Liverpool versus Derby County Premier League U18 Game

If there is a place out there where “Soccer Youth Nirvana” exists – a Category I Premier League Academy is pretty close to it. Better facilities, players, staff coaches and TIME available simply do not exist – this is it! Although American clubs cannot replicate, to the letter, what happens in these Academies my observations over the years is that emulating, as best as we can, the culture and practical day to day programming of these Academies is the way forward for developing our American players.


The Liverpool Academy is a Grade One Academy, the highest rating in English football. It has a large, central office for record keeping, medical, research rooms and, of course, locker rooms. A fully equipped restaurant for the players and invited guests is a central feature of the building – a blessing for the players and, particularly the staff who spend an enormous amount of time at the facility! 

In addition there are 6 natural grass fields, a goalkeeping area and artificial grass outdoor and indoor fields. Included in the indoor grass field is a weight training area. In addition the Academy has a main game field for the U18+ games with an accompanying video/tv tower and a space for spectators.

The Academy is located in Kirby, just outside the city of Liverpool. The Academy fields are pristine and cultivated exquisitely by the field staff. The Academy is heavily secured with guards and a security building. Visitors need to have invitation from a staff member to enter the facility except on Saturdays when the Liverpool youth teams are playing and certain areas of the facility are open to the spectators.

Although the Academy is housed at this facility, the first team are stationed at Melwood several miles distance from The Academy. Melwood is where the first team manager and coaching staff have their offices. The Jury is still out as whether it is more difficult to get into Buckingham Palace than a Premier League first team training facility! 

The 4-3-3 Shape

The game itself was a Premier League U18 Academy game. Derby travelled approximately 60 miles for the game Both teams played a version of 4-3-3 with Derby playing more of a 4-5-1 with the center forward doing very little defending and the rest of the team in, almost, a permanent defensive mode. Liverpool had possession for the vast majority of the game and, although Derby defended stoutly, they were far outclassed by the Premier League team in, almost, every category.

Numbering System

The Premier League first team players use a squad numbering system whereby the player’s shirt number reflects his number in the squad. Consequently the number the players are assigned, has nothing to do with their position on the team – with exceptions for certain personality players. The benefit of this is, of course, that the players always have the same shirt number and the manager does not need to ask a player to interchange shirts if he is asked to adopt another position. In the days of mass “Jersey Sales” clubs have the name of the player printed on the back of the shirt as well as the number so that supporters can buy the specific shirt of their heroes.

The youth teams, on the other hand, still utilize the old positional numbering system, exemplified by the line - up sheet displayed above. The left back is, always number 3, center forward the number 9, left wing/midfielder number 11 etc. The benefit of this system is that many clubs have an intricate description, on the locker room wall, of the tasks assigned to that position in significant detail. However, as Derby were to find out, the Liverpool player’s interpretation of their positional responsibilities were a mixture of free flowing positional interchange within a highly disciplined “Framework of Expression.”

Officiating

Soccer is a contact sport. Although, obviously it is not a collision sport like Rugby, American football or Gaelic football - shielding the ball, shoulder to shoulder contact, together with a certain amount of upper body contact when challenging for a loose ball are all legitimate parts of the game. 

One of the technical weaknesses of our American players lies in the use of the upper body which is, at least, partially due to inexperienced refereeing.  Novice referees lack an understanding of the combative nature of the game and have an inaccurate version of what is acceptable body contact. Consequently too many American players have not mastered the art of shielding the ball. A discussion between the referee Associations and the Coaching community is long overdue regarding this matter. 

They say the best referees are the ones you don’t notice. The referee for this game, Mr. Conor Brown, was “notable by his lack of notability” and controlled the game as if he were the “Invisible Man.” The English Premier League U18 division is full of passionate, determined and ambitious characters trying to break through into the top flight of football in, arguably, the toughest league in the world…so tackles in these U18 games fly in thick and fast. 
With an economical use of the whistle Mr. Brown allowed the players free expression within  and he kept his cards in his pocket. His officiating struck me as being a great model for novice referees – offences were greeted with a quick “pip” on the whistle – no dramatics and an occasional word with a player who pushed the envelope. Hence a game which could have become quite hostile, provided the spectators with soccer, played at a skill level which captivated the onlookers and provided a spectacle which could be enjoyed and appreciated.  

The Dalglish Influence

Liam Millar, Liverpool’s number 9, and a 6 foot Canadian from Toronto, provided several examples of “posting up” wherein he backed into the center back standing in the D and received penetrating passes from midfielders who were able to combine with him. The other option Liam used was to spin the ball around the “pinned” center back and shoot or dribble. This is a skill we shall review a little later…but my point is that Liam’s pinning technique, would be in danger of being blown up for a foul in the USA – although basketball players do it all the time! The greatest proponent of this technique was Liverpool’s former great Kenny Dalglish, shown below, demonstrating the technique to former Liverpool striker, Andy Carroll. Dalglish simply backs into the opponent and pins him so he cannot move forward to intercept the pass. Millar used the ploy to full advantage in this game, frequently holding the ball up till support arrived or spinning past the defender himself.

The Life of a Premier League Academy Player

The majority of the Liverpool players on the U/18 teams are full time players. They are either signed professionals who receive a salary or they are “Scholars” who have not yet reached the critical age of 18, when they either sign a professional contract or are released from the club. The vast majority of players who make it through Liverpool’s Academy, but are not signed as a Liverpool professional, will sign as professionals at another club and carry on their career elsewhere – sometimes returning to Liverpool later .  Liverpool have an excellent academic tutorial program headed by Phil Roscoe, Head of Education and Welfare, and Phil’s responsibilities include making sure all Liverpool youth players have an opportunity to succeed both inside and outside the game. Their continuing academic development enables some to leave football and go into a different profession (one player at a Premier Academy became a Doctor of Medicine) and a small number shall go to the USA and Canada on a soccer scholarship. 

The Value of Inner Squad Competition – Video – Use of Alumni 

One of the key words in the development of players to become professionals is “Competition” referring to the constant pressure on the players to perform at their best amidst an exacting schedule. Many of the social opportunities afforded to other 15 – 18 year olds are put on hold during this time and the clubs, which invest heavily in their youth development programs, expect disciplined and focused behavior from these potential future stars. With competition for places at a “White Hot” level there is little room for anything other than 110% commitment. Players are given chores to do and expectations are high. Physical tests including body – fat, weight and speed tests are performed on a regular basis. ALL practice field sessions and games are filmed, analyzed and re – analyzed by the coaching staff. Diet has become a massive feature of a youth player’s life and players are taught what foods to cook AND how to cook them.

The photograph above features the ever present video camera but also shows the number of staff Liverpool have at a U16 training session. The red tops are worn by a staff coach or a former player who has come in to the training ground to help with practice. The use of former players is a common practice at academies and I recall Steve McManaman, Robbie Fowler and Jan Moltby, all former players, in attendance at this practice. 

Technical Observations

1.    Bending the ball.

The ability of the Liverpool players to curve, spin, hook, slice and drive a ball completely straight stood out as the most impressive characteristic of their passing. Combined with the ability to receive the ball cleanly at the most difficult angles and speeds, this really caught the eye. Along with the enormous distance these, relatively, young players were able to strike a ball their passes were notable for the spin they put on the ball – including the driven ball which faded into the receiving player some 55 yards away.   The modern outside fullback pushes way up when his team is attacking – upon a turnover both teams were able to punish them with sublimely crafted balls bent into the space for their team mate giving the fullback little chance to recover. Having a right footed right back and left footed left back proved very effective for Liverpool as they were able to spin the ball behind recovering  defenders as in the scenario below.

In addition to their ability to bend the ball with, admirable, pace and direction the Liverpool players , in particular, displayed what, appeared to be, a check list of habits before receiving the ball;

  1. Check over your shoulder to see where your closest opponents might be.
  2. Check to the ball carrier and “verbally” ask for the ball.
  3. Indicate with a hand motion into which space, or which foot, you wanted to have the ball played to. 
  4. Look again as the ball is on its way to you.
  5. Fake move to make it look as though you would take the ball in one direction and then, actually, take the ball in a different direction.
  6. Initiate contact with a challenging opponent while keeping the body between the opponent and the ball.

2.    Ground Passing.

The speed and quality of Liverpool’s ground passing was “Relentless” although the defensive discipline of Derby County succeeded, for long periods of time, in frustrating the home side. With passes played to the correct foot, with the right speed and spin Liverpool provided the spectators with a “Masterclass” in team possession. On several occasions, rather than lose the ball with the wrong pass, if they were under heavy pressure, Liverpool worked the ball from Derby’s penalty box back to the Liverpool goalkeeper and then started all over again. Derby relied almost entirely  on counter attacks as their main threat. Derby goalkeeper Sam French, distinguished himself several times with outstanding saves due to excellent positioning and reflexes.

3.    Speed dribbling and getting into the penalty box.

The Liverpool players displayed an enormous amount of confidence and belief in their own skill level and lacking the fear of making mistakes - their ability, and desire, to drive straight at opposing players at high speed being particularly noteworthy. 

Many of these dribbling movements culminated at the top of the Derby penalty box when, faced with a block of Derby defenders, the ball carrier played a give and go with Millar or one of the other Liverpool forwards in incredibly small spaces. By and large the Derby players resisted the temptation to, lazily, stretch out a leg for a tackle which could have very easily ended up with a penalty award. Instead they, defended with great discipline for extended periods of time using good foot and body movement. This was particularly impressive as Liverpool players drove into the penalty box where one lazy defensive lunge at the ball could lead to a penalty. 

4.    Player Awareness “First you make your habits and your habits make you.”

Prior to a team mate passing the ball to them, almost to a man, the Liverpool players would look over their shoulder to see where opposing defenders and team mates might be. This endless “scanning” occurred so frequently that it, clearly, is a technique the players have had drummed into them from a very young age. In addition to “asking” for the ball verbally, the Liverpool players would indicate which foot they wanted the ball passed to by, simply, gesturing with an open palm. The old coaching saying – “First you make your habits – then your habits make you” could not have had a more appropriate setting.

5.    Receiving the ball.

The sublime quality of the player’s first touch took the ball away from defenders, or into an empty space or right at an opponent who was not within tackling distance. The ability of players to receive the ball at all sorts of speeds and angles has already been noted but the move the players did prior to receiving the ball was key. Players, under pressure, frequently, made a gesture towards the ball as it approached them, thus freezing the defender, and then backed off to let the ball run across them, through their legs etc. In addition, players receiving the ball under heavy pressure would “lift” the ball over the outstretched foot of an opponent, a move executed several times by midfielder Jan Dhanda. 

Tactics

The 4-3-3 formation, which both teams adopted, was, clearly, designed to fill in the middle of the field with numbers. Because Liverpool had a vast amount of possession their attacking shape could be more easily analyzed.

This is a popular starting shape when the goalkeeper has the ball and is an excellent system for developing players. Every player has to deal with the technical demands of the game including the two center backs who have to split apart. This encourages the defensive midfielder, in this case Liverpool’s number 6, to come in between the center backs. The 2 and 3, who are the fullbacks, push up higher alongside the central midfielders and the shape, almost, looks like a 3-4-3. The 7 and 11 come inside and will, often, swap with each other or drop back into more central positions allowing the 2 and 3 to overlap into the wide spaces and deliver crosses.

The 9 player stays as high as possible and makes himself available for rebounding the ball to team mates and spinning off defenders to go to goal himself. Difficult to diagram the extent to which the Liverpool players interchanged but, had the derby players played man to man instead of a zone, they would have been all over the place.

Inverted wide Players

At times the Liverpool number 7 and 11 would switch. That would mean that the player on the right side is left footed and the player on the left side is right footed. This is a, particularly, useful tactic for teams that want to come across the field laterally, as opposed to up and down the field vertically.

Teams that play zonally (almost every team in English football) can have significant problems with inverted wide players.

The advantage a right footer wide player has, when playing on the left side of the field, is that 

  1. They are able to receive the ball on their strong foot with their whole body between themselves and the opponent. 
  2. From there he can come across the field for a shot on goal with a curving shot around the goalkeeper
  3. Thread a ball through the defenders to a team mate making an incisive run and/or combine with a central player for a shot or 
  4. A reverse pass to the left back overlapping left back – or – 3 man combination off forward to back.


Tactics 2

Having a centre forward who is big and strong is of limited value if he does not have the technical and tactical attributes which help the team attack. In this game Liam Millar served as a player who could hold the ball up, for other attackers to arrive – and had the pace and skill to turn and run at defenders.  Consequently, Liverpool were able to penetrate the Derby midfield with passes into Millar’s feet.  As mentioned, Liverpool players have a legend to emulate in Kenny Dalglish, considered, as a player, to be the best in the business at holding off gigantic center backs and holding up the ball. 

Notes, observations and recommendations.

  1. Passing - Our players need practice in – driving the ball, hooking the ball, slicing the ball, putting back spin on the ball (so it checks up), fading the ball, dipping the ball. Players must be taught how the ball reacts to being struck in different ways. Key coaching points include; Angle of approach, length of final step, placement of non kicking foot, foot position at impact, where to strike the ball, follow through etc. 
  2. Position Specific coaching – Striker training - The teaching of our forwards how to hold up the ball by backing into defenders and/or spinning off them is critical. This may include the need for referee education.
  3. Systems of play which teach the game - Using a system like the 3-4-3 which has lots of natural triangles and diamond shapes. Systems which encourage “zig – zag” passing is to be encouraged.
  4. Inverted flank players - Putting a left footed player on the right and vice – versa is an excellent ploy. Players dribbling the ball across the field must be alert to the options available.
  5. Anticipation - Where is the ball likely to land when my team mate or opponent heads it?
  6. Penalty box - Try and dribble into the penalty box. Defenders are reluctant to tackle players in the penalty box. Tackling mistakes in the pen box can be very costly.
  7. Combination play - Practicing combination play accelerates player’s learning curve.
  8. Alumni - Keep former players involved in the club and invite them in to help with training occasionally.
  9. Defending counter attacks - Having lots of possession is no longer a guarantee of winning. As coaching improves teams are more liable to sit back and let you send more and more players forward….and then they counter attack. Our players must always have in the back of their minds; “What happens if we lose the ball right now?” 
  10. Player Awareness - By looking over their shoulder, indicating which foot they want the ball played to and “asking” for the ball, our players will improve their ability to read the game.

If there is a place out there where “Soccer Youth Nirvana” exists  – a Category I Premier League Academy is pretty close to it. Better facilities, players, staff coaches and TIME available simply do not exist – this is it! Although American clubs cannot replicate, to the letter, what happens in these Academies my observations over the years is that emulating, as best as we can, the culture and practical day to day programming of these Academies is the way forward for developing our American players.

Tapping into the Legacy of Legends

Many professional clubs hire former players to work with the youth teams. Having finished a magnificent playing career Stephen Gerard came back to the UK, from Los Angeles, to work with the junior players as an Academy staff coach at Liverpool. In addition Liverpool invite former greats in to help with practices. This accelerates the immersion of players into the club’s culture and demonstrates the longstanding loyalty and pride the former players still have for the club. In , nearly, all of the Liverpool games and practices I have attended the presence of former players stands out as being a vital part of what it means to play for the Reds. This is a strategy that American clubs could do well to emulate.