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Re: Level 3 football - part 2


Before you read this part, please note it's the second in a three part series (a link to the first part is included in the opening paragraph below).

In the first part of this article, we introduced the ideas of Rinus Michels (RM), and his framework for teambuilding. In this second part, we look at his methods in more depth.

A Summary of RM’s 'Framework'

RM's book tells us (assuming we're coaches) how to build a team.

He doesn't stop at the first team - he regularly hints at the need for broader scope to your planning – for congruence at all levels from youth to first team - and the benefits that brings you in the long term. I think we'd all agree with that - it's good common sense.

The framework's not rocket science. In RM's vision of football, there are two basic teambuilding categories - Psychological Team Building and Team Tactical Team Building (a mouthful, but there you go).

Psychological Team Building

Throughout RM's book, and all through his discussion of the other factors to consider in coaching and management, RM constantly comes back to the need for correct 'mentality'.

--- Quote ---"In the football world, it is apparent that most coaches think of team building in mental or psychological terms. For example, the mentality of the players and team spirit. They are, of course, essential. Only with these as the basis, is it possible to perfect team tactics. The better the mentality of the players, the better the environment is for the coach to work on the tactical team building process. Also essential is the player's willingness or readiness to work on team tactics in training so as to bring them to life as efficiently as possible in a match (in combination with a winner's mentality of course)."
--- End quote ---

It's worth spending a little time on the issue of mentality. It's clear that most (if not all) modern coaches would agree with RM on this. It's also clear that under Rafa, correct mentality has once again become central to life at LFC.

That said, maintaining correct mentality is obviously a complicated issue - one that's inextricably linked to boardroom politics and backing, to the players inherited from the former management regime, from the culture at the club (no, I'm not going down the Boy George route either, before you start) - it's going to be a complicated issue at even the simplest of clubs, let alone LFC in the post-Houllier years, with all the internecine politics that have wormed their way into the club's workings - politics that seem to have only become more entrenched since the new regime took over.

RM lays down some fundamental unbreakable laws that must not be broken if team spirit and correct mentality are going to be preserved - boardroom stability is the first, while an absence of disruptive public statements is the second.

Now I suppose you could argue that Rafa indulges in public statements himself, but for me, the fact that Rafa's kept the tiller steady in spite of the constant barrage of live grenades is little short of a miracle. We still enjoy consummate team spirit and correct mentality at the club, and in my view every LFC fan should be made to sit through forced explanation to make sure they understand what really happened - what's really still happening.

Regardless - in spite of the shit he takes, Rafa has reintroduced 'mentality' as a central 'pillar' of life at LFC.

I'm sure a few of you are shouting at your screen at this stage "but what about Reading away last season? I’m not even sure our manager has the right mentality - we conceded the game!"; but for me the issue was simple on that occasion - Rafa knew it was win next Wednesday, or kiss your Liverpool career goodbye. It's wasn't the greatest environment for him to work in.

There's also the argument that constant rotation undermines the collective spirit, togetherness, and 'mentality' of the squad. My view is that this argument is only valid as long as the players coming in are weaker than the player being ‘rotated' - and that's something that's less apparent with every passing year. But enough on that – here are my thoughts on Rafa's man management approach here if you’re interested.

Anyway, clearly under Shanks it was the foundation of our whole approach.

--- Quote ---"For a player to be good enough to play for Liverpool, he must be prepared to run through a brick wall for me then come out fighting on the other side."
--- End quote ---

There are a million similar quotes, but for me, from Shanks to Kenny, our players always had it right between the ears, or they didn't last long.

For me, when Kenny left that fell by the wayside. For example, Robbie Fowler told a few stories in his autobiography that gave me the impression that under several consecutive managers, we had staff and players at our club whose interests weren't always 100% focused on our consistent success on the pitch. Players like Fowler were undermined - we had talent in abundance, but we lacked correct mentality. That attitude persisted through Houllier's tenure and Rafa inherited a few issues in the squad he took on.

We've since seen a return to core values at LFC. Correct ‘mentality' is once again central to everything we do at all levels, and if the mentality is lacking in any way, people no longer last at the club. They're weeded out.

If you had a tenner for every time Rafa said 'mentality' in a press conference or post-match interview, you'd be a rich man indeed. It's drilled into everyone's head. We've been lucky in the last few days to get a detailed description from Eduardo Macia of our club's scouting and recruitment policy.

We'll come back to that later, but for now, a few quotes from Senor Macia.

On player recruitment.

--- Quote ---The mentality is the most important thing. There are probably a million players with quality in the world. That’s not enough. We don't want someone who is fantastic in September and October. We want someone who is fantastic all year round. If you want to be a successful team you need players who can still be at their best when it comes to the end of the season and the big games arrive almost every few days.

It's not just a matter of quality. You can improve a player’s fitness, technique, and make them tactically better. What you can't do is give them the mentality. You can be a fantastic player at a lower level team but if you want to come here then you've got to be a winner.
--- End quote ---

On our youth development.

--- Quote ---Now we are building for the future here. We’ve brought in a lot of young players in the last few years. Guys who are 16, 17, and 18 years old and they all have the mentality we want. That's why they won the reserve league last season. We know they can still improve as players, but they have the right mentality.
--- End quote ---

Another article - this time an interview with Academy supremo Piet Hamberg.

--- Quote ---Tell us a bit more about your philosophy...

...I liken it to building a house with all my coaches and all my assistants and all the people who are working here at the Academy. In the house we start with the management on the ground floor which is like the foundation. We will then set our goals and our philosophy. The second part of the house is the first floor which about having the right mentality. Part three is the technical part, part four is the tactical part and the fifth part is the physical part. I’ve seen many coaches who have tried to coach the young players and they start from the roof if you like which means it's always unstable. We always try and do it the other way and build the house in sections until the players reach the age of 18 or 19 years ago. Then we have the possibility of comparing them to players in the first team. For example we can compare their strength and speed. Then we can say if this player is at this level then maybe he will have a chance of getting to Melwood.
--- End quote ---

Hamberg's quote here maps perfectly to RM's model, and it’s no surprise, given RM was the architect behind the Ajax system, and that Hamberg served his time there as a player and then coach. In retrospect it's no surprise that Hamberg was recruited. I'd argue Rafa's applying something like RM's model in his work at LFC.

What about the backroom staff themselves? Do Rafa and his staff themselves have the correct mentality? For me, this quote from Macia sums it up.

--- Quote ---That's what we've got to keep doing; improving. If you're not then you're going backwards.
--- End quote ---

I think that's the attitude everyone has to maintain at LFC, and if they don't, they quickly find themselves on the way out of the club. We deserve nothing less. But for the purposes of this post, it also puts the foundation in place for the next level in RM-style team - Team Tactical Team Building.

Team Tactical Team Building

Although a new coach will start work on this the day he takes the helm, RM separates it out to make the framework clearer to explain. He sets out three categories of TTTB: Organisational Team Building, Strategic Team Building, and Tactical Team Building.

As with his separate consideration of Psychological Team Building, the three categories included here are said to be arbitrary to an extent - the point is to make sure coaches cover the aspects they need to cover. In practice the three categories will overlap.

For me, this is where RM's book gets really interesting in the context of what's happening this summer. He makes some very interesting points - points that made me stop and think 'ah, so if Rafa's going down that route, he must think such and such'.

Anyway, RM's three categories - a little more on each.

1. Organisational Team Building
Simply stated, this is about the formations used, the balance of play chosen, and ensuring that each individual player understands his role in the collective unit clearly - ideally absorbing it so it's performed without thinking.

One thing that's not explicitly covered in RM's framework is squad depth - he makes occasional comments that 'you can’t always field the team you want to', but it's not directly addressed. I think it's something that slots into his organisational category though, and for me it's one of the biggest question marks hanging over Rafa's Liverpool. We’ll get to that in a bit.

2. Strategic Team Building
This is about the more detailed aspects of how play is organised - positioning, zonal marking, hunting the ball, closing down space, running intelligently, not wasting energy, and so forth. It applies equally at all age groups, and RM says this should be coached on an individual basis, with smaller functional groups, and with the team as a whole.

Anecdotally we hear a lot of people talk about how detailed Rafa is on this front. For me we've seen a shift in Rafa's thinking on this front during the last two years, and in combination with 1. and 3., we're starting to see the model mature in the way RM says it should.

3. Tactical Team Building
This category kind of speaks for itself. There's some considerable debate throughout the footballing world as to whether or not our Rafa's a tactical genius. Brian Glanville's view is that this is a myth based on his decisions in the two CL finals we've played in. Others including Arrigo Sacchi feel there's no greater tactical authority on the game than Rafa. The truth? Well, I'm inclined to side with Signor Sacchi on this one.

The whole Jorge Valdano 'sh_t on a stick' debate after the2007 CL semi final at Anfield centred around a widely held view that, along with Mourinho, Benitez is a manager who micromanages his players and strangles the artistry from his side in an effort to reduce risk. I think that's a fundamental misconception. It's based on a limited view that presumes the manager's work is complete - that he's honed his squad in his image and taken it through to maturity. That's very seldom the case for a manager, and it's not the case for Rafa - not yet. Some would argue it is, but based on RM's framework, we have a way to go before we reach the 'as good as it gets' level.

Another criticism you sometimes see is that Benitez gambles tactically by rotating in lesser quality players in games where he thinks he can get away with it. So we see Leto play at home v Marseille for example, and he looks way out of his depth. We see Voronin, well... we just see him from time to time. (Actually I'm not convinced he's that bad, but clearly he's not world class or a 'go to guy' in big games.) Again, this criticism is founded on the rotation debate, and it falls when the quality of the squad improves to the point where a 'first choice 11' is more difficult to identify. But again, more on that later.

Tactical work is an area that gets more focus at LFC under Rafa than arguably anywhere else on the planet. Angel Vales is Head of Technical Analysis at LFC (as well as being Reserve Coach) and has worked with Rafa on implementing new analytical software that builds on the state-of-the-art systems already in place at the club. The staff at Melwood aren't content with prozone. I can't remember which RAW member it was, but one of the guys on here contracted at the club on this software project. Our guys are pushing the boundaries of tactical analysis and pushing the boundaries of the technologies used.

Here's some information on Vales.

Here's the quote I wanted to pick out.

--- Quote ---What have you learned from Rafa Benitez?

A lot. For example, the importance of the small details in tactical work. On a tactical level, he is one of the best managers in the world.
--- End quote ---

This from a man whose former job was a professor of football at La Coruna University.

For me, those close to Rafa betray the depth of his thinking on the game, and I get the feeling we haven't seethe full repertoire yet in tactical terms. Rafa's worked with what he's had, and that pool of players has improved each year.

He's worked with his staff to keep the messages simple, using video clips and clear briefings to communicate what he needs the players to absorb. And coupled with that, the messages he's putting across will have been coached into the players on a regular basis in a detailed programme laid out for the season. They won't be taking things in that they don't understand or expect. As such, we've seen certain players grow under Rafa's tenure, based on their mentality and their footballing intelligence. The ones who haven't learned have found themselves on the transfer list- it's my feeling that Alonso currently falls into that category, although there are clearly financial reasons behind it. I think that, with the transition we need to make, we need our midfield players to perform a strict function, and I'm not sure he's convinced Rafa he can do that - but he's still with us, and if any player is capable of proving his mettle, it's Xabi Alonso.

But I digress (again). Back to the point.

The Team Tactical category has a clear overlap with the organisational category to the extent that they're almost identical; however, the tactical side builds the detail onto the broad canvas laid out at the organisational level. It determines how the players should react based on the specific things that happen during a match.

So that's the framework.

RM then spends some time talking about the things that complicate the process. He talks about how football is inherently more complex than almost any other sport. He talks about the number of tactical variants. For me, that underlines why a player at LFC needs to have true footballing intelligence - it's clearly an advantage if the player is a 'student of the game'. Rafa's end game is a squad who understand all tactical variants to the nth degree, who can read and analyse the ever-changing conditions of the game in front of them, and make the right choices on the park. That exactly mirrors RM's view. He repeatedly emphasises that to reach the optimum level, a coach needs a squad full of players with a. quality, b. footballing intelligence, and c. the ability to make 'team efficient' choices during games.

Now, to achieve a squad that's choc full of players with all three of those attributes, you've got two options. First, you can go and manage a Chelsea or a Real Madrid or a Man United, and you can inherit or buy a deep squad of players with all those qualities in abundance. However, that's not an option at LFC. I know many argue that it is, and that Rafa's had enough money at his disposal to guarantee title challenges year after year, but it's simply not true. We've invested a fair chunk of money, and we have enough quality to take us to the brink of 'Level 3'football (more on what that means in a bit), but we're short of what we need to make the push to full quality.

No - with our finances in their current state, we can't go down that route and reach the level we need to reach. We have to look for value and take risks when investing in senior players, so while we can install world class when the opportunity presents itself, we can't buy world class to fill all roles - at least not yet. For that reason, we need to go with the second option - the option espoused by RM in his book, and the model brought to full fruition under his supervision at Ajax. We need to develop our own quality at youth level.

Youth Development and the Need for a Structured Tactical Programme

RM repeatedly cross-references this throughout the book. He'll be discussing a technical aspect of counter-attacking play, and he'll make an aside along the lines of 'of course, the best way to bake these ideas into your players is to have them on a tactical programme from their early teens'. In other places, he's more explicit. He doesn't even consider buying quality as an option. What he does is lay down criteria for rearing players who tick all the right boxes.

So what's the end goal? What kind of player are we trying to rear? Here's what RM says on the matter.

--- Quote ---Within top teams in the sport of football it is more widely expected of each player that he is more versatile.

The high level of complexity, the continuing action, and the continuous change in attacking and defending, guarantee a high level of unpredictability in the ever-changing situations. that alone demands a lot of insight into the game and football intelligence of the player.

Each player has to learn to see the tactical connection. The tactical framework put forward by the coach facilitates this learning process.

An accomplished football player must, together with adequate technique and specific mental and physical qualities, possess football intelligence, insight into the game, and recognise the ever changing situation. He must be able to choose very quickly the most team efficient solution out of the many possible solutions. Talk about complexity! This is also why from a young age on, the tactical and technical development of players should go hand in hand. Also, the youth football development process must be a structured, ongoing tactical maturation process.
--- End quote ---

At this stage, let's revisit the interview with PietHamberg.

Piet might as well be doing an impression of RM.

--- Quote ---We try to prepare our young players so they can make the step-up from the Academy to Melwood. The technical ability of a player is very important as well as the mental part. Without a good mental attitude and technical ability a player will never achieve their ambition of playing in the Liverpool first team. That is our aim and our goal is to produce players here at the Academy who will go on to play for the first team. If we have these two parts I've mentioned then we go further and teach the players from a tactical point of view and from a physical point of view.
--- End quote ---

And again...

--- Quote ---I liken it to building a house with all my coaches and all my assistants and all the people who are working here at the Academy. In the house we start with the management on the ground floor which is like the foundation. We will then set our goals and our philosophy. The second part of the house is the first floor which about having the right mentality. Part three is the technical part, part four is the tactical part and the fifth part is the physical part.
--- End quote ---

You couldn't get a clearer endorsement of RM's model. It's not immediately clear whether Piet will talk the talk and walk the walk, but at the very least, we're starting out with the right vision and philosophy if you see the current LFC project as one that follows RM's model.

Hamberg has introduced a structured skills framework in the Coerver method ( ), and while there's no conclusive proof of this, I'd argue that we're now seeing a pattern emerge in the way Liverpool plays football at youth, reserve, and senior level. We have a variety of ways of playing the game, and a variety of personnel that's suited to each style. Ideally the personnel can adapt to each style of play, and each balance of defence versus attack - these are the players who will form the core of the first team week in and week out - the 'monster' players whose athleticism and versatility allows a team to push the boundaries of its capabilities.

It's worth emphasising at this point that RM's team tactical framework can't be too rigidly imposed. It's a framework - meaning it's only there to enable and guide autonomous decision making on the pitch - to help players make the right 'team efficient' choices based on whatever situation is unfolding in front of them. Individual decisions and collective decisions. When in possession, do I pass, dribble, make a certain run? When the other team is in possession, do I close down space, hold a line, adjust my position, make a challenge?

It takes years to guarantee that a player's decision making is correct in every situation. That's why, in RM's view, it's a must to develop your own players according to a structured tactical programme that takes place over several years. The second factor in its favour from LFC's current perspective is it's a damn sight more cost-effective than the first option when it's done right.

Achieving success on this front is no mean feat, however. To successfully groom a pipeline of players from youth team to first team, and to ensure that the flow of players in is strong enough - these things are difficult. They take specialist know how and forensic planning skills. Funnily enough, the kind of planning and specialist know-how that we've now put in place.

There's a reason our head of Technical Analysis is a former professor of Football at La Coruna University (yes, I know he's Rafa's mate - but they've become friends based on their shared passion for this end-to-end process - they wanted a club where they could take this kind of project to its conclusion). There's also a reason why we our Academy supremo is a dyed-in-the-wool exponent of the Ajax youth development model. The LFC project is RM's project. What we're seeing from the first team now is not thebe-all-and-end-all of footballing life under Rafa Benitez. We're seeing the culmination of the second phase in an RM-style teambuilding process. We're only really now seeing us enter the third and final phase - domination, play-making, and circulation football.

Before moving on, here's a piece from Oliver Kay in the Times that hints at the quality coming through our ranks. Taken out of context, his words question Rafa's desire to bring these players through; however, we've already seen the words of Hamberg on this front – when they're ready technically and tactically, they'll be compared 'like-for-like' with their counterparts in the first team squad. The good ones will always play on merit.

--- Quote ---In the past three years BenÍtez has signed 27 teenagers from overseas: six from Spain, four from Hungary, two from each of Argentina, Denmark, France, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden and one apiece from Bulgaria, Ghana, Greece, Morocco and Paraguay. Throw in at least a dozen home-grown youngsters, many of whom helped Liverpool to win the FA Youth Cup in 2006 and 2007, and it is easy to see why BenÍtez feels that he has stolen a march on the club’s main rivals at youth level.

BenÍtez could be sitting on the biggest goldmine in European football…
--- End quote ---

Next, part 3 – the three development phases, and the final step in Rafa's plan for Liverpool Football Club.

Part one:

Part three:

Roy, that's a fantastic article, congratulations.  Breadth, depth and quality - the holy trinity!  ;)

Bumped for rewrite


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