Barclay’s U18 Premier League
Liverpool Academy Training Ground
Saturday October 26, 2013
This game, between two clubs with a reputation for player development, provided a soccer spectacle which left no doubt that great players are forged in the crucible of fiercely contested competition against top level opposition. Gareth Bale, a graduate of the Southampton Academy and now the most expensive soccer player in the world and Liverpool Academy’s Stephen Gerrard, captain of England and Liverpool are the products of games and occasions like this. Played at relentless speed, and with splendid demonstrations of guile, dribbling trickery, sublime passing and defensive discipline, observers were left with no doubt as to the significant developmental value of playing at this level, week in and week out.
The game featured 9 youth National team players and included 8 players from non - English countries. The players, a combination of U17 and U18 “Scholars”, are on the very verge of signing pro contracts and the under 18’s will find out their professional playing fate in the next 6 months. Many of the players who have been with both clubs since they were 7 or 8 will find out if the club considers them good enough to keep as professional players. If not they shall be released to join another club and some may find themselves out of football completely. Fortunately, due to recent changes in education programming, through the Scholars program, they have a far superior educational background to fall back on than they did just two decades ago.
The Barclays U18 Premier League.
Interestingly enough, at this point the only English Premier Academy League play is at the U18 level. Younger teams play in tournaments and many of the Liverpool staff were away at an Academy Tournament being played, for the younger age levels, at Warwick University. These tournaments are hosted around the country and are an, understandable, attempt to keep the focus on player development rather than winning trophies. Andy Roxburgh, when National Team and Director of Coaching for Scotland in the 1990’s, often recommended the Tournament approach to thedevelopmental directors of Scottish clubs as he believed league play focused too much emphasis on safety, getting a result and taking no chances. Risk taking, in soccer, is the key to personal growth and creativity and Roxburgh believed colorful “Soccer Festivals” were a better route to this end rather than league play which often ended acrimoniously between rival local clubs when bragging rights were at stake.
Facilities and Staff
The Liverpool Academy is a Level 1 Academy meeting all of the Premier League guidelines…and then some! Although security allows spectators into the premises on game days it would be impossible to get access to the facility at any other time unless one of the staff alerts security as to your arrival.
The impressive clubhouse includes changing rooms, staff offices, administrative meeting rooms, a significant canteen, lecture rooms with power point capability, laundry and kit rooms and a boot room. In addition the clubhouse has classrooms for scholars, U16 – U18 players who are contracted to be full time with Liverpool and train, body condition and attend soccer and performance lectures every day. The impressive indoor facility has an artificial playing field and an open weight training area. As full time scholars the players receive a small stipend and a scholarship to attend the Academy where they shall also have a stipulated number of academic educational hours a week. Many will live at home but, with five players from outside of England and some from well outside daily driving range, those from long distance or foreign players will live with specially selected, supervised, homes in the local community.
The full time staff must have a UEFA A license and the Youth Award module III. Part time staff must have the minimum of a UEFA B License. The great Spanish youth development coach, Rodolfo Borrell, is the Academy Technical Director arriving at Liverpool after many years at FC Barcelona’s youth academy where he helped develop the great present stars of the Barcelona team.
The old numbering system appears to be making a resurgence with the center backs from both teams wearing 5 and 6, the outside backs wearing 2 and 3, strikers 9 and wingers 7 and 11. Midfield players wore 8, 6 and 4. This departure from the squad numbering system (numbers 88, 92 etc.) may have come back in vogue due to the recent emphasis on task detailing. Clubs hang posters on their walls with specific detailing describing the tasks of the “Number 4” or the “Number 10.” Chelsea have posters all over their Academy dining room with the tasks and responsibilities of players playing in certain areas of the field. The positions are delineated by number, something the Dutch have been doing for many years. The practice is a worthwhile one but it does not work if the player playing at left back is numbered “42.” So this may be why the old positional numbering system appears to be making a re - appearance.
Systems of Play.
Liverpool in Red
Liverpool played a 4-3-3 with 3 rotating midfielders, attacking outside backs and inverted wingers. When defending the wingers dropped back into a 4-5-1 system. Southampton played out of a very structured 4-2-3-1 with two defensive midfielders who sat in front of the two central defenders even when they were down 0 -2. With Sam Gallagher, a 6 foot 5 inch Scottish center forward, the Southampton backs had a considerable target if they were under pressure although Gallagher could play on the ground also – giving the two sizeable Liverpool center backs plenty to think about and keeping the back line busy for the entire afternoon.
Playing Out Of Back.
Both teams played out of the back with the goalkeeper rarely kicking the ball. The FA recommended system of spreading the center backs wide when playing out of the back featured as the standard method. One of the central midfielders rotates into the space between the center backs and both pair of wide players push forward so that the wingers are on the same level as the defending outside backs. (Photo left below.) This really does stretch the opposing back line as the ball is moved forward.
Wrong Footed Wingers
Liverpool played with inverted wingers as did Southampton. The use of “wrong footed” wingers in the modern game has reached its pinnacle with Ronaldo of Real Madrid and Arjen Robben of Bayern Munich who have taken wing play inside the field, as opposed to down the line. Teams are placing left footed players on the right wing and vice versa so they cut into the middle of the field and shoot or combine. Due to the zonal disposition of today’s back fours the positioning of the back line is, fairly, predictable. The line will be fairly straight with gaps in between the defenders. The first touch will, frequently, bring the ball inside and the winger dribbles right at the outside back and then drives inside the field running laterally across the front of the back players. The player coming across the field has four, classic, basic options;
1. Dribble across the field and slide a ball in between the backs to a forward running from a blindside position. (Above)
2. Dribble across the field and shoot by bending the ball with the inside of the strong foot around the goalkeeper to the back post.
3. Dribble across the field opening a space for the overlapping full back. Play a three man combination off a central player back to the overlapping back who has, now, outflanked the opposing back line and can dribble into a dangerous crossing area.
4. Dribble across the field, play a give and go with a forward and shooting the ball from a more central area.
This is a very effective tactic, especially against zonal teams whose positioning is predictable. Apart from the tactical problems inverted wingers pose to zonal back lines, the opposition backs rarely switch sides when wingers change sides so it gives the opposing full backs a completely new opponent to deal with – which can be unnerving.
Liverpool forward Alex O’ Hanlon. A right footed wide player operating on the left side.
ALL set pieces from wide positions, by either team, were in swingers. Left footed players went to the right side (and vice-versa) to take kicks from wide positions. Consequently balls, spinning inwards, just needed a touch to go in.
The big, 6’5” Southampton center forward went to the right side of the half line for Southampton goal kicks and the Southampton GK hit him on the head with the ball every time.
Liverpool had nobody on either post when defending corner kicks.
Liverpool led 2 – 0 at half time and completely dominated the first half. Southampton fought back in the second half and dragged the score back to 2 – 2. A massive mix up between the Southampton GK and center back with the center back heading the ball over the top of his advancing goalie leading to Liverpool player scoring a tap in goal. Southampton equalized in the dying seconds of the game and an unexpected 3 – 3 result stood as the final score of the game.
Notes and Observations
- Players displayed advanced techniques of curving/spinning the ball and passing the ball with pace and accuracy. Passing ball to team mate’s foot which was furthest away from pressing defender featured predominantly. Players on both teams displayed the notable ability to drop the ball in between and behind the two center backs.
- Players had the ability to play 50 – 70 yard long distance passes on a line with no spin with minimum backswing.
- Shielding the ball. Players in possession initiated contact with defending opponents.
- Competence in the air with central defenders heading the ball from their penalty box to, over, the half way line.
- Receiving balls with any part of the body. Various mechanisms for receiving the ball in traffic – e.g. “Hopping “ ball over opponent’s foot on 1st touch.
- Both teams defended in a tight block. Penetration between defenders very difficult and looked to me that players invited a pass and then stepped in to intercept and counter attack. Counter attacking a natural initiative for all players intercepting passes or making tackles.
- Verbal communication.
- Constant movement and adjustment off the ball by teammates – giving first attacker multiple options.
- Players scanning the field constantly.
- Wingers consistently bringing the ball inside the field – outside backs overlapping.
- ALL SET PIECES WERE INSWINGERS.
- Very few fouls and excellent refereeing.
- Pronounced muscular leg definition on all players.
- Game played at a flat out speed. Players physically spent by the end of the game.
- The outside backs probably put in the most work.
- Southampton to be commended on fighting back from 0 – 2 and then 2 – 3 to, finally, equalize at 3 – 3.
- Players give each other a variety of messages to team mates from “Well Done” to more robust commentary which players accepted and got on with it.
- Both teams displayed excellent fighting qualities for the entire duration of the game.
Thanks to the Liverpool staff for inviting me to the game. Free of charge and open to the public, these Premier League U18 games are quite an event and provide a most enjoyable and educational Saturday afternoon.