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Barclay's English Premier Champs, Manchester City Focus on Developing Players
Barclay's English Premier Champs, Manchester City Focus on Developing Players | Manchester City, Mark Allen, Peter Lowe, Mark Burton, Scott Sellars, EPL, English Premier League, Youth Academy, Player Development, Soccer Player Development.

Soccer News: Manchester City Believes in Developing Talent

Manchester City enjoyed an extremely successful 2011-12 season. The club took home the Barclays English Premier League title and also won the Manchester Derby among other victories. The roster is an all star line up with players such as Sergio Aguero, Mario Balotelli, Carlos Tevez, David Silva and Samir Nasri.

Looking Ahead & Creating the Future: Manchester City Academy Coaches Handbook says, "We are one team, with one goal.  Player development is everything. We challenge every player in our system. Learning is always fun and varied. Kids are the best teachers. We create great people as well as great footballers."

The Manchester City Academy was launched in 1998 to develop young footballers. Over the past several years, since being purchased by Sheikh Mansour in 2008, Manchester City Football Club (MCFC) have put out £400 million (over $700 million U.S.) on Premier League signings. While the club’s lavish international contracts have made the news, less attention has been paid to the money spent developing the Academy. That is all about to change when the new facility opens, featuring a 7000-seat stadium and classroom space for 200 students. 

Patrick Viera, Manchester City’s Football Development Executive, has declared that the club has decided the focus should be on bringing in younger players through the Academy.

The Manchester City Academy Coaches Handbook talks about fulfilling potential and achieving greatness. It states that the football club academy's mission is to "attract, develop, motivate and retain the best natural talent by providing the best possible experience... the City Experience." 

While on a recent trip to England, SoccerNation’s Diane Scavuzzo visited with members of Manchester City’s Academy, including Mark Allen, Head of Academy,  Scott Sellars, Head of Academy Coaching, and Peter Lowe, Head of Education & Development.

Allen, Sellars and Lowe all share City’s goals for the Academy and their insight into developing high-caliber players. With unusual clarity, all three spoke of the exact same vision in slightly different words. The single message was a stellar dedication to growing their own players. With high standards for performance and conduct, Manchester City's goal is to produce players who are high-quality, first-team professionals and responsible individuals .  

Manchester City Academy on Soccer Nation News
 Mark Allen, Head of Academy in his office
Manchester City Mark Burton and Sellars on Soccer Nation
 Scott Sellars, Head of Coaching with Mark Burton, Coach of U11s
Peter Lowe, Head of Education & Development

The importance of developing a player over buying a player was crystal clear. When it comes down to the raw essence, a home grown player may have stronger allegiance to the club. A player developed inside the club's academy may bleed MCMF's shade of blue, therefore every academy player is a valued potential professional.

There is a prestige emanating from the walls of the academy, a pride radiating from coaches, administrators and players alike. Once entering the walls of the training ground, the feeling embodied there is simple; there is no better place to be.  

Manchester City's Academy is not simply a place where highly accomplished former professional players now turned youth coaches impart knowledge; the MCFC is a carefully thought out training facility incorporating the latest in scientific research, technology and facilities with great coaches sharing their wisdom.

Manchester City's Academy is one of many elite academies in England and it is well respected.

One major change in England, affecting all Premier League clubs, is the creation of the Elite Player Performance Program (EPPP). As part of the program, every professional soccer team in the league has been or is in the process of being audited to evaluate its player academy program. Each of the 92 EPL teams will be rated as a Category 1 or Category 2 club. The program is, in part, an effort to improve player development and the number of “home-grown” players on English clubs, and will create a major influence on how academies are run.

The EPPP is expected to make clubs more accountable than some feel they have been in the past. The Head of Manchester City's Academy, Allen Lowe, for one, feels many of these changes are “long overdue.”

“There was a lot of work and preparation for the EPPP audit,” said Lowe. “Obviously one of the major impacts has been that clubs had to state their philosophy. Not only do clubs have to define the philosophy, they have to live it through their work.”

And just what is the philosophy at Manchester City?

For Allen, it involves developing players who can play at the highest levels of the game, such as in the Champions League. He also sees it as producing a great player who is also a great person.  Allen describes his job as managing the experts who are developing the players.

“Our goal is to make sure we have an equal balance between a great player and a great person because in this game you have to be a great person to be able to be a great player. Ability alone won’t get you there,” Allen explained. “A great person is someone who has the tenacity, the drive, the vision, the focus and the mental aptitude to be able to cope with the bigger demands of the game today, especially in this country.”

“Football in this country is the number one sport, without any shadow of a doubt,” Allen continued. “You have to be a special kind of person to be able to make it in today’s Premier League game. The pressures are so great, the rewards are so great and the demands on the individual are so great. Therefore you have to be able to cope with what goes on & off the pitch and be able to be free of mind when you’re on it.”

Allen believes that the basis for a great player is a strong technical foundation, and to do that Manchester City Academy starts boys out early. “Our program starts at eight years old where we’re working on the technical part of the game,” he explained. “Once you’ve mastered that you can take the good to the great by working on the other attributes like physical, like tactical and like mental aptitude, but you have to hone that technical first.”

Sellars believes practice is one of the most important elements to success. "Practice, practice and then more practice helps make a great player," said Sellars. "Today players have a lot of distractions but it is practice that makes a difference."

Even though soccer is the one game where size does not really matter, Sellars was always told that he had a small frame. His determination won out after years devoted to practice. Sellars is a former professional midfielder who came up through the academy system and started his career at Leeds United, making his first appearance in 1983. Also playing for Blackburn Rovers, Newcastle United, Bolton Wanderers, Sellars is highly respected as the Head of Coaching. He is devoted to providing the environment in which youth players can flourish and develop to the best of their abilities.  

Sellars believes it is important to have full-time, age-specific coaches for the teams, along with specific skills and goalkeeper coaches, sport scientists, performance analysts, and player development/education coaches. Each age group has one team with two coaches; a head coach and an assistant coach. The younger players train three days a week, olders train five days a week - plus all teams have games on Sunday.

The Manchester City's academy structure divides player development into three age groups with distinct focus:

  • U6 to U11 focus on FUNdementals - Learning to train and enjoying every minute possible
  • U12 to U14 focus on Training to train and understanding problem solving scenarios
  • U15 to U18 focus on Training to compete and individuals becoming team players

In order to help develop the great player/person, Manchester City is working on multiple levels and with multiple areas of focus. As Lowe explained, it comes down to “hard skills” and “soft skills,” and developing top players requires focus in both areas through a Talent Profile.

Mark Burton reviews player performance in the classroom. In class training sessions are kept short to keep players attention

The Talent Profile, which on a chart looks rather like a colorful donut, breaks down the skills into three “Hardskills” (Physical, Technical and Tactical) and four “Softskills” (Constructive Self-Evaluation, Mental Toughness, Motivational and Working Traits, and Mindset). All of these skills are centered around Learning Styles, which can vary with the player.

As Lowe pointed out, while the hard skills are what are generally most apparent when scouting a player, “That’s not a great means of actually depicting how good a footballer might be.”

At Manchester City Academy, it comes down to providing the right environment to help players develop these critical soft skills because those are ultimately what make the difference between good and great. Decision making is crucial in any sport, but particularly in soccer, and Lowe believes that the Academy has created an environment that helps players develop the understanding, independence of mind and intelligence that go into great decision making.

“You have to generate that environment around a player that allows that player to develop accordingly,” said Lowe. “We can make that player more competitive because he’s placed in a very competitive environment.”

That environment is a key element in the development of talent at Manchester City or any other club. While conventional wisdom might say that a player is made on the training ground, Lowe begs to differ. “They’re made in the environment, plain and simple.”

In Lowe’s view, it is the environment that allows a player to take that passion, that love of the game, and develop the elements that will allow him to take it to the highest level. It is the environment that will help a player with a growth mindset and a “hard work ethic” – key aspects of a great player – to improve those critical soft skills that “represent a person’s true potential for growth.”

One interesting element of the environment at the Academy is the new performance analysis lab, where players can pull up and analyze videos of their performance on the training pitch. This becomes part of the Constructive Self-Evaluation skill of the Talent Profile. Players receive instruction to help them review and evaluate their performance, which also helps to move them out of their comfort zone and into a learning zone.  

What else does Manchester City do? In a single word - communicate.  One way the academy communicates is with monthly player assessments helping players improve and redefine goals. These assessments also help give parents a clear picture on their son's development.

It is too early to judge the outcome of City’s new focus on development, but Allen, Sellars, Lowe and the rest of the Academy are dedicated to the success of the program. Allen acknowledges that it is a long-term process that cannot be evaluated on one or two years.Mark Burton Manchester City

“Our goal is to make sure that we are pushing players through that are good enough to play on our First Team,” said Allen. "Therefore I think you have to have that aspiration – I think more than a goal, it’s an aspiration – to say at a certain period of time you would want a significant part of your First Team squad being made up of Academy graduates. For that to be possible, your program has to be very robust, but it takes time. It’s not going to happen in day one, day two, month one, month two, even year one, year two. It’s going to take a really concerted effort of maybe five to ten years of real investment to see the talent come all the way through.”

An additional benefit of developing “home-grown” players for the First Team is creating what Allen calls an “affinity” to the club. By developing their own players, City looks to create a culture similar to FC Barcelona’s, where you have players like Iniesta, Xavi and Messi who, “when you cut them open they say FCB inside.”

If Allen, Sellars, Lowe and the rest of the Academy have their way, the next generation of City players will say MCFC inside. 

Mark Burton, who coaches the U11 squad, exuded a warmth with his players as he worked hard to develop them individually and collectively. Always keeping training flowing and dynamic, Burton coached his team through extensive drills as he rotated them through the pitch set up for small sided games.  Training included 1v1 challenges, positioning, tactics and defending/attacking drills. Players were obviously comfortable speaking with Burton, yet respectful and appreciative of their opportunity.  

The huge takeaway message was the coaches, players, staff and even the parents all seemed infused with pride and ease. The genuine camaraderie among all the coaches was noticeable.  Manchester City Academy was a place people wanted to be at. Man City was not a part of their life, it was the center. In America where coaches and players all participate in many programs simultaneously, it was a marked difference.

The club's new Football Academy facilities are expected to be complete in 2014, and this mutli-million dollar facility (complete with a state of the art medical facility -- it's easier to fly the surgeon (often the best in the world) to the player than fly the injured player to a hospital far away) will become center of all operations. This new facility will offer the academy dormitory housing, additional field space and more training grounds adjacent to where the First team practices.

Do English Premier League academies provide the ultimate in youth player development? With an overwhelming assortment of resources, a clear vision for the future and everyone on the same page, the Manchester City Academy certainly is a beacon of light to the future. 

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