The following article is based on a study done by the ECA (European Club Association) in 2012. The study and its findings can be found in a report called “Report on Youth Academies in Europe”.
In recent years, we have seen a greater reliance on academies across Europe. Due to numerous home-grown quotas coming into place within European and domestic leagues, the ability to bring through talent from your own soil from a young age has become a key feature in many dominant European teams such as Bayern Munich and Barcelona, along with the traditionally active academies such as Ajax.
Arsenal are known for bringing through young talent (although not always English), so how does their academy fair in terms of operation compared to other European super-clubs such as Ajax (Netherlands), Barcelona (Spain), Bayern Munich (Germany) and Internazionale (Italy).
Arsenal spends approximately £3m a year on their academy which has two separate training facilities. Firstly there is Hale End which houses the players aged 8-16, and the more famous London Colney which houses the players 16+ as well as the first team players. Hale End possesses 7 fields, whereas London Colney has 11 fields, 3 of which are only used by manager, Arsene Wenger. London Colney is separated into 3 areas, one for the U17 and U18s team, one for the reserve team and finally one for the senior team. The pitches that are located at each training ground are of the highest quality, and there are artificial indoor pitches which are used in case of bad weather.
Ajax on the other hand spend approximately £6m a year on their academy, however have only recently taken a major step in creating a state-of-the-art indoor “dome” which houses an artificial grass pitch as well as various scientific instruments. There are a total of 8 pitches (4 grass, 4 artificial) and the atmosphere around the training areas are said to be quite relaxed, with many areas available to the public to view (aside from the indoor pitch and first team training area).
Barcelona spend approximately £10m a year on their famous “La Masia” school of football, in houses 8 pitches in total (5 natural grass pitches and 3 artificial turf). La Masia acts as a boarding school for the young Barcelona players, who live, are educated and trained within these facilities. La Masia is located a few kilometres away from the Camp Nou. They have an interesting relationship with the Samuel Eto’o foundation, which allows Barcelona to take on the best players coming from Cameroon.
Bayern Munich have taken great steps in recent years in order to bring players through who identify with the club. Bayern spend approximately £3m a year on their academy and possesses 5 pitches in total (4 grass and 1 artificial). Like La Masia, it has living facilities for young players and once they come of a certain age, they are then move to “club-provided external accommodation”.
Internazionale (Inter Milan) spend approximately £6m a year on their academy, they have 6 development centres which allow for a greater catchment area in and around Milan, but are all based on the main training complex, the Centro Sportivo G. Facchetti and this houses 8 pitches in total. Interestingly, the time allocated to physical education in Italian schools is only 1.5 hours per week, therefore the players “have to train in a manner allowing them to catch up with this deficiency. Sports education is not well supported in the state education system and infrastructure in Italy remains in a poor condition.
There is a pyramid methodology which Arsenal use, which reaches the top at the U18s. Each age category consists of 20-25 players; three age categories from U19s-U21s have only 20 players. At this stage, Arsenal only works with carefully selected, top-quality players which will benefit from the full services from coaching, physiotherapy, reconditioning and education. Between the ages of 9 and 16, the development of each player is carefully progressed. The matches are all friendlies; the U12s begin to play 11-a-side (various smaller match ups prior to this age group). The U17s-U21s are where things get a lot more intense. The age groups up to the U21s begin playing in much more competitive environments are prepped on having a professional footballing career. The U21s are the reserve team and usually play in the League Cup in order to gain valuable first-team experiences.
Ajax are much more innovative and “unorthodox” in their technical approach. They don’t have the usual system in which a Head of Academy would oversee the setup and the various age groups, but rather have broken up the academy into 5 sections called “wheels”, each with their own “technical manager”. The “wheels” are wheel Onderbouw (7-12), wheel Middenbouw (13-16), wheel Bovenbouw (17-20), wheel Operations (administrative work) and wheel Technical Management (consists of the three technical managers and a liaison between the senior team and the academy). The Ajax academy progressively takes the players through their technique, physique, tactical and social developments, they have an ideology that although traditional academies have a trainer who trains a group of players, they believe in an idea that a group of trainers trains an individual player. Ajax keeps a record of every player that is admitted into the academy, the way they have an “elimination” procedure in which at the start of each season; the players are given a status. Some players are told they are safe, and others are told they are in danger of going home at the end of the season; this method is used to toughen up the players and distinguish who is capable of playing at international level in the future, or who is just merely talented. The aim of Ajax’s academy is to promote players but then sell them on for a big fee; this is because they need a consistent source of income in order to keep running the club, as well as the ever increasing competitive salaries of the first team players.
Barcelona have two mirroring structures, they are called formation football and professional football. The formation includes the earliest age group up to the U18s, whereas the professional football includes the U19s, the B Team and the senior team. Unlike Arsenal, competition sets in early with all age groups up to U12s taking part in local leagues, whilst U13s begin playing 11-a-side in regional and national competitions. All players are encourages to go into further education, including university level. From the youngest age group, Barcelona have a concept that each individual player could be a future first team regular, therefore each player is given as much care and attention as any of the first team players. Barcelona train with physical preparation considered a secondary importance. Technique and imagination are considered the most important facets of a player and all players are trained to image the best solution on the pitch and have the technique and ability to implement it.
Bayern Munich place much more emphasis on age groups and allowing deserved progression through each group. They have a multi-layered structure going from the A1 team (the oldest team) to B1, B2, C1, C2, D1, D2, E1, E2, F1 and F2 teams, the F2 team is the youngest team which is 7-8 years old). Players must be able to commute to all training facilities as it is seen as a test of desire and strength. Thomas Muller is seen as the example in the academy as he progressed from F2 to A1 from the age of 10. Bayern Munich are quite ruthless in their approach to undeveloped talents, other academies will keep them on (even if they know the player in question will not make it) simply to use him as a body when they can focus on the more gifted player. At Bayern Munich however, if a player is seen as not good enough then they are discarded in order to free up a place for a more talented individual. Each player within all age groups are considered to be potential first team players as long as they continue their development and remain professional and true to the Bayern Munich identity.
Inter Milan adopt a staged structure to which players will filter through and adopt different sorts of training at each stage. Between the ages of 8 and 14 the primary focus is the individual. Technique, psychology and fitness are the key components of training and off-field learning and then they go to the next stage at 14. Between 14 and 19 the players are taught more specific to their position, and then they go the final stage which is the Primavera. Players who reach this stage will likely sign a professional contract with the club or another Italian team, Inter Milan tend to trade multiple youth products in order to acquire a player for the senior team. The intent of the Primavera is to “create” players that can be used at Inter Milan or be transferred to another club.
Coaching and Training Sessions
The coaching setup at Arsenal is quite flexible in some aspects and more disciplined in others. All teams underneath the first team are asked to play a 4-3-3/4-2-3-1 formation to mirror the system used by the senior team. Arsenal have 18 coaches working within the academy and each is responsible for the training content, this is different to other setups across Europe where the coaches are dictated to them what the session content should be. Again, unlike other clubs in Europe, Arsenal start implementing tactical work quite late on, at the age of 14, before then the players are built in other areas such as mentality, social adaptation/education, technique and overall ability. Players from 15 and upwards are told to work twice a week with weights and from 17 and upwards they are to train every day. Liam Brady is the Head of Academy at Arsenal and oversees the running of it; he regularly consults with the coaches and discusses developments and strategies. During the international breaks, Arsene Wenger will personally take charge of coaching the youth teams.
Ajax is a little more structured in terms of their coaching behaviours with their young players. This is because the club have a long standing, unwavering philosophy to which every player and coach must adhere to. Ajax have 13 coaches within their academy and are all told to implement a 4-3-3 formation all the way through each team, unlike Arsenal, the Ajax coaches are dictated a little more to them what the session content should be. However, the coaches are allowed a little freedom because they have a substantial influence in the development of the players. Ajax believes that young players should not over-train, therefore up till the age of 12, the players only train 3 times a week, and 4 times a week after the age of 13. They do this because they feel the players all should spend time with their friends, families and have time away from football. In terms of working with weights, Ajax doesn’t feel it is mandatory and set a rule that it should only be for 30 minutes a day maximum. They actively encourage the players to play on the streets with their friends because in this environment there are no coaches telling them what to do, they are free and it’s that freedom that Ajax want the players to have when playing.
Barcelona runs fairly similarly to Ajax in terms of their coaching philosophy and discipline. Each of the 36 coaches are told to implement the 4-3-3 system which the senior team plays, and must abide by the mantra that whilst you have the ball, the opponent cannot score. Tactical work with the players starts at the age of 8 and don’t allow the players to work with weights until the age of 17. Unlike other clubs, the youth coaches do not need to have vast experienced playing at the top level, but rather have an understanding of the club’s identity and knowledge on developing young talent. Familiar to Ajax, Barcelona do not over-train their players, ages 13 and under train 3 times a week and 14+ train 4 times a week.
Bayern Munich is much more different to the previous clubs discussed. Discipline and structure are the key elements not only in their coaching behaviour but also in the playing style. Bayern have 26 coaches working and although they are permitted to decide specific exercises, the board have parameters in place that the teams should all play a 4-4-2 formation. Possession is used as a tool to attack and defend but the players rarely improvise, rather look to keep an attacking structure and keep a safe balance. Tactical work starts at 11 but doesn’t increase dramatically until the age of 16. Between the ages of 7-11 the players work on ball work and co-ordination, then speed and focus on individual skill is implemented between the ages of 12-15, then from 16-19 there is more attention to group tactics and fitness. Players are only permitted to work with weights from the ages of 16+ but only with their own body weight. In terms of coaching qualifications, the younger age groups (U8-U12s) are mostly sports students or those with a teaching background and at least UEFA B licenced coaches, however from U13s upwards, UEFA Pro licence is required and are mostly ex-players or have significant experience in youth development.
Inter Milan are arguably the least structured out of all the case studies. They have 11 coaches, each of whom has an assistant + 2 goalkeeping coaches. Even though each coach will have their own philosophy, the club see the players are property of the club and not the coaches so therefore the coaches must abide by the parameters set by the board. Each youth team have two coaches, and the fitness and goalkeeping coaches are shared amongst the teams. The system that is implemented must have 4 defenders, from there it is choice between 4-4-2, 4-3-3 or 4-5-1. Each coach Inter employ have be of a high calibre and be able to implement the instructions given by the hierarchy. Players work on tactics from the age of 8 but only from the individual standpoint, from 13 they are then taught team tactics. Once they reach the age of 16, they are allowed to work with weights, and have an opposite approach to Ajax in terms of the amount of training players do during the week. Up to the age of 13, the players train 4 times a week and then 5 times a week till the age of 17. When Mourinho was in charge of Inter Milan, he created the “19+4” rule which meant he wanted 19 world class players in the squad plus 4 from the academy. From then on, the academy was asked to produce 4 players every season that were good enough for the senior team.
In the youth categories, all the Arsenal players live in London and have a normal school curriculum till the age of 16, from then there is an adjustment which they are taken through a special programme designed by the government (which is the equivalent to 2 A levels). The focus of education at Arsenal is language (English), life skills (finance, media, social media, social behaviour/attitude to training), subjects related to sports science and coaching qualifications (levels 2 + 3) so should they not make it as a professional footballer, they still have other avenues to pursue as a career.
Ajax does not have a boarding school like Barcelona do, and some journeys can take as long as 1.5 hours. The education system is fairly straight forward and mimics the domestic schooling system up until the age of 16 where player evaluations begin. All costs aside from insurance are covered by the club.
At Barcelona, players who live in La Masia are schooled there, however if the players do not then they attend a public school and arrange themselves to meet for training later. School usually finishes at 5:00pm and training starts at 7:00pm till 8:30pm.
Bayern Munich has a very strict regimental approach to education. They employ 6 teachers who school and monitor each of the players and should the players not be achieving the required grades then they are not allowed to play or train.
Inter Milan, although give the players and their families the choice of which school to go to, monitor the behaviour of each individual player. If they are informed that the player is misbehaving in school then sanctions are put in place whereby the player may not be able to attend matches.
Arsenal’s catchment area in 50kms around London and then proceed to look worldwide. Due to the competition they face from the vast number of other London clubs, as well as other legal issues, Arsenal first look through the London area for the best young talent and if they cannot be acquired, they will actively seek out talent across the world through a range of highly experienced scouts. Arsenal has an extensive scouting network and many of their scouts live in the area they are working in. Only 5% of the players within the academy are from abroad.
Ajax allow players to fill in applications to join the academy and are then tested during a “talent day”, however the more usual method of recruitment is used through scouting. They have 50 scouts in total (4 are professional, the rest are volunteers) across the Netherlands and in specific regions in the world. Their zone of recruitment is also 50k around Amsterdam, but has made use of their feeder club in South Africa, Ajax Cape Town, where a lot of the best young African talent usually gravitate to. 95% of the players within the academy are Dutch, however of those, 50% of those do not have Dutch origins.
Barcelona use their “region” of Catalonia as well as Andalucía to recruit the best young players to La Masia, they have 25 scouts in total and thorough scouting takes place before Barcelona look to sign up a particular individual. Barcelona use schools and clubs around the area for scouting help and in return provide financial gain and advice. 70% of the players in the academy are from Catalonia, 20% are Spanish and 10% are foreign.
Bayern are far more innovative with their recruitment strategies. Until the age of 15, they look to recruit players who are only 2/3 hours away from the club, however Bayern hold annual “talent days” where players from all over Bavaria come and “trial” with the club in a semi-competitive environment. There is no trophy and the coaches look to see the players playing in a stress-free environment, each year there are around 500 players that attend. 90% of the players in the academy are from Bavaria, 5% are from other parts of Germany and 5% are foreign.
Inter Milan actively look across Central Europe to acquire talented players, and is specific zones around Italy such as Milan and Lombardia. They have 37 scouts in total but the head scout, Pierluigi Casiraghi is responsible for overseeing recruitment and regularly communicates with the senior coaches. 95% of the players in the academy are Italian.
With the ever increasing reliance on academies to produce players (whether it be for the benefit of the first team directly or to finance the first team through transfers) it has become a significant part of football development. Many of the elite clbs across Europe use their academies to statisfy the home-grown rules that are either implemented domestically or abroad. Clubs such as Ajax, Bayern and Barcelona have long standing ideologies and identities that they wish to preserve through the development of young players, and clubs such as Arsenal have (since the arrival of Arsene Wenger) look to promote the best young players (regardless of nationality) through to the first team, however in recent season there has been more focus on bringing through players of British origin.
Arsenal’s academy in general has not been as productive as the other case studies, but in terms of coaching, facilities and education it is arguable that it is one of the finest in Europe. Within the coming years, with the changes happening in England to focus on more technically gifted players, Arsenal will be sure to be at the forefront of acquiring and developing those players who will not only be of benefit to the club, but the national team as well.
Written by Zaheer Shah
Follow me on Twitter! @ZazooFootball
All information within this article was collected from the ECA document “Report on Youth Academies in Europe”.
Photo of Alex Iwobi by Kieran Clarke