FIFA World Cup

World Cup 2018: How Croatia gives great talent the professional touch

A comprehensive 10-year education plan is laid out for the footballing talent with specialisations kicking in later.

This is the final part of a three-part series on Croatian football. Part 1 dealt with Croatian football culture and Part 2 spoke about the Dinamo Zagreb model of a professional footballer.

The annual coaching program covers 52 weeks of content where the outstanding feature is the highly detailed guidelines of the training of teams and development of individuals across the various age groups.

The aim is to develop individuals through a team with a personality each player exhibits a desire to win, technique under pressure, deep understanding of the tactical concept of the Dinamo style of play and supreme physical preparedness.

The details outline what the coaches must achieve and technical aspects that must be addressed in relation to the intent of the training activity. The players are taught to be adaptive and learn to play in multiple tactical systems with certain technical components when attacking, high-intensity pressing, quick conversion of positive transitions (counter-attacks) and responsible decision making.

As for the playing system itself it had been mentioned in several references that it is an absolute must that all junior teams mirror the playing style deployed by the first team – a 4-3-3.

Ivan Kepcija, the assistant Academy Director at Dinamo Zagreb, clarifies that “the program is not as stubborn as it is made out to be and the coaches have the option to choose the system based on the players available and not force the content of the guidelines onto the development and coaching of the team. While the 4-3-3 is the preferred system, variations are encouraged. For example, the 4-4-2 must be a consideration in the presence of a second striker in a particular age group squad, for the sake of developing a striking partnership the playing system must be open to change.”

The programs contents are decided keeping in the trend in which football is being played and evolving towards and the long-term forecast of the individuals in the programs to ensure that the development experience meet the ambitions of the players as well as the club.

The program outlines a set of requirements in terms of the activities that must constitute the training activity within a session and demands and objectives that must be met daily, weekly, monthly and annually. The outlines are comprehensive and progress through the age groups in that they unfold into a complete 10-year education for the player when one zooms out of the frame and sees the program in its entirety.

Here is an example of two age phases which are further broken down into finer details:

A continuity of technical mechanism

The coaches refer to their competitive calendar and create a training cycle of 6 weeks that is then submitted and overlooked by the Director. The competitive calendar serves as a reference to script and adjust the training objectives and match demands in relation to the quality of the opponents they will face. These games serve as a good test of the training program and relevance of the game demands that had been identified and prioritised.

They must ensure that each exercise must be directed to improve and repeat ‘game actions and reactions’ under varying constraints and scenarios (game situations) leading to the game on the weekend. On matchday, the coaches identify their performance demands based on what was addressed during the week and not on something they have not worked on. This helps in building clarity in what players are expected to deliver and for coaches to assess the progress they have made in transferring the training content to the game.

When addressing the basic phases, the point is to not affect the fluidity and continuity of the technical mechanism before attaining stability. Once stabilised it can be transferred to dynamic situations and enhanced in games, scrimmages and duels where players will adapt their strengths and weaknesses to understand how they can influence a game outcome.

The people in charge of the program are aware of the perceptions that surround the word - Drill. They value it and feel that it is necessary for the program’s success. Their delivery is on a very clear understanding that the players don’t have to enjoy all the training or rather it is not pertinent that players enjoy everything in the training. The drills come in small dozes with variation in complexity in sequence and difficulty.

Croatian kids are like their peers all over the world in every academy or club, in the fact that they want to play. They have a low tolerance for boredom and an attention span that is limited. For this reason, a parenting example is used where technique equals a vegetable and free play equals dessert. Players have to learn the value of delayed gratification, completion of tasks, addressing the quality of outcomes before moving onto the reward.

From what I had witnessed and later acknowledged by a colleague from Finland who visited a few days after me was the intensity, aggression joy and speed with which the kids (6-7-8-year olds) played their training games. They took these games very seriously and the maturity with which they communicated, expressed themselves and preformed was something special, rare and is probably the most vivid reminder of the gaps that exist between us and the developed game environments.

Varied repetition and meaningful engagement

Varied repetition is what leads the program and not mindless loops of the same activity being carried out over and over again. Meaningful, and deep engagement in varied high quality repetition is necessary for subconscious recollection and the familiarity to recognise where the technical solution (game action) can be applied which helps in quicker decision making. The emphasis and work done on the stabilisation of technique is highlighted in the older age groups when players must learn to deal with psychological pressure that affects the heart-rate and the ability to think and act clearly in a high-paced game is what counts at the highest level.

For the exceptionally individual players who are the heartbeat of the club the coaches must design the training program to address position specific competencies (individual tactics and functional techniques) that a player must execute consistently in performance and relentlessly address what is lacking. The aim for the best individuals is to develop the technical, tactical and psychological tools that will enable them to constantly progress through the academy.

In this regard the players are not forbidden from seeking extra training outside of the program provided by Dinamo in a bit to get ahead or catch up. Players are, however, expected to inform the coaches and allow the club to establish contact with the people who are providing additional services and look for ways to best integrate with the program.

There is high value placed on supplementary training for groups and individuals through specialised skill coaches that have been appointed by the club to deliver sessions once a week or once every two weeks to target the individual needs of players.

On the point of high tech, new age technology and infrastructure, Romeo’s advise was, “All new things must be judged on their ability to deliver the best outcome and then compare the costs financially with foresight of the adjustment period and challenges for the change. Don’t fix it if it’s not broken. One must establish where to draw the line and make the changes within the system towards improving the system before sourcing external interventions.”

The quality of coaches that run the program

Romeo Jozak as the Academy Director placed a lot of value in getting to know the people who are recruited as coaches to place them in the age groups where they will most be effective.

“The social and communication skills of a coach are as important if not more important than football knowledge, which after a point level off. The communication skills are what translates game understanding into coaching ability and a Dinamo coach should have the ability to articulate and express themselves clearly and effectively if they want to be successful. Our coaches are expected to be well versed in the development of technique and implementation of tactics as it will always be among the first point of reference in their influence over training and competition. But it is their ability to manage the groups with a genuine personality that can connect with that will be more than anything a coaching licence can indicate.”

The coaches have the freedom to modify the curriculum guidelines to the needs of their group. It is understood by the technical leadership that the training sessions and the activities cannot be imposed and that each age group has different aspects to address.

Further to the flexibility allowed in adapting the program the coaches are also expected to make the necessary changes to the progressions and complexity involved within the sessions and training activities. The coaches ‘sense’ or ‘feel’ for the sessions as it unfolds, is tested in setting the appropriate level of expectations, complexity or difficulty the players experience. Sacrificing certain aspects of the session’s progressions and staying where the session needs more attention is a call that coaches must take.

Personality traits like a clear willingness to learn, an ability to handle criticism from players, players and colleagues are a big part of the mental skill sets needed for someone working with highly talented players. It is here that the selection of coaches is very carefully scrutinised, and the academy at the time of my visit only had 4 out of 30 coaches who were ex-professionals for Dinamo, which is a relatively low number compared to most clubs.

In the ECA Report on Club Academies Jozak lays down the emphasis on identifying the right people for the club. “A lot of credit must go to the coaches, but we have also shown a good eye for recognising talent – we can’t afford to miss any talented players. A couple of years ago, our academy was recognised as one of the best six youth schools in Europe, along with the likes of Barcelona, Inter, Arsenal and Sporting. We work with a budget of around €1m a year, while the other clubs have up to €8m to spend.“

Placing the right personality in the appropriate age groups was described by broad personality traits such as:

ANIMATORS
Coaches with the ability to inspire, demonstrate and stimulate the interest of the youngest age groups and keep them engaged and interested.

TEACHERS/METHODOLOGISTS
In the older age groups who understand how to craft the use of technique and decision making beyond the basic levels into refinement and specialisations in positions.

COMPETITORS
Understand how to manage competitive pressure and development and get players to fight for points and prepare them for the final phase of the pathway.

“Managing the pressure on winning” is one of the biggest parts of the job of manging the academy at this club according to Ivan.

Dinamo, quite naturally, invites pressure from all fronts of influence on winning at the youngest age groups. It is here where the management, Ivan included, assess the performance and have placed a policy to not attack the coach when they lose.

That said, coaches do not escape criticism when they win everything and fail to contribute to the growth and potential of the players. It is here that the process, the approach and thinking of the coach is scrutinised and is urged and influenced to think in a different way.

There is always a tendency for the coaches to think one game at a time while the role of the Academy Director is to think about the development of individuals with the highest potential 5-6 years down the line.

It all narrows down to one question. For the survival of this club is it necessary to win matches or develop players?

The standard of players being brought in

Dinamo is restricted to the 700,000-strong Zagreb population and their youngest age groups (7 and below) are sourced from various local schools, clubs that compete in the local and regional leagues. Many of these clubs have been earmarked for their track record in feeding Dinamo over the years with high potential youngsters and for the quality of programs that they operate.

It is vital to note that like most advanced football nations in the world, the players at elite academies very likely have had 4-6 years of football at a local/community team that play all through the year during which time they come under the radar of the professional academies. A point that Tom Byer elaborates on in his book ”Football Begins at Home”and Gabrielle Marcotti mentions in his article on the myths that surround talent development when it comes to the biggest club academies that operate in advanced football nations.

Tom Byer in a recent conversation elaborated “Well, I understand better now why Football Starting at Home is so important after filming a 11-part Series for a World Cup broadcaster in Australia. All the players I selected, we researched on them and found two things. Very early engagement and the role parents played. Messi, Ronaldo, Neymar, Suarez, Modric, Pogba, Hazard, etc.”

“When kids start playing at home they are in a very safe protected environment under no pressure. Learning is always influenced by emotion. Doing the same thing over and over again is like making a deposit in the brain (bank), that can be withdrawn at any time. Players then use these skills in an automated unconscious way. Then these kids have the tools that create that freewill where they believe they own their time and fun. The most difficult part has been done by the time they reach the finishing schools, i.e., the professional academies. Then they can develop all the spatial awareness, screening & scanning, etc. It’s not the other way around.”

Croatia has a very strong culture of early game introduction and multi-sport structure that accommodates an annual engagement of 10 months of football by the age of 4 and 5. It is in these environments that innate and acquired skills/abilities are realized week in and week out for the best club academies to take their pick.

The usual (not widespread) perspective that is developed is that the players learn to play the game from scratch at this level and the fact that they are handpicked out of thousands of kids aged 6, 7, 8 and 9 for an elite pathway is often missed in these narratives. An immense amount of individual ability or potential is built in these phases and is given the guidance, opportunities and pathway to the highest level of the game.

This early selection does not necessarily guarantee continuity, once the country opens up beyond the boundaries of Zagreb to bring in the best players where historically about 13% last the journey from U8 to U19 and more than 34% from U11 to U19. These numbers would be a norm in most academies.

Dinamo has a great respect for the smaller clubs that do the right things at the earliest age groups in addressing standards that are later identified and recruited by Dinamo.

This respect originated from a common ongoing trend where players from other regions/clubs of the country constantly meet the level of Dinamo at mid-teen age groups despite their financial-restrictions due to the quality of coaching and competitive structure that is uniform across the country in the early age groups.

Ivan further clarifies “Any player from outside of Zagreb or even within must be better than the top players that have been in the system for longer and most of the players that have been recruited in their mid-teens or later have shown an exceptional potential to grow into professionals.”

He had also observed that the parent’s and player’s decision to relocate or change clubs are far more certain at an older age as they have a clear understanding of the commitment and demands of making it to the next level which is a big indicator in ensuring that the players enter into the system the right mentality and approach.

For a club with their track record, it was surprising that they did not operate a scouting network and relied more on their personal network to raise an alert when a talent is found. The local competitions at the youngest age groups and regional and national tournaments in the older age groups allow the coaches to keep an eye out for players that can be brought in.

The matches too serve as a great source to identify players as being a big club often means that you’re the club that everyone wants to beat to get the attention of the coaching staff. This is a big motivating factor into the sort of performances that players exhibit when they play against Dinamo. Dinamo’s hold on the best youngsters has also triggered player representation at increasingly younger ages all over the country and the representatives often know who to call to get their players a consideration.

The challenge in the future will be to consistently hit 20 million Euros worth of transfers and further stabilise the first team operations with reliance on what is coming through the youth ranks. This is in process by constantly increasing the benchmarks for graduates of the academy system to achieve beyond the first team and improve the academy brand and reputation through an ever-higher standard of player exports.

Ivan sums it up, “The thumb rule under the current circumstances has been to refer to global benchmarks and study how the game has changed to direct their program’s evolution. There are many variables in improving individual functional technique through the detection of abilities need to play at the highest level and working backwards to address them in the program remains strength of the program and the people who deliver it.”

Richard Hood is the Head of Youth Development at the All India Football Federation.

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