" 60% of what makes a soccer player is innate"F.C Internazionale Milano, founded in 1908, is one of the three clubs which has dominated Italian soccer, along with Juventus and A.C. Milan. Before the 2005-06 season – when Inter was awarded the trophy because of disciplinary action against Juventus and Milan – the club had won the Italian league title 13 times and won the European Cup twice in the 1960s. Inter has invested heavily in developing its youth setup and is beginning to see the fruits of that investment. The U20 ‘Primavera’ side won the Italian Cup in March 2006, beating rivals Milan in the final, and in June 2006 the U15s won the national league title.
Giuseppe Baresi, head of the club’s youth set-up, says that Inter’s philosophy is “to develop the youngsters in the most complete way as soccer players in order to help them make it into the first team as young as possible. At the same, we want to help them to develop personally, to help build their character so that they can fit into society and into the world of work and to help them to be able to relate to other people in a world outside that of professional sport.”
Club line and competitive spirit
“There is a clear club line about how work should be conducted,” Baresi says. “For example, we like to play with a back four because that is how the first team plays. We like the first part of the training session to be individual technical work and the second part to be based on applied technique, which involves the beginnings of tactics. Then there is a physical element, especially with the older boys, which in today’s soccer is increasingly important.”
“It is important for even the youngest children to achieve something, whether it is learning how to juggle the ball a certain number of times, or beating a team-mate in a sprint, or beating the opponent in a practice game or a competitive match. But you need to arrive at this competitive spirit by degrees. If you push too hard too soon you will end up with a kid who wants to win so badly that he cheats, or spits at opponents or swears at the referee.”
Individual skills and specialization
“When there is too much emphasis on the result there is a risk that coaches will overlook the work needed to develop the players’ skills on an individual basis and focus entirely on coaching team units and the team as a whole. Coaches are professionals, they are paid according to results so this focus on results is understandable but you can lose out on the quality of the players. So we have to communicate to the coaches the importance of developing individual technique. I want to restore this kind of work, which would mean more work with the individual players and less with the whole team. I am convinced that if you have 11 high-quality players the team will win on its own, without needing to spend hours learning about pressing and team tactics.”
“You have to choose the right player to specialize in a particular role. Often you have players who can play in three or four different roles, who can perform all of them to a standard of six out of ten. I would prefer to develop a player who knows one role that he can perform to a level of eight out of ten. You can have 11 players who know how to do everything to a reasonable level but who will never play for the first team at Inter. But if I have one right back who can play to a high level, he might make it through.”
The right kind of coach“At Inter, we believe that coaching the U11s is as important as coaching the first team. We give the same importance to all levels. It depends, of course, on finding the right coach for each age group. It’s no good having an U11 coach who does his job with an eye on moving up to the U17s or U20s. He wouldn’t do the job properly. If you can get someone who is genuinely satisfied by working with the U11s, he will communicate the right ideas to the boys.”
Giuliano Rusca, coach of Inter’s U11s, is exactly the kind of coach that Baresi had in mind. Rusca has built a career on working with boys of 6-12 years, including a nine-year spell at AC Milan alongside Fabio Capello. Rusca has written several well-known books on developing this age group. Rusca plays down the significance of the coach, pointing out that in a professional club like Inter, the initial selection process goes a long way to determining the kind of results the youth teams achieve. “A coach can make a difference along the way but at least 60% of what makes a soccer player is innate. Soccer skills are not part of our genetic make-up but the propensity for a certain type of athletic activity is. When choosing boys to come into the U11s we look at two things: the kind of relationship the player has with the ball and the way he resolves match situations, with and without the ball. And we give precedence to players who can do things quickly.”
In the 2005-06 season, the Inter U11s category is made up of 60 boys aged between eight and 11, that is, boys born in 1997, 1996 and 1995. Each age group has its own team and plays in a separate league. The A team is coached by Rusca and Fabio Pesatori, the B team by Davide Aggio and the C team by Bruno Casiraghi and Gianni Vivabene. Manuel Amoroso is the goalkeeping coach for all groups. The children train three times a week for two hours. One of the sessions, on Wednesday, is voluntary but most boys attend.
At one training session in March 2006, the players were split into five groups of around 12 to 16 boys each. Each coach works with his own team during the season and Rusca rotates during the week to work with each group at least once. The other coaches work primarily on developing individual technique while Rusca works on match play, which covers everything from 11-asides down to 1v1 situations.
The A team (10-11 yrs):
Rusca oversaw several small-sided games, which were either 4v4, with no keeper, or 5v5 with a keeper, on a pitch of 30m x 30m. Each player, in his own half, had an unlimited number of touches but in the opposing half had only two or three touches. “This way there is little time in the finishing phase and more time in the build-up phase,” Rusca explains. “There has to be a feeling of safety in the build-up but precision and speed in the finishing phase, both in the first touch to control the ball and in the shot on goal or cross.It’s about technique applied in a situation of limited time and space.”
Rusca stopped the games several times to talk to the players. “Today I was trying to communicate the importance of precision in all aspects of the play, from a good first touch to a safe and effective pass. When I stopped them it was usually for a technical error but also for their tactical choices, like the choice of pass. They were looking all the time to pass wide whereas I wanted them to try to pass through the middle, vertically. These are the kinds of aspects we are focusing on in this period, which is part of a program for the season. Earlier in the season we did a lot of work on possession of the ball and then work in the final third where the players can take greater risks by dribbling. In this way, you gradually transmit the concept to them that they have to build the play in a certain way until the final third and once in the final third they have to conclude the action in a certain way.”
The A team:
3v2 with overlap
Pesatori prepared the A-team boys not involved in the smallsided game with a series of technical and tactical exercises. First, they spent 30 minutes juggling the ball with various parts of the body. Then they conducted a series of exercises in squares of four players based on passing, receiving and movement off the ball. “This group is involved in technical work but also work on the kind of passing and movement which is related to match situations,” Rusca explained.
The session ended with a tactical exercise based on using an overlapping wide player in a 3v2 attacking situation. Three forwards took on two defenders plus a keeper. The central forward, player A, played the ball to his teammate on the left, player B, and then moved wide left to overlap him. Player B attacked the goal, with player A wide to his left and player C wide to his right. The objective was for player B to go straight for goal and try to score and to use the wide players only if he needed to. The main focus of Pesatori’s attention was the movement of attackers A and C off the ball. He pointed out the wide players were tempted to come in centrally to help player B but that this only made the job of the defenders easier, as they had less space to cover. By staying wide, they split the two defenders and opened up space for B to shoot. As soon as one defender moved to close down the shot, he left space for one of the attackers.
The B team (9-10 yrs):
Ball skills, passing and movement
On a separate pitch, Aggio coaches a group of 16 boys in a variety of ball skills ranging from ball-juggling to crossing and shooting. In the first activity, a square is created with four poles with tape connecting the poles at a height of about 30cm (see Exercise 2). The boys first had to run through the square passing the ball under the tape, jumping over the tape, and carrying on out the other side, moving the ball along with a combination of touches with the inside of the foot and the outside of the foot. Then they had to run through while juggling the ball, jumping the tape and making sure that the ball didn’t hit the ground. They could juggle the ball using any part of the body. “That area is a minefield,” Aggio shouted, “don’t drop the ball.”
“The essence of these activities is improving the relationship a player has with the ball in all ways – running with the ball, juggling the ball, passing and shooting. The objectives are purely technical. This is part of a micro-cycle of 10 days work in which the coach has to cover all of the technical skills of football,” Rusca says.
The C team (8-9 yrs):
Running with the ball
In one half of a five-a-side pitch with a synthetic surface, eight boys practise ball skills while the other half of the group plays a match on an adjacent five-a-side pitch. Later, the two groups will swap over and the session will then end with a match involving all the boys.
In one of the technical activities, Vivabene created four adjacent squares with four plastic markers (see Exercise 3). Inside each square, there were two boys. First of all, the boys had to move around without touching the ball and avoiding contact with their team-mate. Then they had to dribble the ball around inside the square, always avoiding contact with the team-mate. On a cue from the coach, the players had to kill the ball, leaving it in the square, run to the next square in an anti-clockwise direction and start dribbling around the balls in that square.
On the next pitch, Casiraghi oversaw a match between the other players. He stressed the importance of not all congregating around the ball. “The intelligent player is the one who can find himself some space to do something important,” he told them. At one stage, he stopped the game as a player in an advanced position was calling for the ball from a defender. He asked the boy whether it was easy for the defender to reach him with the ball over that distance and what the forward could do to help. The boy realized that he needed to find some space towards the centre of the pitch to make the passing distance shorter for the defender.
One of the most noticeable aspects of the activities with all the groups is that the coaches demand that the exercises are carried out at high speed. The message is repeated time and again to the boys. “Speed is something which has to be developed because a skill is performed within a given space and time and the faster they are, the more effective they are in a match. If you have talented kids they will adapt to this. There is no evidence that if you first learn something at a low speed you can then gradually increase the speed and eventually perform the same skill at a high speed. It is more likely that if you learn skills at high speed you will be able to reproduce them at high speed. We have travelled a lot to big clubs around Europe, like Ajax and Manchester United, and this is now how everybody thinks in the important youth set-ups.”
With all the groups, even the youngest there is a continuous dialogue between coaches and children. The coaches frequently asked the players questions like: Why did you make that pass? Why did you pass in that moment? What were the alternatives? What do you think would have been the best choice?
“This dialogue is a choice we have made for this age group. We intervene to give directions on how they should play. It’s a way of making the boys take responsibility for the choices they are making. Ultimately, it’s the boys who have to play the match, not the coaches. We can’t play the game for them but we can make them think about what they are doing, so that they begin to ask themselves the same questions on the pitch. On the pitch they have to think and think quickly. The player has to be able to make an effective choice in very limited time if he wants to have a future in soccer.”