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The world's finest youth academy is not the best developmental system

(adapted from my post in 2014)

The world's finest youth academy is not the best developmental system.

In the summer of 2014 we brought in the youth academy coaches from GNK Dinamo Zagreb Academy of Croatia, in 2013 they were named a top 6 academy in the 2013 ECA report. You can read that report here.

I met their Director, Romeo Jozak at the Indianapolis convention, and he proposed bringing in some academy coaches for a week in the summer working with kids during the day and coach education in the evening.

It was a a enlightening week.

During the day the Croations introduced their methodology, they ran formal, precise, functional sessions focusing on simple play with both feet. "We will do everything with two feet."

In the afternoon we would inflate a couple of courts so the kids could play unstructured. The normally hardbitten coaches immediately lightened up, "these are great, we need some of these" They would sit on the side of the inflatable and watch the game. THey would join a team and try to hold a court.

In the evenings, as part of their coach education, they laid out their academy. It was very good stuff. There are a couple of DVD's I would highly reccomend. This is certainly a top academy. And they knew it.

They were making the case that it was not just a top 6 academy, it was the world's finest. Organized, well thought out, systematic. U6 to U20.

One of the evenings they wrote the amount of transfer fees they were receiving and one of the players was Mateo Kovacic. Inter Milan had paid 17 million Euros for him. My friend Tod lean over, "that guy is an interesting player,."

I was curious to see what characteristics this sort program would produce so I took Tod's advice and looked up Kovacic on you tube

Ok this guy is interesting. Look at the sequence at the 24 second mark, Kovacic dribbles into a den of defenders then zips right out again. He doesn't look like a soccer player brought up in an academy and this little movement gives us a huge hint to his development. He scoots out so fast, he looks like he's on skates and pulls off a seemingly impossible turn at full speed.

This is a very unusual movement. How do he do it? It's all right footed, he turns the ball with the outside of his foot leaning over and turning the corner at the same time. The most incredible thing of all is how the heck did he learn it?

I can see it, If a Zagreb coach was there he would say, "hey, Kovacic, what are you doing? Use your left foot to make that turn!" And then they would have 200 perfectly designed repetition progressions to work it out.

It would make sense that if he had been shaped by an academy with progressive two footed training, his ratio of touches with his left and right would be close. So I went back to the video and counted touches:

123 touches with his right foot, 9 touches with his left foot.

Wait, what about "both feet or else?" It was obvious that Kovacic had NOT grown up in their two footed system. He looked like a street kid to me, confident on the ball, the ability to penetrate, the ability to see around him. I began to think that Kovacic was NOT a product of this academy.

So the next day I asked the coaches,

tell me about Kovacic

What do you want to know?

Well, when did he first come to your academy?

He was 14. He's special. We recruited him .

What was he doing before he came to your academy?

He was with a small academy, he was a street kid, playing everyday.

So Kovacic, growing up outside the structure of perhaps the top academy in the world, was able to outpace their system playing on the street. He was able to develop that 80 miles an hour right turn, he was able to culture his right foot and By the time he was 13 he had developed skills so unusual, so effective that he was labelled "a natural" and brougt into the academy. And, in order to bring him in they had to release one of their players who perhaps had been in their system since when was 6 years old. whose only fault may have been coming to Zagreb so young. While he is six and working in Dinamo's formal system, Kovacic is six and PLAYING.

But then, in 2018, Croatia plays in the World Cup final, certainty this fundamentalist Isolated Skill Training, this systematic, bilateral, age 6 and up special training must be behind the amazing run at the World Cup, it must work right?

Yes Dinamo Zagreb had a big influence. 6 of the 11 starters came through DNK Zagrb. Here is a list of Zagreb players from their starting line up along with the age they joined the Dinamo Zagreb.

DNK Zagreb's members of 2018 Croatia WC Final ​Starting Line up

  • Domagoj Vida Age 22

  • Šime Vrsaljko age 14

  • Dejan Lovren Age 15

  • Marcelo Brozović Age 20

  • Luka Modrić Age 16

  • Mario Mandžukić. Age 21

And to go further a list of DNK Zagreb's top 10 transfers and the age they joined

TOP 10 Biggest Transfers in Dinamo Zagreb’s History:

1. Marko Pjaca – Juventus 2016 – €23 milion. Age 19 (Q2)

2. Luka Modrić – Tottenham 2009 – €21 milion. Age 16 (Q3)

3. Eduardo da Silva – Arsenal 2008 – €13.5 million. Age 16 (Q4)

4. Vedran Ćorluka – Manchester City 2008 – €13 million. Age 17 (Q1)

5. Mateo Kovačić – Inter 2011 – €11 million. Age 16 (Q2

6. Josip Brekalo – Wolfsburg 2016 – €10 million. (Q2) Age 18

7. Dejan Lovren – Lyon 2010 – €8 million Age 15 (Q3)

8. Jozo Šimunović – Celtic 2015 – €8 million. (Q3) Age 12

9. Boško Balaban – Aston Villa 2001 – €7.8 million. Q4 Age 22

10. Mario Mandžukić – Wolfsburg 2010 – €7 million. Q2 . Age 21

So we have a top 6 academy in the World with beautifully structured academy from the age of 6 on. You would think that spending time in the academy all those years would give you an advantage. But only one of their top ten transfers joined the academy before the age of 15. If the academy really did work the make up of the top ten transfers would be full of kids in the academy since they were eight.

The heart of the problem is the best elite/academy/club system, Be it Barcelona, Arsenal, MLS academies or your local super team, can not keep pace with the systems of development players take on when allowed chose. Kids playing basketball 3 v 3 pick up, the hockey kids playing hours of pond hockey, or the kids playing street soccer with love in mind.

The world's greatest academy is not the best system of development. That system, especially early, is Free Play.

Roberto Ayala, he came to River plate at 12, before that, Free Play. Captained Argentina more times than anyone else.

Andreas Iniesta, Discover by Gines Melendez at 12, before that Free Play. 2010 WC Game winner.

Ronaldo (Phenomeno) Free Play until 16, WC leading scorer all time.

Mario Zagalo, Free Play until 16, 5 world cups.

"I was not coached until the age of 16. I believe in Play early, Learn Late." --Michael Jordan

The formal technification strategies of Dinamo are important, but perhaps, as in the Kovacic model, only after the requisite Free Play has been logged allowing the child and the game to grow together. Waiting allows children to gain the maturity and cognitive skills through play necessary for formal work and prevents them from becoming frustrated and discouraged by attempts to handle material they are simply not yet ready to understand.

When asked about this the Dyanmo coaches simply revert. "That's because players are born, not made."


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