Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Building an Academy's reputation

Your club’s youth academy is poor? It hasn’t produced a useful player in years? You want to fix it? Just pretend it’s good.

Say you and I go to a pub. We have a few drinks and we start talking about football. Football talk being what it is, there is nothing more exciting than talking about the stars of tomorrow. It is not interesting to you and me that Messi is the best player in the world. We know he is, talking about it bores us. Instead we start talking about quality youngsters. If I tell you there is a talented young player and he comes from Boca Juniors’ academy you will ask if he is anything like Riquelme, Tevez or Gago. If I tell you a player comes from Barcelona’s academy you will ask if he is the new Messi, Iniesta, Xavi or Bojan. If I tell you a player comes from Liverpool’s academy you will instantly dismiss him.

Building a youth academy’s reputation is vital and probably the most important part of developing a well functioning factory of footballers. When the car you’re driving is produced in a proven, well respected factory, a BMW perhaps, you automatically assume its quality. It is the same with football academies. At a club like Barcelona, Sporting or Boca there is a lot of excitement about any young prospect that is around the first team squad because of their recent young players.

Young players are being dismissed on the basis of a lack of good players coming out of the academy in the past 10 years. People are automatically assuming that the new young player is not very good because the young players before him weren’t good either. One player making it opens the door for another player. Two players making it opens the door for the third player. By the time the fourth player is about to get the chance the doors are wide open and he is already being given the benefit of the doubt and he automatically brings excitement without people knowing how good a player he actually is.

It’s an evil circle though. You won’t give the benefit of the doubt to a player coming from an unsuccessful academy but you can’t change the reputation of the academy without one or two players showing that the academy works.

In the long run, for the benefit of the academy, it might be a good idea to give a couple of players a genuine chance to establish themselves in the squad. Use them as rabbits in a long distance race. They may not turn out to be great players a couple of years from now but it may reverse the trend at a failing academy. They may show other young, perhaps more talented players, that it is possible to make it. Just one successful young player can make all the difference. Just look at Mario Ballotelli at Inter. A club that hasn’t been famous in a long time for having a good youth setup gave a debut to Balotelli two years ago. The excitement builds up and by the time Santon emerged everybody at Inter were excited about him. “Wait, did he come from the same youth team as Balotelli? He must be quite good then”. Indeed he was, but he also entered the scene with full backing from the fans and pundits.

Usually one or two young players making it at a club invites a flood of other players emerging. Examples of this are the Liverpool youth teams in early to mid 1990’s, West Ham’s successful youth teams, Barcelona’s long run of success in this department etc. Man Utd’s case is rather interesting as well. After producing the likes of Beckham, Scholes, Giggs and the Neville brothers in pretty much one go, Man Utd saw the emergence of Wes Brown and John O’Shea, which in turn inspired the emergence of Jonny Evans. Now, you can’t tell me that players such as Brown, O’Shea and Evans would have ever made it had they not been a part of a previously successful academy. You can’t tell me that there is not a defender or two at a “failed” academy, like Liverpool’s, as good as those 3 Man Utd players were at the same age. So what’s going on? Why do O’Shea and Evans get the benefit of the doubt but not one young Liverpool defender does? Could it be that Alex Ferguson, having previously seen what his academy can produce, is more inclined to give a young player a break than Rafa Benitez, who doesn’t have any precedent of his youth system churning out a good, young player?

Sometimes it’s not even about making the young players feel more confident about their chances of making the first team. Sometimes it’s about the supporters instead. Building a feeling among them that when a young player is about to get the chance that he might actually be quite good and not instantly dismissed. It’s about giving supporters a few previous “positive cases” which gives them confidence for future youngsters coming through. This positive climate, in turn, gives the emerging youngster a far more comfortable platform to perform. While the pressure of being the next big thing might be a heavy burden for a youngster, at the same time all of them want to be recognised and portrayed as extraordinary talented players. Even when their talent doesn’t warrant it.

A lot of fans around Europe are crying for their club’s youth system to produce a home grown player good enough to play for the first team. They’re asking how a system that employs so many coaches and spends so much money can’t produce a player once in a while. With every barren year the confidence in the academy fails and it automatically belittles the whole organization. Hence the product that comes out of it is belittled as well, long before it’s actually assessed. Heck, sometimes it doesn’t even get the chance to be assessed because it’s either automatically dismissed or dismissed very quickly.

Having great coaches is only a small part of having a successful academy. A club can pick and choose the coaches for its academy but they’re not likely to create a much different outcome on that account. If this was the case then every club would just send a few people to copy everything a successful youth system does and that would be it. Job done. If that was the case then Ajax’s academy would produce top class players every year. Surely they’re not doing things differently on the training ground all of a sudden. Ajax is in fact a perfect example of the importance of having confidence in an academy. After many years of producing great players the club allowed the academy to ruin it’s reputation by dismissing the players that started emerging in the late 1990’s. A couple of years went by, Ajax started investing in older players from the outside and the reputation of the finest academy in the world kept declining. It has reached a point where nobody expects Ajax to produce a great player any time soon. This, at the most successful academy of all time? This, at Ajax’s academy?

Ajax let their momentum of producing young players expire and it is crucial that this doesn’t happen. There is nothing that benefits a line of any production as the momentum of successful production. Barcelona is an example of this. They give a player or two a chance every season. They come into the team with the full backing of everybody at Barcelona and they do well enough so that the next couple of players in line can get their chance the following season. Of course not every young player turns out to be the next world superstar. Some of them don’t even properly make it at Barcelona. However, they still do well enough and sometimes even better than their ability would suggest by riding the good feel of it all. This alone is worthy of another try and this is why young players are constantly being given a chance.

Building the reputation of a youth academy is a tricky project. Is it worth giving a few talented players the chance, which could harm the first team in the short run, in order to open doors for superior young players being given the benefit of the doubt in the future? You decide.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Sticking my neck out...

... as I predict the 2009/10 season.

La Liga predictions

Barcelona will start the season slowly and they will keep losing key players to injuries. In contrast, Real Madrid will start the season flying. However, by February the form of the two teams will even out. Villarreal will finish 3rd in the league with Atletico Madrid beating Valencia to the 4th place. Sevilla and Deportivo will struggle throughout the year while Espanyol enjoy their best season in a long time.

Sevilla’s manager Manolo Jimenez will lose his job a few months into the season and Juande Ramos will return to Sevilla. Manuel Pellegrini will be under pressure by the end of the season (see below) after a great start at Real Madrid.

Kaka will sustain an injury only a few weeks into the season and the injury will keep him out for two months. In contrast, Zlatan Ibrahimovic will suffer a knee injury and miss two months as well, but his injury will happen in November.

Player of the year in La Liga will be Raul. Zaragoza’s Ewerthon will be the unlikely hero in Spanish football. Villarreal’s defender Gonzalo Rodriguez will be a target for most big clubs in Europe next summer.

Seria A predictions

Juventus will play the most attractive football in Italy and still come up short. Inter will win the title. However, come the end of the season everybody will be talking about Juventus’ attacking brand of football and their exciting 4-3-3 formation. Ciro Ferrara will draw comparisons with both Fabio Capello and Pep Guardiola. Roma will struggle for results while Fiorentina will enjoy their best season in recent years.

Milan’s coach Leonardo will not be sacked despite serious criticism throughout the season. However, while Milan keep their faith in Leonardo the media will continue to link Genoa coach Gian Piero Gasperini with the job. Roma’s coach Luciano Spalletti will be sacked though and his replacement will either be Roberto Mancini (if available at the time) or Napoli’s former coach Edy Reja.

At Inter, Diego Milito will outscore and outperform Samuel Eto’o. At Roma, Francesco Totti will have a slow start but will bounce back and enjoy his last strong season in 2010. The unexpected star of Seria A will be Udinese’s Alexis Sanchez. By the time the season ends he will move to one of the big clubs and be labelled as the “new Cristiano Ronaldo”.

Player of the year in Seria A will be either Rafa Van Der Vaart or Wesley Sneijder, whichever one signs for Inter.

Premier League predictions

Chelsea, Liverpool, Tottenham, Sunderland and Aston Villa will have satisfactory seasons. Everton, Manchester City, Stoke and Wigan will struggle. Blackburn will finish in top half of the table whereas Bolton will fight relegation. West Ham will be the disappointment of the season in the Premier League.

In early 2010, Arsene Wenger will announce that he is leaving Arsenal at the end of the season. He will then be courted by either Real Madrid or Barcelona, depending on which team looks likely to end up 2nd in La Liga. Manchester City will fire Mark Hughes in February. The man to immediately take over will be Felipe Scolari.

Robin Van Persie will finish as top scorer in the Premier League with 23 league goals to his name. Pushing him for the throne will be Fernando Torres, Darren Bent and Jermaine Defoe. Didier Drogba will struggle for goals while James Beattie will end the season with 3 Premier League goals for Stoke, mainly due to injuries.

Wayne Rooney will sustain an injury at some point during 2010 which will sideline him for 6 weeks. His appearance at the World Cup will be doubtful. Other relatively seriously injured players will be William Gallas, Brede Hangeland and Javier Mascherano.

Player of the year in the Premier League will be Frank Lampard.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Most expensive party in the world

If you’re in doubt about who the biggest name in Spanish football is at the moment, let me enlighten you. It’s Zlatan Ibrahimovic. Actually, no it isn’t. It’s World Player of the Year 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo. Not quite. The biggest name in Spanish football at the moment is of course Mr Galactico and everybody’s favorite party uncle, Florentino Perez.

The Real Madrid president made his comeback on June 1st almost 3 and a half years after he left the club. And what a comeback it’s been. The power shopping began in Spain before the famous cheque book was flashed in Italy, England and France. None of it has been bargain shopping either as Florentino Perez does not enjoy buying anything on sale, let alone footballers. So far £220mil has been spent on new players and there could be more to come.

There is no doubt that Florentino Perez wants the very best players at Real Madrid and unlike last time around, he’s now spending all of the money available in one go. Already Spanish experts are lauding this Real Madrid group of players as the best ever. As debatable as that may be, just the fact that such discussion exists is exactly what Perez wants. Real Madrid has to be the biggest in all aspects and thus they must have the best players money can buy.

But what about the fact that Real Madrid have spent over £200mil on men chasing a football at a time of the worst financial crisis in recent history? At a time when regular people are barely allowed to enter banks, Perez has managed to borrow an outrageous sum of money from various Spanish financial institutions. On paper it is the club that’s actually borrowed the money, but in reality it’s Perez who has gathered the cash. When former Real Madrid president, Ramon Calderon, tried going to the bank he was gently turned down. When Perez did it they welcomed him with open arms.

Why does the world of finance respect Perez so much? Well for starters he is the president of ACS, which is one of Spain’s largest companies in its field and employs more than 100.000 workers. Then there is of course Perez’ name in football, which is synonymous with “spend a lot – have a lot to show for it” ideology. On top of that he’s a genuine man of his word and he always delivers on his promises.

While there is no question that football, and especially Real Madrid need Florentino, why does he need Real Madrid and this particular project? He is after all one of Spain’s most influential men, he’s rich, respected and he’s already experienced being the president of Real Madrid once. Why come back and take on an even bigger challenge? The people in the business world will tell you it’s because he loves being in the spotlight while people in football will tell you it’s because the city of Madrid need someone like Perez, a man with grand contacts in the business world, to overtake Barcelona once again. Both theories are most likely true, but I do wonder if perhaps he feels the need to redeem himself, to show that he’s learned from his past mistakes. Another important aspect this time around is the fact that he had no opposing candidate running against him for the presidency and he was therefore under no genuine pressure to outline his plan in great detail. Instead he came in, looked at the transfer market and signed the players that he could. Then he could look at rectifying the problems that in the end ruined his previous term.

The two negatives that stand out from Perez’ first time at the club are the lack of homegrown players making the first team and the lack of defenders and defensive players in general. The arrival of Raul Albiol and Alvaro Arbeloa indicates that Perez is aware of the need for defensive reinforcements while Xabi Alonso represents a player who will bring a lot of stability to Real Madrid’s midfield. On the other hand, Perez’ faith in the likes of Esteban Granero, Toni Adan, Miguel Torres and perhaps Alvaro Negredo shows that he wants to keep Real Madrid’s kids close to home.

All things said and done, one thing is for sure: nobody knows how to throw a party in world football like Florentino Perez. Almost a decade ago he took control of Real Madrid, promised a team of “Galacticos” and invited us all to ride along on the journey. He’s back now and the invitation is still as fresh as ever.

Roll out all the stars. Roll out Xabi Alonso, Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Raul and Benzema, but above all roll out Mr Galactico. In his hands there is always the rolled up match programme, as he sits in the president’s chair at Bernabeu. Cracking an ear to ear grin every time Real Madrid score a goal.

Welcome back uncle Perez and thanks for inviting us to the most expensive party in the world.