Scholars Program
The BPDL serves to enhance the careers of young, aspiring professional soccer players in England. For an American audience, used to seeing upcoming players go through the high school/club/college system the age, position and standing of the players in the English club system could be quite confusing. The players in this league are signed with professional clubs and are a mixture of young 17+ professional players, being paid by the club, together with 16 and 17 year old players designated as “scholars” whose expenses and educational costs are covered by the British government. The Scholars program, introduced in 1998, is a two-year agreement between the club and player which mandates 12 hours a week in “second career” formal education for players along with their technical soccer training. It replaces the old “apprentice” system, which had no supervised second career training whatsoever. Along with second career training the clubs had to appoint a “Head of Education and Welfare” position to supervise and guide the players in holistic development. The success of the program is such that former scholars, who did not make the grade as a professional player, have found a rewarding careers in sports science, teaching, physiotherapy, “A” licensed coaches and, in one case at Everton, a certified M.D.
The Utilization of Older Players in the Developmental Process
Playing with older, more experienced players is acknowledged as being crucial in the development of young players in European and South American countries. Consequently, BPDL clubs are allowed to use two older players in U21 games to enhance the developmental experience and this game featured Everton’s 33 year old Frenchman, Sylvan Distin, who has enjoyed a distinguished career as a central defender for Everton, Paris St. Germain, Newcastle and Manchester City. With 400 Premier League appearances, the 6’4” central defender has been called a “model professional” and had a massive impact on this game. Rather than approach this game nonchalantly, Distin proved to be an outstanding and consummate professional impressing the spectators with his speed, skill and, against some players 17 years his junior, commitment.
The Everton staff had extended an invitation to attend the game and sit with them in the stand so I came to know more about their team than Man United’s team.
The Everton squad for the evening featured players who fell into the following categories:
1. Goalkeeper Russell Griffiths Professional
2. Right back JonJoe Kenny Professional, second-year scholar*
3. Left back Brendan Galloway Professional*
4. Center midfield Liam Walsh Professional, first-year scholar*
5. Center back Sylvain Distin Professional
6. Center back Tyias Browning Professional
7. Midfield Francisco Junior Professional
8. Midfield Ryan Ledson Professional, second-year scholar, England U18 captain*
9. Striker David Henin Professional*
10. Flank player George Green Professional
11. Left Wing Gethin Jones Professional
24. Conor Hunt Professional
14. John Lundstram Professional
15. Kieran Dowell Professional, first-year scholar*
16. Callum Connolly First-year scholar*
17. Michael Donohue First-year scholar*
The winners of the U18 BDPL automatically represent England in the Dallas Cup annually and, as Everton won the year before, the players asterisked above were due to play in the Dallas Cup the following week.
A number of scouts attended the game and the status of the performing players was of significant interest to them. Representing other clubs many of the scouts are paid on a commission basis by their club if they find a player, a very important business indeed. They were on the lookout for, either, older players with expiring contracts or scholars who were completing their final year and would soon be finding out if they were to be retained on a full “professional” contract – or released! It is a tough profession but players who get to this level will, generally, be good enough to have a wide safety net of playing options if things do not work out…for some of them a scholarship at an American college is not out of the question.
In addition, shortly after this game had been played George Green, Gethin Jones and John Lundstram were loaned out to other clubs in lower divisions so they could experience playing first team football. The loan system has become very popular in Europe and clubs have personnel specifically hired to supervise the progress of loan players at their respective clubs.
As we approached Southport’s stadium we maneuvered around a sizeable two decker bus with a full kitchen on the bottom deck and, what looked like fold out beds, on the top deck - signaling that Manchester United were here. United, like most premier League teams, provide their players with “royal” treatment and there can be no argument that players are not given the best attention money can buy.
Coaches - Technical Staff - Game Analysts
A large number of Everton staff, including the club’s manager, Roberto Martinez, were in attendance. Clearly, a number of players were being closely looked at and their retainment or release hinged somewhat on their performance in this game.
The Barclays U21 Premier League head coaches need to have a rich blend of managerial and playing experience and, between them, Everton’s David Unsworth, and Manchester’s Warren Joyce have over 1,000 professional senior games under their belt. In addition they both have had several high-level managerial stints. As a player Unsworth played once for the English National Team and several games for the U21’s. Joyce has an enviable pedigree as a player and, recently, as head coach of Royal Antwerp in Belgium.
In a tight and demanding league, where players are keen to impress, managing players who are “almost” there comes with challenges, but both Unsworth and Joyce enjoy huge levels of respect in the English game. The play on the field reflected the authority these two coaches carry and, although physical and demanding, the game was played in a highly disciplined manner.
Although Southport provide outstanding hospitality Haig Avenue is, very much, a lower level stadium and the ever-present video recording cameras had to position themselves in the directors’ box to get the height and correct angle. Video cameras are ubiquitous and clubs employ a small army of match analysts to record and edit footage. The camera gantry at Liverpool’s training ground in the photo below indicates that even practices are recorded and analyzed. In the world of the professional player development industry no stone is left unturned.
Technical and Tactical Observations
The two teams played with two center backs who pushed to the corners of the penalty box when in possession, three in central midfield, outside backs who pushed way forward when in possession of the ball, forward flank players who started off in wide positions and came inside much of the time and one center forward who had speed and a solid physique. When defending the outside backs drop alongside the center backs and one or two of the midfielders screen the two center backs. A lot of players get behind the ball developing what is commonly called a “defensive block.”
In the photograph below the Number 5 for Everton is Sylvain Distin, a center back, the number 3 is Brendan Galloway, the left back and the number 10, with outstretched hands is the left winger George Green. They are employing the system shown above albeit slightly higher up the field.
Both goalkeepers had impressive foot skills and were comfortable on the ball receiving a large number of back passes, switching the point of attack from one side to the other or playing the ball into the feet of the organizing midfielder. They could kick the ball from the top of the penalty box to well over the half way line and, frequently, came way out of their goal to take free kicks thus allowing their back line to push up and get compact (see photo below). Their kicking ability gave the teams the ability to play out of the back or, equally, leave the GK to throw or kick the ball forward with accuracy and distance. The goalkeepers looked well over 6 foot tall and displayed good ball handling and distribution qualities.
Game Speed, Referee Fitness, and Upper Body Shielding
BDPL games are played at a high tempo and, hence, are highly engaging. Speed of thought, speed of technical execution and speed of movement as a block featured as the outstanding characteristics of this game. The pace of the game did not wilt for 90 minutes and the referee, Mr. Thomas Bramhall, who stayed in touch with the game for the duration impressed us with his own fitness level. Both teams exhibited the ability to play in tight spaces and in one sequence of passes the Everton players caromed the ball around like a pin ball using their upper body to shield the ball and block off opposing challenges. Mr. Bramhall allowed play to continue and I made a note to myself that the use of the upper body to shield and fight for the ball is a skill we need to improve in the USA but that the development of shielding skills in college and club soccer is often atrophied by referees who see any use of the upper body as a foul.
The game, played at a torrid pace from start to finish, featured fine examples of vertical and lateral compactness with teams rarely getting stretched. This is critical, especially when playing zonally.
Countering the Counter Attack
Counter attacking featured prominently in this game but, with 1 or 2 holding midfielders, the transition element of the game was dealt with in an organized and composed manner by both teams. This was a game were the teams had, clearly, been schooled in how to counter the counter attack. Sylvain Distin, caught in several 1 v 1 counter attacks, matched the much younger Manchester players stride for stride using speed and his daunting 6’4” physique to prevent any serious penetration.
The ability of these players to strike the ball over large distances was phenomenal. Outside full backs, frequently, drove the ball diagonally, 60 - 70 yards over an opposing outside back player and onto the foot of their team mate - with a slight fade at the end of the flight. Obviously correct striking technique has been a feature of their training from a young age.
In the third picture shown above, the ball is with the feet of an Everton center back who would have no trouble dropping the ball over the left shoulder of the Manchester United left back. In employing the 4-3-3 system the Everton right winger has the ability to get right up on the shoulder of the opposing left back to expect that pass.
In addition, the ability of center backs to hit a variety of faded, hooked and driven balls to the center forwards contrasted sharply from the days when the job of a center back was to give the ball to the central midfielder as quickly as possible! In addition center backs brought the ball deep into midfield confident that the holding midfielders would cover for them. At the front of the team players struck effective shots with little backswing – commonly called “low backswing” shots and, often, shot between the legs of opponents to disguise it from the goalkeeper or, maybe, even, catch a ricochet off someone’s foot.
Attacking the Block
Modern tactics are such that teams often defend with ten players, leaving a striker in an advanced position. Consequently, an absorbing aspect of this game was that it began to resemble a basketball game somewhat. Ten players defend, try and counter upon an interception and, if that is not possible, move the ball down the field until they come into contact with the opposing defenders. Intricate passing and combination play is then used to try and break down the defensive block. Everton had gone down by two goals and tried to penetrate a United block which was well-organized and disciplined. Breaking down the block is a combination of some choreography but mostly creativity. Instinct, rather than pre - arranged patterns of play, is used to break down the opposition. Notably, when the ball goes into wide areas players, often, try and work the ball inside the penalty box for a shot at goal…rather than cross it. Defensively the danger of dropping so deep is giving away fouls in the penalty box and with five minutes left on the clock Everton scored on a penalty kick when an Everton player was fouled inside the box.
Killing the Game
United proceeded to display a master class in how to hold on to a one goal lead with 5 minutes remaining in the game. This included a series of back passes to the United goalkeeper, ricocheting the ball against the opponents legs to get a throw in, delaying the throw in and holding the ball against Everton’s corner flags in such a fashion as to frustrate the opposition to concede fouls. When the final whistle blew it occurred to me that Everton hardly had the ball for more than 30 seconds out of the last 300.
Observations and Recommendations
The Starting 11
- 1. The 4-3-3 system - 3 observations
- i. The system allows wingers to get high up on the shoulder of the opposing outside backs. This makes it difficult for outside backs, in a zonal system, to cover for their center backs and be in a position to pressure the opposing winger who is available for a long distance driven pass.
- ii. The emphasis on having a holding midfielder, especially when attacking, is an important antidote against a counter attack. This, also, allows for outside backs to get pushed up into very high wide positions allowing the wide wingers to come inside into more dangerous central positions.
- iii. Having three players in central midfield, obviously, clogs up the middle of the field and, theoretically, make keeping possession of the ball easier than having two central midfielders.
- 2. Speed of Play
The games at this level are played at very high speed. Speed of ball and player movement, speed of thought and perception are of the very highest order. My observation of academy practices is that they are conducted at a high degree of intensity.
- 3. Driven Balls
Jeff Agoos stands out as one of the best American players to hit these long, line drive, fading driven balls. Teaching this skill is vital at the younger levels and players who have the ability to drive balls over distance can pull an opposing zonal back line apart. Studying the body shape of a good goalkeeper taking goal kicks, or an American Football kicker provide a good picture of the mechanics of this kind of delivery, including angle of approach, body shape, kicking ball left of center (for right footed kickers) etc.
In addition, the center backs in this game had an admirable ability to hit center forwards right on the chest with a driven ball almost upon command.
- 4. Upper Body Shielding
The ability of players to hold a ball, or win a duel with the use of the upper body, is a most important skill. Coaches must teach this skill and coaching and refereeing groups may want to get together in discussion with regard to what is a foul and what is good shielding skill.
- 5. Soccer/Basketball
With teams dropping back to defend with 10 players and leaving a striker in a high position soccer begins to look more and more like basketball. Attacking players, in this game, were confronted with a highly organized deeply positioned defensive block which is very difficult to penetrate. The mentality of players was patient and also wary as the attacking team becomes exposed to a counter attack. Breaking down the block featuring 1-2 passes, attackers positioning themselves between groups of defenders, toe pokes and “no backswing” passing are all effective skills to penetrate massed defenses. When penetration fails playing balls into a wide players for either a cross or, more commonly now, a dribble into the penalty box can lead to a shot or, if defenders are careless, a foul and penalty.
- 6. Mixing of Age Groups
Having players in their 30’s playing on the field with 17 year olds gives the youngsters enormous developmental benefits. The older players act as models for the younger players and can have enormous influence in accelerating the learning process. A system in place where top quality players of all age groups can play together without fear of liability is long overdue!
- 7. Transition
The Dutch have broken the game down into four moments:
- i. We have the ball.
- ii. We lose the ball.
- iii. They have the ball.
- iv. They lose the ball.
Spending coaching time on moments ii and iv will be an invaluable investment.
- 8. Five versus Five
Four outfield players and a goalkeeper is the ultimate small sided game as players become accustomed to the triangular patterns when the game is played in a 1-1-2-1. Triangular patterns are much more common in the modern 4-3-3 than the 4-4-2. In addition it teaches the three passing directions in the game – forwards, sideways and backwards. Finally there is nowhere to hide in the 5 v 5 game and players are under pressure all the time.
- 9. Managing the Game – Holding a Lead – Chasing the Game
The methods United used to manage the game after conceding a goal so late were outstanding.
Two considerations for our coaches to protect a lead:
- i . Killing the game, within the rules, with a few minutes left and up by a goal.
- ii. Not conceding a goal immediately after scoring one yourself.
Changing systems of play, style of play and personnel are traditional ways of trying to score when chasing the game.Pre-planning will pay dividends when faced with this situation.
- 10. Game Awareness, Anticipation and Perception
When the ball comes to a central midfielder and the CMF immediately hooks the ball to a team mate wide on the opposite flank without looking the chances are that the CMF looked before the ball came to him.
The formula for the ages Look - Receive – Pass instead of Receive - Look – Pass featured as a major characteristic in this game. Players were continually looking when they did not have the ball and angulated themselves to the ball carrier so that they could see the field and receive the ball half turned whenever possible.
Almost ALL Academy practices I have observed feature a large group of staff personnel. At a typical U16/U18 Academy practice the head coach, assistant coach, head of coaching, fitness coach, GK coach and, on occasion, the academy director, will be in present. Some clubs will have the coach of the age group above and below, also, in attendance. This contrasts sharply with many American clubs who have just one coach in attendance. Some consideration should be given to have multiple coaches at age group practices on a rotating basis. The photograph below shows five staff coaches at the practice of Cardiff City’s U18 team. Having multiple staff at practices helps with both observation and discipline.
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