Can Winning be a part of Player Development?

barcaYes!  It has to because soccer is a competitive sport.  When I say “competitive” I mean at the end of the match, there is a usually a winner and a loser.  This topic has intrigued me for a while.  At the same time, there are several sources that I have quoted here that have stated that our emphasis in youth games is a detriment to development.  The problem is that if you take an 8 year old with a team of 8 year olds, if you emphasize winning you will do things as a coach that neutralizes development.  It could include position specialization.  It could include too much emphasis on tactics.  Too much pressure on results leads to less experimentation, creativity, allowances for mistakes, etc.  As I was reading Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, by Graham Hunter, he includes some information about the concept of quality competition in development that is interesting.  In Chapter 9, Breeding Ground, he includes quotes from Xavi and others directly on point.

Pep Guardiola states in Albert Puig’s (Technical Secretary of the Youth Program at Camp Nou) book La Fuerza de Un Sueno,

Winning is not incompatible with a good early  training. On the contrary, good early training means that youngsters develop into players who win, but who win the right way.  They respect their opponents, behave at all times as representatives of the club, accept that there is someone in charge, have tactical discipline and work hard at training. That is the way to win. (Hunter, 342)

Sometimes in our “player development model” we forget that soccer is a competition – the ultimate objective is to win.  We need to make sure, in our effort to stem the tide of over-coaching at young ages that we do not swap sides of the continuum — kids need to understand that their objective, however they are placed, is to win.  Xavi stated:

Before you become a professional you need to learn and develop, but without losing your competitive edge. In Barca, we all understand that. Development is a priority. The young lads learn footballing concepts and understand why we do things in a certain way whilst maintaining their competitive spirit, their desire to win.  It’s good to express anger you feel when you lose. In the futbol base the priority is training and development, but the objective is to win. (with emphasis)(Hunter, p. 342)

So, how can we structure academies and the like to reconcile development with winning?  To be sure, players need to be challenged at their level to grow.  Last Spring, we resolved this problem with a small group of U10 academy boys by removing all teams but still having games every saturday.  Each game was on an official field, with an official refereeing.  Uniforms were worn.  Each Saturday, the small group of boys reported to their field to play a game — they played against the same small group of kids each week — these were kids within a small development grouping so the balance on the field was always good.  But, they had different teammates each week.  The reason we opted for this method was that the boys that were in the Academy were more advanced than the players their age in the area.   Having them play each other each week solved the problem of ability-based competition.  At the end of each game, there was a winning team and a losing team.  The boys knew that.  The competition during the game was intense.

At the same time, no standings were kept.  Since we had no defined teams, standings would have been meaningless and administratively infeasible.  In other words, we preserved all aspects of a competitive game:  the field, the uniforms, the teams, the referee, the length of the game.  The only thing we tossed was standings.  Was this a success?  To me, it was a tremendous success and a great deal for the boys.  In the prior fall, they had to play up into a level above them, at a competitive level (Division 2).  Even then, they won the bracket but regularly were playing boys older and bigger than them.  In this Spring Academy, they were able to compete against people at their age AND ability.  And, since we only had 12-14 boys each week, we played 6v6 which meant a smaller field and more ball touches — another plus for the boys.

How did the parents receive this?  I must say, at first there were some questions.   Over time, I would like to think that the parents appreciated what we were doing and the benefits of it.   The atmosphere of the game, while competitive, was also congenial.  The parents were all excited for the success of any of the boys, even if the player was against them on the day.  That was another plus.

Soccer is a competitive sport.  While we need to focus on development in the early ages, it is important that the players still realize that soccer is a competition — one in which there will be a winner and a loser (usually).  To highlight the balance, Hunter provides this great quote from Mazinho, Brazilian world champion and father of Thiago and Rafinha.  The boys’ 5 a side coach routinely told them that the most important thing they did was “to participate.”  He corrected the coach:  “You are mistaken. The most important thing for any of them to do is to compete.”  (with emphasis)(Hunter, 344).   You can structure opportunities to compete while allowing for player growth.

Champions League Match Day 5 Primer

Today is the last leg of Match Day 5.  With only 1 Match Day left, several teams are scrambling to qualify for the knockout round.  Two teams from each group move on to a home and away aggregate scoring knockout competition.  Yesterday, half of the games were played with tthe remaining being played now.  Here is a summary of where things sit as of now:

Group A

With all teams in action today, Porto and PSG have all but wrapped up qualification to the knockout.  Porto is good with 10 and PSG needs at least one point to get to 10.  While Kyiv can get to 10, it won’t happen.

Group B

With all teams in action today, qualification is a three horse race between Schalke (8), Arsenal (7), and Olympiacos (6).  If Shalke gets a result today at home against Olympiacos and Arsenal hosting Montpelier, they both should move on.  Those games are on today.  At halftime, Arsenal is tied 0-0 with Montpelier and Schalke and Olympiacos are tied 0-0.

Group C

Malaga is surprising all as they have already qualified for the knockout.  With financial problems looming over their team, rumors of an inability to meet payroll, firesale of players, including the star Santi Cazorla to Arsenal, who would have thought they would be this consistent?  Milan (5) is playing at Anderlecht (4) today with the winner gaining some separation for the final spot.  In Matchday 6, Malaga hosts Anderlecht with nothing to gain.  Anderlecht may benefit by playing against a weak Malaga team.  On the other hand, Milan will host Zenit in a key match.  Whoever gets the points today in the Milan – Anderlecht match will have the edge.  Milan, of course, lacks some punch without Zlatan and Thiago, but still have plenty of talent to mix it up.

Milan and Anderlecht are tied at half.


This has been the best group to watch.  If you have a chance, Man City is hosting Real Madrid today.  It is more than likely that Man City will fail to qualify.  Failing to get a result against Real Madrid will seal their fate.  On the other hand, the Group Leader (and favorite to finish on top), Borussia Dortmund are finally having some European success after years of consistency in the Bundesliga.  Jurgen Klopp’s team is the only team to have defeated FC Hollywood (Bayern Munich) 5 straight times.  My hope, Dortmund and Ajax move on with the whiners, Mourinho and Mancini left weeping.

Dortmund is rolling Ajax 3-0 at half and Real Madrid is up 1-0 at half.

Group E

Will the remaining Champions fail to qualify?  Doubtful but possible.  They are currently sitting at 7 and will host the Norwegian Champs in MD 6.  On the other hand, Juventus is smarting from its poor form early as they may be playing the best soccer of the group.  Their dismantling of Chelsea yesterday (3-0) with a 3-5-2 formation cost Matteo his job.  Juventus will need something in its game in the Ukraine as Shakhtar are moving on.  My prediction, Chelsea squeaks through again.  Will they get Pep?

Group F

Bayern Munich and Valencia are through with 10 each — the only issue is seeding.  While I picked Bayern to win it all, it must be said that they have not been the most impressive team from Germany.

Group G

Barcelona are through with 12 points even after losing to Celtic.  The last spot is between Benfica and Celtic, both tied after 5 games with 7 points.  All things being equal, Benfica goes through as the winner of the H2H as they defeated Celtic yesterday.  On the plus side for Celtic, they host bottom dweller Spartak in MD6 while Benfica travels to the Camp Nou to play Barca.  Edge – Celtic.

Group H

After 5 games, Manchester United is through with 12 points.  Cluj and Galatasaray are tied with 7 each.  While Man U is struggling of late, losing to Norwich City in the EPL and Galatasaray yesterday, they host Cluj in MD6 and while Galatasaray travel to Braga.  Depending on the squad that Man U sends out, it seems the advantage to move on goes to Galatasaray.  All things being equal, they hold the H2H over Cluj too.

Games are at halftime today.  Check in and watch!  And, Happy Thanksgiving!

Follow us on twitter: @soccerthought

An Inside Look at Barcelona’s Youth Training System

La Masia

From the book, Barca: The Making of the Greatest Team in the World, Chapter 9 “The Breeding Ground” by Graham Hunter

I have been reading this book and, while the entire book is wonderful, Chapter 9 is brilliant for my interests.  Hunter gets inside La Masia and details what kind of player they look for, at what age, and how they teach the Barca way.  I am including some excerpts here.

“Barca’s youth academy is nicknamed ‘La Masia’ because the old stone farmhouse building next to Camp Nou is where the talented kids who needed a residence in order to train with Barcelona have stayed since 1979.”  Barca have teams from 7 year old all the way to the top squad.  If you are in the system, you are referred to as a cantera.  While Barca look to find Catalan players and talented players worldwide at ages 7-8. they also recruit talented 16-19 year olds too.  Here are some of the things that they look for:

1)  Kids who love to have the ball at their feet (size is not as important as a love of the ball).

2)  How is the first touch?  This is of paramount importance.

3)  Can he retain possession?

4)  Can a winger play with either foot?

5)  How quickly can he read situations and how is his decision-making under pressure?

6)  Does he press when his team does not have the ball?

7)  Does a center back have the technical ability to start attacks?  Can he dribble out of the back?

(Hunter, page 328)

“If a kid gets into the futbol base system at Barcelona around the age of 10 and makes his debut for the first team aged 20, he should have amassed something upwards of 2300 training sessions. Vast chunks of those 3070 hours will be spent on routines which train possession retention. . . At many clubs, the youth training will start with the physical, the development of power and stamina, followed by the tactical and then the technical. At Barcelona, it is quite the reverse. Almost everything will focus on technique to start with, tactics follow soon after. Only at 15 or 16 will there be increased emphasis on physique, stamina, and power.”  (Hunter, 333)

Hunter quotes Xavi:  “We are always looking to out-number our opponents, two against one, so if Puyol is on his own with the ball, I’ll say ‘Bring it up, bring it up!’ He’ll bring it up to the point where the guy marking me is forced to break away and press him, so now we have two of us against one and I’ll shout, ‘Puyi! Puyi! Puyi!”  (Hunter, 335) I love this because of how he describes combo play – it is a math problem.  If there is only 1 defender, then 2v1.  If there are 2 defenders, then Barca need more players in close proximity to outnumber the defenders in the space.  So often, in soccer over here, when your teammate has the ball, everyone runs away from him whether he is under pressure or not.  I hate seeing that.  If your teammate is in trouble, go to him!

Xavi again:  “In Barcelona there are many concepts we discuss at training sessions. ‘Keep your head up’ is one. The ball is at your feet, but you need to keep your head high. If not, you’re watching the game. Another saying is ‘look before you receive the ball.’ That’s a really important one for shaping your stance to control first time and then knowing what move you have to make to release the ball quickly to the next guy.” (Hunter, 338-39)

These are just a few of the wonderful excerpts from Hunter.  There is also some great dialogue on the difference or similarity between competitiveness and winning.  We will cover that next time.