Time and Patience are essential ingredients in Youth Development

Let’s face it: soccer at all levels is obsessed with short-term results. The history of the game has provided us with several different ways to play. Fans have seen Herbert Chapman’s Arsenal side of the 1930’s (with its classic “W M” Formation), the total football played by Ajax in the 1970s, the Milan pressing game in the late-1980’s, the Barcelona tiki-taka style of play and now the high-press and high-tempo play of Manchester City and Liverpool.

But Barca’s success especially has been the result of rejecting short-term gains in favour of long-term development. The reality is that the “seeds” for the current Barcelona philosophy and style of play were planted 25 years ago by Johan Cruyff

 An article by Paul Grech called Exporting the Barca method argued that the real secret of Barcelona’s recent success has been time. I would have to agree with Paul Grech that for lasting player development success, the hard part is not changing or putting in place a new way of doing things but giving those changes and the system time to mature. An entire club must breath and move in the same way.

Enrigue Duran Diaz has spent a decade absorbing the Barcelona philosophy and is currently trying to plant the seed of that distinctive playing style at the South African club Mamelodi Sundown. He argues that for a system like Barcelona’s to be copied then everyone involved must believe in it both in terms of the on-field game, and the core values that surround a club. He also argues that setting up the structure takes time and requires many seasons, which may be contested without success as measured by standings and goals. It is his belief that the Barca model cannot be successful if others are looking to copy it simply to achieve short-term results.

At Ian McClurg Learn Perform Coaching we are establishing a new philosophy and one that challenges the current norm in Canada for elite soccer development. Our players are encouraged to play across multiple age-groups, play different positions and challenge themselves to get outside their comfort zone to master technical, tactical, physical and psychological strategies that are new to North American players. We know this will take time but believe that the best way to achieve long-term success is to sacrifice the short-term results to develop better players and people who can go on to achieve their soccer goals and be successful in life. We demand respect for our staff, the game officials, the opposition and in the way our players interact with each other. The rules and spirit of the game must be upheld and the parents must be appreciated for giving up so much to support their children.

We encourage our players to do the best they can be at school, and to be good people away from the field. We want to play attractive football, keep possession as a starting point and take the attacking initiative to our opponents. We want to encourage our players to take opponents on, try things and to be comfortable with failing. When we lose the ball we want to win it back quickly so we can attack again.

We want our players to be comfortable on the ball technically, to be capable of making good decisions on the field, to work together and help each other both on and off the field and to learn at each practice and at each game. We want to allow our players to make mistakes, take responsibility for errors, work on learning from these errors and be open to seeking and taking advice to improve. As our philosophy is different, we come across many problems every day that hinder our progress and what we are trying to do. Change can be difficult and the short-term and immediate results focus within football (soccer) will always add significant pressure. We understand that!

The bottom line is that, like Enrique Duran Diaz, I am challenged by focusing only on the things that I have direct responsibility for. The short-term set-backs and frustrations have to be set-aside so that we can successfully continue along our pathway of developing better and better players and more and more of them.

Time and patience are the essential ingredients along the way.

Measure, Track and Improve your Individual Soccer performance with Ian McClurg Learn Perform Coaching – Take the 90 day challenge!

Ian McClurg Learn Perform Coaching is partnering with Hudl Soccer and Soccer Profile to provide young players in North America with a unique Individual Player Development System that will accelerate their performance levels towards a professional playing standard. 

About Ian McClurg – UEFA A licensed coach & Masters in Performance Coaching 

By utilizing the Hudl Video Performance analysis system we are able to provide performance analysis feedback to players via an online platform. This analysis is combined with technical and physical performance benchmark testing using Soccer Profile that compares individual player performance to UK players at professional football academies. 

We can design a customized individual program for players that includes the following coaching support by a UEFA A licensed coach

  • Initial video analysis feedback of player in game situation
  • Technical & Physical Testing
  • Initial Skype call to establish individual player development goals for next 90 days 
  • Individual 1:1 or small-group training program or home online program 
  • Game Analysis 
  • Ongoing technical & physical testing program to track progress 

What it takes to play at the highest levels of the game

Our individual player development programs can successfully deliver the following player development outcomes:

  • Improved technical skills
  • Greater confidence on the ball
  • Improved creativity to solve problems on the field of play
  • Greater awareness of the required standards of play to strive for 
  • Increased physical attributes 
  • Access to Player ID Camps delivered by Professional Clubs
  • Placement in professional academy programs in the UK, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Holland and Germany 

The importance of GRIT as a predictor of success in football (soccer) and in life

Last weekend, a few of my own players demonstrated several of these key attributes by showing up and training on Easter weekend in heavy rain and hailstones. On a larger scale the performance by Everton against Manchester United last weekend ( a 4-0 win for Everton) proved that talent alone does not predict success. Manchester United operate on a much larger player budget than Everton, have more skilled players yet ran 8 kilometres less than the Everton team! The were totally outworked by Everton and as a results totally outplayed. 

Last week I wrote about what it takes to play at the highest levels of the game. Read Article .  The article spoke about the importance of ambition, desire, mental toughness and attention as key psychological predictors in defining who would be the top soccer players in the future.   

(Everton v Manchester United game statists. Source: Wyscout) 

I am a strong advocate of the research work by Dr. Angela Duckworth who developed a 12 question study to measure GRIT. You can take the test here

The research work by Angela Lee Duckworth at the University of Pennsylvania confirmed that the most significant predictor of success in kids isn’t social intelligence, good looks, physical health or IQ. 

“It’s about having stamina, sticking with your future – day in, day out, not just for the week, not just for the month, but for years – and working really hard to make that future a reality.” (Caroline Adams Miller)

Duckworth argues that the best way to build grit in kids is to develop a “growth mindset”. The growth mindset was developed by Carol Dweck, a Stanford University psychologist. Growth mindset is the belief that the ability to learn can change with effort. When kids understand the brain grows in response to challenge, they’re more likely to persevere when they fail. They cultivate grit when they know the qualities they need for success can be developed through dedication and effort. Learn More 

Grit is defined as passion and perseverance in pursuit of long-term goals and will determine who succeeds at school, in sports and in life in general. GRIT as a key predictor of future success! .  

A few years ago, I wrote the following article in my book “Play the 1v1 Way!”. I think it is just as relevant now as it was then. 

What defines the diamonds – Play the 1v1 Way!

It is a hot topic in many soccer circles: What attributes do coaches look for in identifying good players? All of us do have differing opinions but there are several common attributes that coaches at the higher levels are looking for. 

Many people would assume that physical attributes like speed and technical ability would be at the top of any list. But contrary to popular belief, attitude and the ability to learn are key factors. If you do have the correct attitude and the ability and willingness to learn it does not matter how talented you are.You simply will not be capable of playing at the higher levels of the game. 

I have watched academy training sessions at professional clubs in Europe where the most talented players technically have not followed the assigned warm-up, only played at the level they are capable of in small bursts and moaned at teammates around them. It is these players that are quickly passed over. The manager and coaching staff, after all, are looking for players they can count on, game in and game out, over a long stretch of time and not just in bursts. I read an interview recently in FourFourTwo magazine with Liam Brady, who for a long time has masterminded Arsenal’s youth- development system. He admitted that Jermaine Pennant — who has had an inconsistent, checkered career at best as a pro — was in fact the most talented player to come through the famed Arsenal youth program, but never had the discipline to make it with this legendary club. 

Talk to many professional players and they will tell you that their path to play at the highest levels of the game was paved with obstacles, in the form of many players who were judged at some point to be more talented than they were. Many of these players eventually fell by the wayside. They stopped learning and the others around them elevated their level of play to move above them. 

I firmly believe that the players who have a true love of the game have a greater chance to play it at the highest levels. Training is, after all, hard work! There will be inevitable set-backs along the way such as injury, loss of form or being rejected. Players like Rickie Lambert of the English Premiership side Southampton, who just began to make his mark during the 2012-13 season at the age of 31, spend the majority of their careers in the lower leagues.At one point in his career, Lambert had to support his lower-league income by working in a canning factory. But he kept going, always kept believing in himself, and he’s been rewarded. In summer of 2013, Lambert was even called up to the England team — and scored within seconds of making his debut as a sub against Scotland! It is very likely that he has a strong support system of family and friends around him as well. 

Players like Lambert have had to work very hard to get where they are and have a good work ethic to keep learning and stay at the top of their game. At 31, he now plays for England, while some are now doubting how long Wayne Rooney, at 27, can remain at the top level of the game. Who would have guessed that a few short years ago? 

One partner club academyWolves FC defines five main attributes that they look for in young players.To be a successful player at Wolves, players are required to have the following qualities: 

  • Take responsibility for your own attitude at all times. Ensure you set high standards both on and off the field of play.
  • Ability to handle the ball under pressure. To prepare to play at the very highest level — a high level of proficiency will be required in this area.
  • Ability to learn. The Academy represents a school of football, on this basis, you must be able to take on board information and apply it in training and in games.
  • Players must have their own vision of the game. The very best players see “pictures” before anybody else.You will have to display a certain level of game intelligence.
  • Whether you are attacking or defending, winning or losing, playing well or poorly, regardless of opposition or playing surface, in wind, rain, sleet or snow, you must have a desire to play the game
    Some of these may surprise you, because they don’t focus too much on the actual physical aspects of play. But regardless

If our youngsters can develop these types of attributes they will get identified and noticed for higher levels of play! 

What it takes to play at the highest levels of the game

Source: BBC UK: http://www.bbc.co.uk/guides/zpx87hv

What does it take to be a Premier League Footballer?

I have always taken a long-term view to player development. 

Based on my observations of working with Elite players in North America since 1998 and the study visits I have made to top academy programs in England (Wolves/West Ham), Spain (RCD Espanyol/Sevilla/Malaga), Portugal (FC Porto ) and Italy (Chievo Verona) the top predictors for young players playing at the highest levels of the game are listed below. Predictors are player attributes that professional clubs look for in young players when assessing their potential.

See Trip Observations to FC Porto in 2016

I have validated this information through my studies in a Masters in Performance Coaching program at the University of Stirling in Scotland and my recent studies in Talent Identification through the Professional Football Scouts Association.  I have also enclosed below some articles outlining what professional clubs look for in young players. 

Technical Predictors

  • Gentle contact on the ball 
  • Ability to pass long and short with correct pace/accuracy 
  • Close control of ball when dribbling at pace
  • Capable of shooting with instep drive and finishing using multiple areas of the foot 
  • Ability to change direction quickly and maintain control of ball in tight spaces
  • Uses leading edge of foot (small toe) to dribble
  • Ability to look up when dribbling 
  • Ability to protect the ball 

Psychological and Sociological Predictors 

  • Demonstrate confidence by always wanting the ball and looking for opportunities to take on defenders
  • Ambition and Desire  – motivated to do what is required to maximize potential 
  • Mental toughness – capable of overcoming set-set-backs and adversity 
  • Attention – focused and can fully concentrate during every training session/game
  • Communication – help team-mates through game situations by providing information 
  • Education – good interpersonal skills and well-educated 

What Professional Clubs look for when assessing young players 

Bayern Munich https://thepfsa.co.uk/timon-pauls-id/

Manchester United https://thepfsa.co.uk/david-hobson-id/

Major League Soccer https://thepfsa.co.uk/bruno-costa-id/

Opportunities we can provide for North American Players in 2019

1) Wolves FC Player Development Camp in Burlington on May 31-June 2 
(register at www.bit.ly/burlingtonontariocamp ) 

2) Soccer Profile Player ID Camp in Ancaster on July 15-18 : Players will be tested technically & physically and benchmarked against UK academy players at professional clubs (email me directly for details) 

3) Fleetwood Town Player ID Camp – direct pathway into professional soccer in UK. August 5-8th in Ancaster. (email me directly for details) 

4) Work with me for 3 months in 1:1 sessions with direct placement in Spanish professional clubs in fall 2019

5) RCD Espanyol Player ID Camp in Burlington in Burlington August 31- September 2 (email me directly for details)

6) FC Porto academy trip in October – (email me directly for details) 

Please feel free to email me directly at ian@ianmcclurglearnperform.com if I can assist you in implementing a  short and long-term individual player development  plan.

“By failing to prepare…..you are preparing to fail”    

Performance Improvement Tip : Technique + Game Intelligence = Success

Technical ability is a base requirement and will ultimately determine how far young players will go in the game. If young players can successfully master the ball, then they will have the confidence to consistently make the right choices and create solutions for themselves, and others on the field.

As young players advance in the game, it is important that young players start learning game intelligence and combining this with technique. This should not be confused with the team tactical work that I see at the youth levels of the game. It is about providing “individual players” with the tools to consistently scan the field of play and look for the space that they can exploit during play.

What qualities do the world’s top clubs look for when evaluating young players? They generally begin to consider players as young as 7 but cannot invite them into formal training programs until the U9 level (that is, at the age of 8). Spain has been the leader in recent years with respect to youth development. During my trip to Spanish club Sevilla FC in 2011 they confirmed that they look initially for good technique and pace. They then look for young players who understand the game. On the field, are these kids looking around at all their options? Can they make intelligent runs into open space? Can they make correct choices when to dribble and when to combine with teammates?

These same qualities are highly prized by our partner club in the UK, Wolves FC, although they will generally pay greater intention to the physical characteristics of players, as in England the physical demands on players are generally much higher than in Spain. According to the English FA’s Technical Guide for Young Player Development — The Future Game, young players of the future will be required to release the ball accurately and instantly over a variety of distances using both feet and on any surface. A quality first touch will be critical as will the ability to operate successfully in congested areas with speed and precision. Retaining possession will be a key feature of play for Elite players and so will possessing the “craft” to disguise techniques and “out-smart” their direct opponents.

The ability to exchange passes quickly and accurately with teammates on a consistent basis will increase in importance as a player gets older, rather than repeatedly taking players on in 1v1 attacking situations. As players mature they will have to demonstrate their ability to decide what to do and when to do it within the demands of game situations.

Spain, in recent years has best demonstrated the success that good technique and game intelligence can have against more physical opposition. Every player on the team, regardless of his position, has a flawless first touch, knows how to move the ball quickly, makes sound, quick decisions in all phases of the game and is willing to combine all these qualities with his teammates to form a team that is the only one in soccer history to have won three major titles in a row.

A combination of good technique and game intelligence can take our young players to higher levels of the game. I often tell the tale of Pep Guardiola being chosen for Barcelona — the club team that has supplied most of the players to the Spanish national side — as a skinny, slow youngster because of his leadership qualities and game intelligence which far outweighed his speed and or other physical attributes at an early age. Guardiola was able to go on and play at the highest levels of the game and now is one of the world’s most innovative coaches.R

Tips for Players:  Young players should read this series of articles and then watch games on television and try to identify when teams are applying these principles. Become students of the game!

Tips for Coaches: Coaches can use Rondo’s within your training activities. Rondo’s allow your players to play, improve technique and you can teach the basis of attacking principles – length/width/depth

Tips for Parents: As a parent you can provide more support to your child and the coach by learning more about the game also. Like your own child-become a student of the game.

The New Northern Ireland – A Tactical Analysis

In this tactical analysis we look at the new Northern Ireland and how they have changed their playing style. At the 2016 Euros Northern Ireland was one of the smaller nations. However, like Iceland and Wales, they outperformed several more illustrious rivals. Many asked how a country of only 1.8 million people were able to navigate through a tough qualifying group containing Germany, Poland and the Ukraine to qualify for the last sixteen. The Northern Ireland squad at Euro 2016 dared to dream!

However, outperforming more illustrious rivals has been nothing new for Northern Ireland. For many years they held the record as the smallest nation to win a game at the World Cup finals and in September 2017 they were ranked as high as twenty in the FIFA world rankings. They are currently ranked thirty-sixth.

Euros 2016

Hard-work, determination, persistence, togetherness as a group and effective man-management allowed the Northern Ireland team in 2016 to achieve success. They were direct in their play and were stubborn in defence. When Northern Ireland played Germany in the group stages, the Northern Ireland goalkeeper Michael McGovern make twenty-eight saves. When asked about his performance in an interview he simply shrugged his shoulders and said “I had a busy day!”

A 1-0 defeat by Wales in a hard fought game eliminated Northern Ireland from the 2016 Euros. During qualification for the 2016 World Cup only a disputed hand-ball that led to a penalty kick was the difference between Switzerland going to Russia instead of Northern Ireland.

A New Northern Ireland Tactically 

Fast forward to 2019 and Michael O’Neill has built a very different squad that play a very different way. In the past Northern Ireland were comfortable conceding possession  to opponents, keeping clean sheets and scoring goals from set pieces and counter-attacks. Only five players remained from the starting line-up versus Wales in 2016 compared to the starting line-up’s versus Estonia and Belarus for the first two qualifying games for the 2020 Euros. Cathcart and Evans remain as the central defensive pairing, Stephen Davis has retained the captaincy in his central midfield position and Kyle Lafferty was retained as centre forward. Stuart Dallas has been converted from a midfield player to an attacking full-back.

Northern Ireland now deploy a 4-3-3 formation rather than the 4-5-1, 3-5-2 and 4-4-1-1  formations frequently used by Michael O’Neill in the past. Northern Ireland had 53% of possession and successfully completed 329/415 (79%) passes against Belarus.

Most telling was the statistic that seventy five percent of Northern Ireland’s possession reached their opponents half and fourteen possessions reached their opponents box. Northern Ireland primarily used the flanks in their attacking build up play and tried to get Jones and McGinn in one versus one attacking situations against the Belarus full-backs or create overloads with their advanced full-backs Dallas and Lewis providing overlapping options. As a team Northern Ireland delivered thirty three crosses into the box, thirty percent of which were accurate while restricting their opponents to only thirteen crosses into the box. 

Steven Davis (#8) was Northern Ireland’s most prominent player. He successfully completed 57/68 passes (84 % ) and was the pivotal playmaker in this system. He  dropped back to receive the ball from the central defenders before linking with his two more advanced midfielders, George Saville ( #6) and Paddy McNair (#17) . Davis also frequently played the ball wide to the two advanced full-backs Stuart Dallas and Jamal Lewis during build up play.

Michael O’Neill has spoken about the effect of bringing younger players such as Jamal Lewis, George Saville and Jordan Jones into the team. It has provided more energy and more attacking options. Long diagonal balls from the central defenders early up to Kyle Lafferty was a frequent tactic by Northern Ireland in the past. Now, the build up play is patient and deliberate and moves through the midfield area before being played wide. The two central defenders Cathcart and Evans are comfortable bringing the ball out of defence and successfully completed 48/52 and 40/46 passes respectively against Belarus. Only on one occasion did Cathcart attempt a long diagonal ball up to the forwards. 

This new system and style of play suits the current squad of players available to Michael O’Neill. Northern Ireland have strikers such as Lafferty, Magennis and Boyce who can all be physical in the box and are at their best when attacking crosses played into the box rather than the ball being played into their feet or chasing balls played in behind defences.

Similarly the current squad also has many wide players who are capable of delivering quality crosses into the box. Jones and McGinn started as the two attacking wide-men in the 4-3-3 formation but full-backs Stuart Dallas and Jamel Lewis are also very capable of getting forward to support attacks and deliver crosses.. Dallas has been converted from a winger to an attacking fullback and delivered five crosses from the right side during the game against Belarus. Lewis on the left side delivered two crosses and was a constant threat with his overlapping runs. This provided Jones with opportunities to cut inside and run at the Belarus defence or take on the Belarus full-back in one versus one situations .Jones had 9/13  successful dribble attempts and delivered eleven of Northern Ireland’s thirty three crosses during the game.

However, a quick look at the crossing statistics against Belarus confirm that while Northern Ireland attempted many crosses from deep positions in the attacking third, the accuracy of these crosses requires improvement. Jones got himself into some great positions on the left side but all eleven of his crosses were unsuccessful. Dallas and McGinn who delivered their crosses from the right side tended to play their crosses into the box further from the Belarus goal and achieved greater success with their crosses. 

Fatigue did play a role in the Northern Ireland performance against Belarus. They made no changes to the starting line-up that played against Estonia only three days earlier.  Possession dropped from fifty-seven percent during the Estonia game to fifty three percent against Belarus and the XG (expected goals) rating dropped from 2.08 against Estonia to 0.99 in the game against Belarus.  XG is a metric that assigns to every shot a probability (based on historical stats) of the likelihood of scoring from that position. Successful pass completion also dropped from eight two percent versus Estonia to seventy nine percent versus Belarus. Granted, Belarus are considered a more competitive team than Estonia and are ranked higher in the FIFA rankings. Belarus is currently ranked seventy-eight and Estonia is currently ranked ninety sixth. However, it took a late goal in the eighty seventh minute from Josh Magennis to secure all three points.

Challenges Ahead 

Greater challenges await Northern Ireland in their qualifying group for the 2020 Euros. Germany and Holland will provide sterner tests and it will be interesting to see if Michael O’Neill persists with an attacking 4-3-3 formation in those games, particularly in the away fixtures. However, the introduction of youth into the squad, which O’Neill began during the UEFA Nations League games has provided the squad with more attacking options and greater opportunity to play a more ball possession oriented possession style of play.

Performance Improvement Tip #1: Improve contact time with the ball

One of the biggest challenges that young Canadian players face is the lack of contact time with the ball.

Young Brazilian players are spending 12-15 hours a week working on their ball skills and young European players are training five or six times each week. Consequently, Canada must adopt the same philosophy towards technical development if we wish to be truly successful in soccer in competition with these nations.

It is important to remember that while these players may not have “coaches” in the same way that we understand the term, there is always an older sibling, parent, relative or friend to pass along lessons of technique and the fundamentals of mastering a ball. More and more professional academies are introducing “non-structured” free play to their curriculum in an effort to develop more creative players. This can include futsal play, ball mastery work led by the players themselves or even 1v1, 2v2 or 3v3 competitions.

“Technique is the basis of everything”

“I notice that many coaches still think that training technical skills can only be done during a warm-up or that it is only a small part of a larger whole. This thought process must be eliminated. Technique is the basis of everything. If you can see where you have to pass the ball to, but you don’t have the technical skill to pass the ball to the correct spot, then recognizing the correct moment is worthless. Without technique there is no tactic.

Pepljn Lijnders– current Liverpool FC First Team Coach and Former Technique Trainer at FC Porto (Portugal) and PSV (Holland)

See Pepljn Lijnders Training Session

In Canada and North America in general I see far too many training sessions where players have limited contact time with the ball and there is an over emphasis on tactical work. As Pepljn rightly points out, you can have the best tactical plan and objectives for your team but if our young players cannot keep possession, feel confident in taking players on and beating them in 1v1 situations or passing a ball accurately at the right pace to teammates then the players cannot succeed. Last year I ran a 30-minute ball mastery session where the players touched the ball close to 5,000 times (I had a parent count). Surely our time as youth coaches is better spent on facilitating this type of dynamic environment (that mirrors the game) than one that is static, unrealistic and robotic.

In 2016 I visited the Chievo Verona academy in Italy. We all view the Italians as great tacticians of the game yet at Chievo this work does not begin until the U15 level. Prior to that the younger teams spend one session at the beginning of the season working on how the team should play. At the Chievo Verona academy they focus on ball mastery in the air and the majority of training activities involves 1 ball/player, or group work in two’s and three’s. This is very similar to the approach that Pepljn adopted at FC Porto and at PSV. It is also similar to the training activities I observed in Spain with Sevilla FC.

The academy programs at professional clubs in Europe are designed to develop and produce talented individual players. The focus is on individual player development. In Canada, we are still overly focused on building and developing teams. It is an approach that is not helping us to develop creative and talented players who are comfortable with a ball at their feet.

Let’s change this by increasing the contact time that all our young players spend on the ball.

Tips for Players: Take a ball to the park and work on your skills for 30 minutes each day, rather than spending time on your phone or iPad. If you ae not sure what to work on Coerver have a FREE app containing ball mastery activities to work on or you can research other work on You Tube. There are lots of tips also on the 1v1 Soccer FC YouTube channel. During winter months you can use a tennis ball in the basement

Tips for Coaches: How much of your training activity is spent on ball mastery work? Typically, I spend 30 minutes each session with players working at a high tempo in a chaotic structure which demands close control and recognizing and exploiting space. Have a look at Pepljn Lijnders sessions online. Can you incorporate this type of work into your training? Coerver Coaching is also another great resource for placing Technical development as the cornerstone of your program

Tips for Parents: You play the most important role in your child’s development. By being positive and encouraging your child to focus on constantly improving their individual skills and love the game you will be providing them with the key attributes to succeed long term.

Is Zinchenko the answer to Manchester City’s left-back crisis?

With only nine matches to go in the race for the English Premiership Manchester City have a  slender one point lead over Liverpool. Since losing to Newcastle on January 29th Manchester City have won four consecutive matches and are favourites to repeat as champions. However, Manchester City’s injury list is growing and Delph, Fernandinho, Laporte, Stones and De Bruyne will all miss the next game against Watford. 

The long term injury of Mendy has led to reports that Pep Guardiola will try to sign Leicester City’s Ben Chilwell in the summer. Fabian Delph and America Laporte have been deputizing for Mendy at left-back but their injuries have provided young Ukrainian Oleksandr Zinchenko with an opportunity.  Zinchenko is a versatile player who can play in a number of midfield positions (right midfield, defensive midfield, left midfield) in addition to left-back. He earned high praise from Guardiola after the one nil win against Bouremouth last Saturday. What is Zinchenko’s background and can he become a regular starter for Manchester City at left back?  

“Zinchenko is definitely important to us. He is playing top. With the
ball, without… his attention is excellent. Players play because
they deserve it. Oleks was committed, smart, intelligent and he
understands everything – he has incredible quality” (Pep Guardiola)


Zinchenko was born in December 1996 in the small Ukranian town of Radomyshi, which has a population of 15,000. He played for the youth clubs of Monolit Illichivsk and Shakhtar Donetsk and was an important member of the Shakhtar team that qualified for the last 16 of the 2013-14 UEFA youth league. He played in the U17 and U19 European championships for Ukraine and on both occasions was selected in the team of the tournament. 

At only 18 years of age he made his debut for FC UFA in the Russian Premier League and in October 2015 he made his full international debut for Ukraine against Spain in a Euro qualification match. Despite speculation linking him with Borussia Dortmund Zincheko signed for Manchester City on July 4th 2016 for an undisclosed fee believed to be in the region of 1.7 million pounds.

Attacking Attributes:

An attacking strength of Zincheko is his close ball control and dribbling skills. His preferred position is playing as an attacking midfielder but he can also play on both flanks and deliver quality crosses from wide areas. He is also capable of shooting from long range using his preferred left foot.

Last Saturday against Bournemouth it was his attacking play in the final third that was the catalyst for creating Manchester City’s only goal in a crucial one nil win. He cut in from an advanced position on the left flank, exchanged a one two pass with David Silva and when he received the return he scooped a return pass back to Silva who switched play to the opposite flank for Martinez to score the game’s winning goal. 

He was successful in 83 % of his game situations and recorded a pass accuracy of 91 % while playing an advanced position on the left flank. 

Manchester City dominated possession during the game so his attacking objective was to provide width as Manchester City build possession from the back and provide attacking support to Sterling on the left flank to get in and behind the Bournemouth defence. One area that required improvement against Bournemouth was the quality of his crossing from the flanks. All seven crosses were unsuccessful. 

Defensive Attributes:
There has been a question mark over Zinchenko’s slender physique and if he is suited for the physicality of the English Premiership. However, he is a strong tackler and intercepts the ball well. Against Bournemouth he won 50 % of his 1v1 defending situations , 75 % of his aerial duels and made 4 interceptions.

Summary :

In his managerial career Pep Guardiola has deployed his full-backs in various roles within his teams.  At Barcelona, Dani Alves was used as an attacking full-back who was expected to cover the entire right hand flank (both offensively and defensively). His objective was to provide width to stretch opponents and allow the wingers in front to cut inside and create two versus one overloads against the opponents fullbacks. Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy are both very athletic and well suited to this type of role. Mendy has also impressed with his quality of delivery into the  box from the left side.

Guardiola has also experimented with a back three at Barcelona, Bayern Munich and at Manchester City. The objective of the full-backs in this formation is to play in an advanced position on the flanks and pin the opponents full-backs in their defensive third.  Walker and Mendy are both comfortable in these roles also but Zinchenko may provide greater variety in attack than Mendy in this formation. His natural instincts as an attacking midfield player allow him to cut inside and combine with his teammates to open up deep lying defences. A clear example of this was the goal that Manchester City scored last Saturday against Bournemouth when Zinchenko initiated the attack that led to the goal by cutting inside and combining with David Silva. 

Guardiola has also utilized his full backs as “inverted fullbacks” where their main role is to play inside and become ball playing defenders to protect the team from counter-attacks. Walker and Mendy have both played this role but their athleticism (speed and endurance) and strengths in 1v1 attacking situations in wide areas are better suited to the two other full-back roles. Zinchenko has proved his versatility as a player and is capable of playing in this role but again his defensive qualities may be challenged if he is asked to break up counter-counter-attacks against quicker and stronger forward opponents. 

In summary, Zinchenko will be a very important player for Manchester City in the title run in. There is no guarantee that Mendy or Laporte will be fully fit during the important matches coming up and Zinchenko has demonstrated that he can successfully fulfill the left back role. However, the greater athleticism of Mendy, his ability in 1v1 defending situations and the high quality of the crosses that he delivers from the left-wing makes him a better option than Zinchenko at the left back position. If Mendy’s knee injuries persist it is likely that Guardiola will attempt to sign a new left full back in the summer transfer window, 

However, Zinchenko is very much a “Guardiola type of player”. He is good technically, is tactically versatile and has a good understanding of multiple roles within the team.  He has given to the team by playing an unfamiliar role and this mentality is something that will go a long way to ensuring that Zinchenko has the potential of a long-term future at Manchester City. However, that may be as long-term replacement for Silva in midfield rather than providing a long-term solution as a left full-back. 

Canadian Soccer – My Alternative Plan

Back in July 2012 Canada was seeking a new Technical Director. At the time I posted on our website blog ( see below) a proposed 10 step plan. All the initiatives I suggested are as relevant today as they were then. The Canadian Soccer Association have proposed another strategic plan – these 10 initiatives should be reflected in this plan if we are to achieve long-term success with youth player development.

Based on my coaching experience during the last 12 years at many different levels of the game (Private Academy Owner, Toronto FC Academy Staff Coach, Provincial and Regional Team Coach, University Coach, Super-Y League and Technical Director of a large club) I would like to propose the following 10 step plan:

1) Develop National “Proven skills development pathway plans” for grassroots and elite players that can be shared and implemented by qualified coaches at all levels

2) Increased emphasis on futsal to increase skills and enjoyment of the game

3) Implement an up to date talent identification and development program (LTPD is outdated) 

4) Implementation of national skills testing program

5) Incorporate private academies within our mainstream development programs-some of our best technical resources are there

6) Implementation of regionalized skills development coaches to visit clubs and schools to improve skills for players aged 5-8 and 9-12)

7) Joint ventures with Canadian universities to establish elite training centres at their facilities

8) Set up “coaching excellence” development centres at universities to deliver ongoing “best practices” coaching education

9) Establish a culture of “inclusion” to mobilize all our best “soccer resources” from coast to coast around one central plan

10) Establish a national professional soccer league that will form the second tier for MLS

The Canadian Youth Development System is Flawed – how do you as a player successfully develop?

The youth system in Canada is flawed! It is fragmented with our best young players being scattered across OPDL and private academy programs playing in SAAC and CAF. The governing authority, the Ontario Soccer Association, are trying to put pressure on SAAC and CAF to disband by not allowing teams in these programs to play against community club teams and preventing its better players from being selected for our Ontario provincial teams which leads to national team selection. This situation has been going on since 2005 when four of us (Bryst, Power, ANB and 1v1 Soccer ) as private academies, formed SAAC. The situation has not changed since 2005 and it is unlikely to change in the near future. Is there any other country in world football that prevents its best young players from participating in National team programs due to a “political issue”? 

In addition, the talent development methodology being deployed in Canada is flawed. LTPD is a traditional and outdated talent development model that makes the incorrect assumption that young players develop at the same rate and go through the same journey. They do not and there is significant research to prove that!

See Research and Practice in Talent Identification and Development – Some thoughts on the State of Play

The good news is that you, as a young player can take control of your own player development pathway:

 1) You can accurately assess and benchmark your current technical and physical performance levels against young academy players (at EPL professional clubs) of similar age in England. We use an individual player development platform for this 

2) You can also supplement your own team training by training on your own. Young players at academies in Europe train 10+ hours/week. We provide our Masters program players with daily video home training programs (30 minutes/day) and we also post a training video each day on our You Tube channel. You can subscribe to our channel Ian McClurg Learn Perform Coaching and receive these videos daily in your email in box for free 

3)  You can sign up for supplemental training by qualified technical skills and performance coaches. For example, we offer 2 hour technical/speed classes on Tuesday & Thursday nights and they are an effective use of time to help bridge the training gap between you and young players in Europe

4) You can actively participate in the best youth development systems in Europe by selecting programs that are tailored to you as an individual player and not travel to Europe in a team program . You can also select programs designed
 specifically to improve your individual player development and not designed to provide “an experience” with sightseeing built in. This only increases the cost and prevents players from travelling to Europe more frequently. 

All these options are much less expensive than OPDL or the high costs many of you incur by traveling to youth tournaments across Canada or the US. 

To be the best you have to do something different than everyone else. We offer a FREE consultation on how you can design your own personal individual player development plan and successfully compete with the top academy players in Europe.  

I look forward to hearing from you.

Ian McClurg, Masters in Performance Coaching & UEFA A licensed coach