About The Author

Saul Isaksson-Hurst is an experienced premier league academy coach having spent 6 years at Tottenham Hotpsur FC and 4 years at Chelsea FC’s Academy as a Foundation Phase skills specialist and is founder of mypersonalfootballcoach.com where he is director of coaching. Saul talks about the importance of culture and the role it plays in player development in different clubs and countries.

Football, Culture & Patterns in Soccer Player Development
When I was at Spurs as a young coach I remember going up to Liverpool for a Premier League training weekend. All the Premier League Academies were represented. Whilst watching one of the age groups train I noticed that many of the players had the same mannerism as Steven Gerrard…that unmistakable way Gerrard use to wrap the pass through midfield. I pointed this out to my colleagues and they all concurred. This wasn’t strange I suppose, Gerrard was at the time such a key figure at the club and it would be natural that players would try to emulate him.

Speed forward almost a decade and Sam Allardyce is awarded the England job. I was shocked and disappointed mainly because I thought this went against all the fantastic work that had gone into the England DNA with the England Youth Teams but more so, the low expectations of many in England who actually celebrated the appointment. There was a feeling that Big Sam was the best that England could do; that his direct style of play was actually the best suited for English players. At the time there was a feeling that all English players could do was battle, get stuck in and get organised. I knew that such low expectations of our players and national team would lead to underwhelming results. At the time this was how English football culture was represented and to a certain extent still is. Then Gareth Southgate took over and we all know how that developed. For me, his greatest achievement wasn’t getting to the semi-finals of the World Cup but shaping the change in football culture in this country and how we are perceived around the world. Guardiola, Klopp, and Pochetino have all also contributed to this. Now things such as playing out from the back have become the norm, whereas a few years ago ‘don’t mess around with it there’ would have been the most likely response. English football culture has changed and for the good, in the last few years, modern possession, attacking football has become the norm in the Premier League.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have travelled a lot during the last few years. I was recently at Dinamo Zagreb making an episode of  ‘Inside the Academy’. One of the most poignant take aways from this trip was the culture of technical excellence that ran through the entire club. I watched sessions from U8 up to the Reserves team. Every age group included a 1v1 duel element in their sessions. In speaking to the coaches they all sung from the same hymn sheet, 1v1 was such an important part of their clubs culture or ‘DNA’. When looking at the type of players Dinamo develop its not surprising…Dinamo players are synonymous with technical excellence and 1v1 capabilities all over the pitch. It made me think about clubs and federations and why certain clubs/countries develop certain types of players?

Going back a few years now I was having lunch at St Georges Park whilst on the Advance Youth Award. At the time I was a Chelsea coach, sitting with a good friend of mine from another club and the then England u16 coach Dan Michicchie. My Colleague asked him if he ever “saw a player and knew he came from a club?” He said yes… Spurs. Dan was talking about the technical ability of the Spurs players. I understood this as when I worked at Spurs and also after, I could look at the Tottenham Foundation players and tell the difference between them and players from other Academies. They were so much better on the ball and just moved differently. This was a result of the emphasis on ball mastery from the very youngest ages. Players like Harry Winks and Oliver Skipp reinforce this. I remember having a conversation with a senior manager at Spurs and we said all our players could and should be able to play midfield. They all had the technical capabilities.

Harry Winks

In one of my favourite ever podcast interviews I spoke to Adi Viveish, previously Chelsea U23/U19 coach and famously led them to 2 UEFA Youth Champions league titles. Adi is world class and he made two interesting points that are relevant here. First, he was talking about the Youth Champions League against Ajax, he said “Ajax was the only game where we anticipated players that were technically better than us”. I thought this was a really powerful statement, Chelsea is one of best Academies in world football and spend a lot of time on technical development but Adi anticipated and knew that players would have different and better technical qualities. He also talked about playing spurs, he mentioned when playing them he always expected a ‘a very technical game’. This was another poignant statement; a recognition of both these clubs DNA, a culture of technical excellence. These sort of perceptions aren’t by accident, from my time working at Spurs and also visiting Ajax multiple times, both clubs have a strong culture of individual technical development at the youngest age groups. Ball mastery and 1v1 are key and as at Dinamo, are unmistakably present throughout the club. I have this conversation with coaches from clubs all the time, “What kind of players do you want to produce? How do you want to be perceived by other clubs? Do you want people to say ‘yes…that looks like a player from team ‘x’?” If I look at Matthijs de Ligt , he looks and plays like a typical Ajax player. Technically and tactically excellent, can play in several positions. A direct result of that’s clubs culture!

I also look at sports mad countries like Sweden, and noticing how technically different the players were at the World Cup compared to England. Compare that to Croatia for instance and, with half of Sweden’s population. How come Croatia consistently produce so many technical players and countries like Sweden fail to match them in this area? It’s interesting as the football culture in Sweden is very similar to the old conventional English one. A lot of emphasis on physicality and a direct style of play. Is this a result of that football culture? Confirmation bias perhaps in selection from an early age?

When I look at Ajax, Dinamo Zagreb and Tottenham Hotspur, there are similarities in their philosophical approach. From the youngest ages, ball mastery and 1v1 are key. When you look around Europe you will see a similar emphasis on 1v1 at some of the best and most productive talent hotbeds in world football (see pic).  It’s logical that if you want your players to have these desired attributes, make sure they are a priority and a key part of your clubs DNA.

As you can see from the image these clubs that emphasis 1v1 produce some of the best footballers in world football…there’s no coincidence.

Whether you work in elite football or the grass roots game. Make sure you create a culture within your club that fosters and develops technically excellent and creative players. Give your players time on the ball and don’t be in too much of a rush to formalise and constrain your players in the shackles of the adult game… Master the Ball Master the Game.

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