Re-print Courtesy of Soccer Journal
An opportunity arose for one of my children to experience youth soccer for a week in Barcelona. As a soccer family, we generally eschew the abundant soccer opportunities outside of their club schedule. But like many, we have long admired the beauty of Spanish football and decided it would be a worthy overall experience.
These impressions are offered with the understanding that a sample size of one week is limited. On the other hand, I believe the best way to understand the big picture is by looking at what’s happening on the front lines, and the images offered at the grassroots level. In this sense, after experiencing youth soccer for a week in Barcelona, it’s more clear to me why Spanish football is what it is.
Our host was Football Five Star (FFS), a Barcelona-based group of Spanish coaches who run soccer programs teaching the principles of Spanish football. Soccer IQ Academy, a training program focused on possession soccer, hosted FFS in Denver providing our exposure to FFS, their pedagogy and ethos. The training schedule consisted of morning training with the FFS coaches, followed by evening training with a local soccer club, UE Sant Andreu. For context, Sant Andreu is a respected club in Barcelona whose first team plays in the Spanish 3rd Division, and their youth teams play in the top divisions in the Catalonia youth league, which include La Liga clubs FC Barcelona, Espanyol and Girona.
While most of the exposure was with boys in birth years 2007 through 2004, we also had a chance to observe training for other groups ranging from ages five to 19. The prominent themes observed during the training sessions include the following:
- Details – A lot of emphasis is placed on teaching details, almost none too small. An example was a receiving game where the progression and the coaching points were incredibly granular: checking shoulders multiple times while offering support; creating the appropriate angle of support to the ball based on from where it’s coming, and importantly, where the ball needs to go next; the angle of the first touch that enables natural movement necessary to play with the second touch.
How often do we hear the coaching mantra: “play faster!”. The instruction in this receiving game illustrates how the coaching thoughtfully unpacks the topic by actually teaching how to play faster. The coaching is not just “what to do”, but rather, the “how” and the “why” is everywhere in the teaching.
- Space – Part out of necessity, but seemingly out of design also, the space allocated to teams for training was shockingly sparse. In one time block of training, we saw nine groups training on a full-sized field, consisting of goalies and younger teams (U5 through U10s). In the next block, we saw six teams of U11s through U14s occupy a full field. Interestingly, on another night when there were only three teams of older boys training, they only occupied a little more than half of the full field. Even though there was more space available on this night, they didn’t really use it.
- Game-like Games – Nearly everything we saw in the training sessions involved game-type situations, regardless of the topic of the exercise. Small example: in a shooting game, a defender and a shooter passed the ball to one another until the shooter makes a break for goal at which point the defender chases trying to catch the shooter. Nothing was rote and everything seemed to simulate a game-like situation. Also, the nature of the exercises always seemed to have the structure of a “game”, versus a “drill”. This really made an impression on me. The games were really good and this showed in the energy, quality and appearance of fun.
- Consistency – Across five nights and nearly three hours of viewing per night, it was surprising to see how similar the training sessions were from age group to age group. Most of the sessions were dedicated to games focused on a topic, and it was surprising to see how little time was devoted to pure technical work. Admittedly, every game required technical competence, but I only recall one instance the entire week that involved a rote technical exercise. Also, the lack of time devoted to explaining the game made it seem as if the players were familiar with the games, and the progressions, like they’ve done them before time and again.
As time passes and I reflect on this observation, the more I value what we saw. A steady diet of the key principles of play results in deeper understanding, and ultimately more mastery of key principles, versus trying to work on too many concepts without going deep enough, which complicates the technical rubric, and in the end results in less mastery of anything.
- U6s – We watched a group of five year olds practice and it was eye opening. I coached all three of my kids at these ages and always focused on trying to nurture individual skills and ball mastery. What we saw was the exact opposite. Their practice was also made up of different games versus rote drills, but what was really fascinating was that they were playing soccer more like adults. Instead of the typical scrum associated with five and six year olds all chasing a ball, these kids were spread out utilizing space and allowing a teammate to either be on the ball, or defend, versus competing with their teammate for the respective role. A coach was merely supervising and putting new balls into play. It wasn’t clear if he had coached this approach over time, or if they were naturally playing this way.
Marvin Quijano is a friend who was also on the trip. Marvin was part of Project 40 as a youth, and went on to play in MLS with LA Galaxy and Colorado Rapids, and was an El
Salvador international. Marvin and I watched in amazement, but unlike me who was just left to wonder, Marvin offered a theory: “they are playing real soccer here, because they probably already spend a lot of time on the ball on their own. Every day.” This made sense to me coming from Marvin, who did not play organized soccer until the age of 14. He came from the streets. He knew.
The technical level on the ball was high, but what was more remarkable was the speed of decision making, which when combined with intelligent support, results in a speed of play that was impressive. A few observations:
- Clean on the ball – It was impressive to see players so clean on the ball as young as U11. Mistakes were generally not of a technical nature, but rather, decision-making or something else than technical failure. The speed of play seems to nurture this technical proficiency. There just isn’t enough time on the ball to be wasteful with touches.
- Speed of decision-making – What stood out the most was the ability of players to read the situation and make decisions quickly, both on and off the ball. This is really where I see the biggest difference with environments with which I’m familiar here in the States. The Spanish youth are so aware of the move both when in possession and when defending.
- Space and Time – The one concept that always seemed to present in training was an almost maniacal focus on finding the open space. Their games were heavily geared toward unlocking the immediate environment to exploit the open space elsewhere to find more time on the ball. Attendant with this on the other side of the ball was an equal focus on cutting down time and space when defending. Many of the games we observed were generally non-directional in nature. I know non-directional training goes against some of the technical literature, but I found many of those games to be the best, and illustrated some of the highest quality of play all week.
One game we observed left us shaking our heads in disbelief. There was a grid and it was decidedly small. The game was 9 v 9 in the middle with one neutral on each of the four end lines. The group was U13s (2005). With 18 players in the grid, there is intentionally no time and space. The level of play in this game was the most impressive thing we saw all week.
The ability to play out of tight situations through combining and then very quickly moving the ball to the open space was amazing. There was also some special individual skill on display in this game, as some of the players showed special ability to create a solution individually when presented with no options in their immediately area. Marvin and I both agreed that you cannot run this game without high level players. It was impressive!
Structure and Infrastructure
It’s worth noting some observations about the structure and infrastructure for youth soccer in
Barcelona, because I believe they contribute significantly to the development environment.
- Smaller clubs = higher quality and more consistent competition – The typical club in Barcelona is much smaller than the larger clubs with which we are familiar in the US. At U11 and older, there are usually only two teams per birth year. This results in a smaller pool of players and coaches to develop, and it’s easier to be good when there are only one or two teams to focus on per birth year, than six or seven.
The size and nimbleness of these clubs results in having more clubs that can produce more quality. “Smaller clubs compete against larger clubs by trying to provide higher quality education and curriculum. This is their only weapon to compete against bigger clubs and to keep talent as long as possible,“ observed Narcis Sirvent, a principal of FFS.
This dynamic results in a more democratic and competitive landscape, versus many markets in the US where a few clubs tend to dominate the local market and those teams only get one or two strong games per season.
- Facilities – Part of the reason why clubs are smaller is there is limited space for facilities within the city. UE Sant Andreu has two facilities, both consisting of a single full-sized field. That’s two fields for an entire club! These two fields serve every age group – U4 to U19. Some clubs have only one field. UE Sant Andreu’s main facility seats about 6,500 and is where their first team plays.
- Part-Time vs. Full-Time – In a typical local club, there are only a few full-time positions capable of being supported. The typical coach is paid about €100 – €200 Euro a month, in season. Pay can be higher for more competitive teams, but the coach also must pay assistants out of their own pocket. So, every coach coaches for their own enjoyment and development, versus coaching as if their livelihood depends on it. This manifests in a very different coaching style and approach than coaches who feel their jobs depend on results.
- Age Groupings – The Catalonia youth league is organized with two birth years competing in each division – 9/10s, 11/12s, 13/14s, 15/16s, 17-19s. So, if a club has two teams per birth year, there would be four teams in a given division. A strong team of 2007s would play against the full range of 2006s, making the 2007s better. A less competitive team of 2006s would have their share of games versus 2007s, providing a balance of games versus just playing against the best 2006s. The result is a match environment of “playing up”, while still maintaining age balance, as players are accustomed to fighting against older players from their first entry into competitive leagues. This has to help them in the long run.
- 7 v 7 – They play 7 v 7 until U13 at which point they play 11 v 11. Kudos to the USSF for
mandating small sided games last year here in the US, because otherwise we’d still be playing 11 v 11 at U11 in many parts of the country. However, 7 v 7 seems more compelling than our 9 v 9 for 11s and 12s. The field dimension (40 x 60) was perfect and having four less players on the field results in a simpler environment from which to play and develop the game intelligence, game initiative and technical benefits intended from small-sided- games.
- Offsides Line – Another important difference in their match structure is that offsides does not start at midfield, but rather, just a few yards in front of the top of the box. This creates more space to play in the final third as the defending team is required to cover more space defensively. This creates more depth for the attacking team, which provides more space to exploit going to goal. This deep lying offsides line is powerful because it develops game intelligence and game initiative on both sides of the ball.
- Match Playing Time & Stoppages – The U11/U12 games we watched used a system of four quarters instead of two halves, and each player was required to play two full quarters for the game. Additionally, substitutions were only allowed at the start of each quarter and within the fourth quarter.
The results of these two policies are massive. One, players not only get guaranteed 50% playing time, but moreover, they get a full shift of time where they can hopefully find the game through benefiting from the full rhythm of the quarter. Second, the game is not continually being stopped for substitutions disrupting the flow of the game. Lastly, I suspect these policies impact roster selection as coaches are only selecting players who are fit for the level of competition, versus a roster with some players who are filling numbers and who coaches sometimes try to “hide” in matches throughout the course of a season.
- Artificial Turf – When two fields have to support an entire club, turf is going to be the surface of choice and every training session and match we saw was played on turf. As both a faster surface and one that requires better ball control, playing on turf from day one seems to contribute to the development of their players.
Whether by design, through necessity or otherwise, I believe these structural dynamics are key contributors to the environment for player development in the youth system in Barcelona.
FCB Academy Matches
The first thing we did the day we arrived was take a tour of Camp Nou, so there was some symmetry to spending our last day watching FC Barcelona Academy (FCBA) matches at their home complex, Joan Gamper. Bookend FCB experiences for our trip! The facility has to be one of the best in the world, and it’s where their first and second teams train, in addition to being the home for all training and matches for their academy teams.
We saw four matches consisting of FCB’s U11s (2007), U12s (2006) and U16s (2002) boys teams, and their U12 girls (2006). The key takeaways include the following:
- Clear and Consistent Game Model – It was clear that every FCB academy team was playing a similar game model, as confirmed by watching three different U11/U12 matches, one of which was also a girls match. No surprises here, the FCBA teams dictated possession heavily, regardless of the age group and competition. All three teams played the same general formation and the roles of each position was similar from team to team.
- Free Flowing – While the formations and roles were similar from team to team, the FCBA players moved freely and reacted to the run of play based on interpreting the situation versus playing in a more structured positional role. For example, the two central midfielders could be pressing high up the field one moment, and upon the team winning the ball, they could in the back providing support for the center back. The center back and the striker generally stayed to represent their respective lines, but the four midfield players actively played in all three lines, depending on the situation. The players seemed to be
playing to “concepts” of shape, support and opportunity, versus “positions”.
- The Players – The FCBA players were what you would expect – intelligent and technical, but three things really stood out.
- First, their movement off the ball showed a level of maturity beyond their years. There was always support and options on both sides of the ball and their ability to interpret space was fascinating to see at such young ages.
- Second, their players are so aware of the move. Even with multiple options around them, they frequently knew which option presented the greatest opportunity.
One example, an attacking player received a ball in their air from his left flank. He receives with his back foot and without the ball hitting the ground, he plays a volley with his other foot switching the ball to the right flank where his winger has already made a run into space. His winger receives in the air with his back foot. His first touch is clean enough to ground the ball while in stride, allowing his second touch to seal his defender putting him in cleanly for a crossing ball to three players in the box.
In this example, the technique is impressive, but the awareness of the team move is off the charts. They are doing the work in advance, two and three plays ahead of the ball at hand.
- Third, while I expected to see intelligent and technical players, their ability to compete individually was impressive. A 50/50 ball in the air with two players in the area? A FCBA player almost always came away with it. They were first to the ball and had a level of savvy in using their body and leverage that enabled them to win their individual battles all over the field.
- Commitment of Opponents – It was interesting to see the FCBA opponents continue to play their style, irrespective of the score. In one game, the FCBA opponent struggled to break the first line when playing out of the back, but they never stopped trying, even when the goalie would make a mistake handling with their feet. They kept using the goalie to try and create a numerical advantage in playing out of the back and the coaches never yelled at
them when they couldn’t. How the opponents stuck to their style and philosophy even in the face of difficulty against high pressing FCBA teams was impressive. It showed a real commitment to their own game model and philosophy.
- Coaching Commentary – It was interesting to see the amount of coaching coming from the FCBA coaches during the game, particularly in the three U11/U12 matches. To be clear, the level of instruction wasn’t close to being excessive or constant. It was just interesting to see that they use games as an opportunity to teach, versus the literature in the U.S. which is decidedly against coaching during the games. Personally, I like how the FCBA coaches interacted with the players during the game as I believe games present great teaching moments when executed with the right message, tone and timing.
- Joy – While I knew the level of soccer at FCBA would be high, what impressed me the most had nothing to do with the technical or tactical aspects of the FCBA teams and players.
What stood out the most from my day of watching games was a noticeable presence of joy
in the FCBA players and coaches.
We’re all thinking the same thing right now – “I would be joyful as well if I were playing or coaching at FCB!” But, it’s not that obvious. Playing or coaching for arguably the top academy in the world comes with a level of expectations that could manifest in a very different culture.
It would not be unreasonable to have words describing the environment in any professional academy to include pressure, tension, demanding, yelling. These would all be natural characterizations. Jobs are on the line.
But, what I saw was very different. The coaches would come off the bench at the end of each quarter greeting the players with high fives and with smiles on their faces, even embraces. Greeting the players. The coaches would shake hands with their counterparts after the game with two hands showing respect and humility. The players never yelled at each other when mistakes were made. To be fair, the FCBA coaches would get after their players, but the tone was never extreme. They made their point and moved on.
This body language and the overall environment was the most remarkable aspect of observing FCBA for a day. There was warmth. There was respect. It was collegial. Everyone was having fun.
If there is a single theme that pinpoints the difference between what I saw in Barcelona and what I see in the U.S., it would the difference in culture. I’ve thought a lot about the week and considered the technical, tactical and other field-related aspects of the soccer, but I believe the greatest contributors to the differences on the field come from the differences in our cultures. A few observations:
- We went to an Espanyol home game versus Valencia. We bought tickets at the window before the game. It costs €5 for a kid to go to a game, €5 Euro! Kids are exposed to first division La Liga games for virtually free. This access not only builds lifelong fans of clubs,
but it also facilitates the culture of soccer at early ages. Kids grow up following their club, their players and wanting to emulate those players by playing for their club one day.
- In observing the training and games involving Zone 1 ages (U6-U12), the commitment to implementing their philosophy was clear. Getting beaten did not change the way FCBA opponents played, and winning did not change how FCBA tried to play. The education was continuing for both groups, regardless of score.
- It was noticeable in training that when a player got beat and the defender would occasionally grab or foul to impede progress, the player being held back did not complain. He did not throw up his arms, he did not yell at the player who fouled him. He did not look to the coach for protection. He just kept playing.
- The run of play would continue in training even if the ball went out of bounds by a few feet. The flow and rhythm of play was favored over a strict interpretation of lines stopping play.
- Players, not coaches, carried equipment on the field and returned equipment to sheds after practice. Even the 10 year olds.
- During games, parents clapped when goals were scored and cheered good play, but never did they speak directly to players or the referee, or even cheer a player directly (“great play Jennifer!”).
- Each club facility had a little clubhouse for refreshments, food and even beer. There were pictures on the wall of first teams from way back, pictures of youth teams who had won trophies, and banners of other clubs they had played over the years. While sparse and small, these facilities and the club, felt like they had soul and character.
- The facilities had multiple locker rooms for the different age groups. The players would gather before training and even shower after training. The club we trained with for the week was not a first division La Liga team, but the environment felt professional.
- The environment of play was competitive, but it felt like the players and the coaches were having fun. Some coaches were more “spirited” with their players than others, and one moment they could be getting after a player, and the next moment they were joking around with them. The players weren’t coddled, and there was a fraternal and almost brotherly tough-love type of culture.
- The part-time nature of the typical club coach would suggest there could be less commitment or involvement. But, the opposite dynamic may be the case. When you don’t have to win to keep your job, and you have an idea of the type of soccer you want your teams to play, you can be more committed to working towards that vision, which results in a team environment that has freedom and energy, versus burden and pressure.
As time passes and reflecting back on the week becomes more clear, there are a few things that really stand out. The first is that I have a much stronger belief in the importance of Zone 1 development. It’s true that individual players can, and will, break their development trajectory past Zone 1, however, as a system (a club, a program, a nation), I believe the final product will largely be a function of what the overall quality and depth looks like at the end of Zone 1.
Second, I see a lot of developmental benefits in their structural set up. Smaller clubs allow each club to go deeper when you have fewer kids, resulting in a broader and more competitive landscape. The dual birth year age grouping structure is also a benefit as players are place in a match environment that is more uncomfortable from day one. From a training and coaching standpoint, the value of focusing on a few key concepts and really trying to master those, along with the approach of using game-like games for training sessions are high value concepts that I believe will pay off in player development on longitudinal basis.
Lastly, in addition to the week full of soccer, we spent every minute chasing the rest of the Barcelona experience. It is a beautiful city full of history, arts and architecture, all of which seems to blend seamlessly with FC Barcelona’s well known mantra, mes que un club – more than a club. With due respect to the larger ecosystem in Spanish football, after experiencing youth soccer in Barcelona at the most grassroots level, the soccer in Barcelona seems more than about soccer. It’s a culture. And I believe the quality of their football in good measure comes from as many things that are off the field in their football culture – passion, fun, humility, respect, kindness, an authentic commitment to philosophy – than perhaps the obvious technical qualities that everyone sees on the field. The players are not physical freaks of nature and there’s nothing I saw that our players can’t do. But, our culture is very different. Does a club create culture or does culture create the club? Either way, after seeing youth soccer in Barcelona at its most grassroots level, I now have some insight into a question I’ve asked myself for a long time – why do FC Barcelona and the Spanish national team always seems to have more players on the field than their opponent?