By Carlos Bosch and Pacu Calabuig
Translation by Joe Campos
NOTE: This article was originally published by Super Deporte and appears here with the express permission granted by Superdeporte Empresa Editorial, S.A. The original article in Spanish can be found by clicking here.
PROLOGUE - BY JOE CAMPOS
The Covid-19 pandemic has altered the timeline of international football in dramatic fashion. As a result of temporary suspensions of play, the 2019/20 season closes just as the 2020/21 season is about to get underway. In fact, Valencia CF played their last match of the 2019/20 season on July 19 and are currently preparing for their first pre-season friendly of the 2020/21 against CD Castellon on August 22. Everything is compressed. Since ending their 2019/20 season, Valencia has sent strong signals that change is coming.
First, Valencia have signed a new manager, Javi Gracia. The most significant changes, however, concern the first team and the role Valencia's youth academy will play in the short , medium and long-term. The biggest news since the close of the 2019/20 season has been the departure of 20 year old star and academy product, Ferran Torres. Torres had been with the academy since the age of 6 and signed with Manchester City for a sum well below his market value. This is a sore point at Valencia and there is no shortage of dramatic ink being spilled on the story. For its part, Valencia have made it abundantly clear that they offered Torres one of the highest salaries on the team but he rejected it.
Since Torres' departure, Valencia have parted ways with skilled, popular but aging players including Dani Parejo and Francis Coquelin to crosstown rival Villareal. Other players may be offloaded as well as it appears Valencia is headed in a new and younger direction. The signs of a youth revolution are unmistakable. In July, Valencia signed youth academy product Hugo Guillamón to a first team contract running through 2023. Guillamón is another player who joined the academy when he was 6 years old. Other youth academy players who have been given the chance to debut with the first team include Vicente Esquerdo and Adrían Guerrero.
Perhaps the most exciting young player at Valencia now is 19 year old Kang-in Lee. It is likely that Kang-in will feature heavily in Valencia's first team and all signs point to the club building around him by bringing in young players from its academy. An article published just today in Super Deporte reveals that new manager Javi Gracia is moving Kang-In centrally to play as a #10 in a 4-2-3-1 system, just in front of double pivots Racic and Esquerdo, whereas prior managers featured him mostly as an outside or wide player in a 4-4-2. It appears certain that Kang-In will be featured this season along with younger players from the academy. Time will tell, but history is a guide. Over the past 6 years, a total of 22 youth academy players have debuted with Valencia's first team. This coming season, we can expect Valencia's first team to be much younger, hungrier, extremely ambitious and with deep roots in the Valencia CF youth academy.
As part of the Valencia CF youth academy structure, we at Eagleclaw study it carefully in order to emulate its standards more closely. We pay attention to the formation of entire persons, including football, academic and psycho-social development. For example, we recently held a club-wide Zoom meeting with Academy star Pedro Alemañ to help our players understand how the Valencia youth academy functions and its values, including the emphasis on academic achievement. Our Valencia Discovery Program is designed to emulate as much as possible the training standards and human values of Valencia's youth academy. We are particularly encouraged and impressed by Valencia’s plan to eliminate the custom whereby academy coaches focus only on the top players on a team and carry a bulky roster of unused substitutes. Now, all players on an academy team will receive maximum attention and playing opportunities. This lines up perfectly with Eagleclaw’s development philosophy: as many as possible, for as long as possible and in the best possible environment.
So, with a youth revolution underway at Valencia, all eyes are focused on the youth academy. That makes this an exciting time for Eagleclaw FC, a club in partnership with Valencia, committed to training and developing players according to methods and standards employed at Valencia's youth academy and committed to helping Valencia discover promising American talent. In this context, I read with great interest a recent interview of Marco Otero, technical director at the Valencia youth academy. The article, entitled An X-Ray of the Valencia CF Youth Academy, provides a view into the the new direction of the academy and its goal of solidifying its position as a global power in the development and export of top football talent, not only for Valencia's first team. The interview was published in Spanish last month in Super Deporte, but with the gracious permission of the publisher we are able to present the translated interview in English here. Enjoy!
- Joe Campos
August 15, 2020
X-Ray Of The New Valencia CF Academy
One year after his arrival, the imprint of Marco Otero's philosophy (Zurich, 1974) permeates every department, every corner, of the Valencia CF Academy. The technician, highly regarded among leading European thinkers in the area of youth player formation and development, has opened the doors to SUPER DEPORTE so that fans can learn in detail the direction being taken by the Valencia's youth academy. In each of the clubs in which he has worked, Otero, a son of Galician immigrants, has always forged his creation from the strengthening of identity, or the definition and creation of a culture to be pursued together. "Our goal is to understand how a team acts based on the values of a region," he said, for example, during his time in Basel.
Therefore, it is no coincidence that the starting point of this long talk with Otero is the Centennial video. "The fact of playing for Valencia implies assuming the historical legacy of the players who have previously worn their shirts with respect for the traditions and values characteristic of Valencian society. The youth squad represents a culture that must be strengthened and preserved", explains Otero, one of the principal figures whom Meriton Holdings, the largest shareholder of Valencia CF, has entrusted with the medium and long-term mission of providing sustainability to the club by training and developing homegrown players.
The plan spearheaded by Marco Otero and Luis Martínez, under the supervision of Sean Bai, has both comprehensive and intersecting ambitions, since it aims to "educate and train" in all aspects surrounding the footballer - technique, tactics, education, physical preparation, food, medical care, psychology, and academics. At the same time, the plan call for updating, upgrading and validating the skills of academy coaches and staff in accordance with new national and international requirements. In this area, one of the most significant advances is that at least one coach per age group can focus "on working full time and exclusively at Valencia CF". Another new and major objective is to eradicate the old belief that the academy creates players only for its first team, and instead focus on maximizing the formative years of development for the largest possible number of boys and girls. "We want them to arrive and stay at Valencia, or for them to do so in professional football, meaning we will export footballers," Otero argues.
Marco Otero, the man who technically and formatively directs the Valencia CF Academy
The Mirror Reflects History
To create footballers, Marco Otero has a clear model. "Providing the young person with personal autonomy, an education, values of respect and a good attitude in life. These things are not incompatible with making him or her competitive and ambitious. First of all, we want the footballer to compete with himself/herself in the daily task of improving themselves, and at the same time to live the Valencian feeling, of belonging, which must accompany them to reach the top." The mirrors in which to look at oneself are within the club's own history: Puchades, Claramunt, Albelda, Gayà; even in those who have come from abroad feeding the spirit of a 'rough and tumble' team, Mundo, Ayala, Marchena, Kempes, Baraja, Angulo ...
Identity is the principle on which the Academy wants to pivot. "We are looking for an elite player exemplifying the club's identity - technically skilled and competitive. They must feel they belong to historical values, that they want to compete, train and also that they are academically responsible. We want to develop young men and women who strive in everything they do. Fighters, who do not shrink simply because they make a mistake, but who tolerate it because mistakes lead to growth, who demand much from themselves and are passionate. Winners. Stated definitively, it is the profile of players taking the field for Valencia and competing as we always have with other clubs that are more powerful in the economic sphere, ”continues Otero.
Obviously, in this search for a "VCF DNA", the work of the trainers does not stop with attitudes, but extends mainly to the field. Intensity becomes an essential part of the Academy. "Our motto is that we are active with and without the ball. With the ball we want our teams to be vertical and deep, always seeking to attack the opponents' back line and generate as many attempts on goal as possible. And without the ball, we will constantly press until we recover it. In addition, we must be strong in defense and very difficult, even impossible to overcome. Never gift the ball to our opponent and dominate the duels, always being strong and intense“, says Otero.
"In Paterna [the town where the VCF Academy is located] we work to instill in young people the very nature that has made Valencia CF great. In other words, knowing everything expected of you, but strengthening your own individual style and layering it onto the style required by your coach. An academy cannot neglect any principle or situation of the game during training, and if there are no difficulties for the players you have to create them. It must be defined through an annual curriculum for each category and stage that protects the volume and quality of the content to be transmitted during each stage of development. Winning is not enough in the academy, especially if we want to train and form players in a way enabling them to meet the demands that will be required at the highest level in the future," he adds.
The training of the football players at the academy is divided into three different stages. From Querubines (Under-6) to Alevines (Under-12) , which are the categories of soccer-8 [8v8], technique and small-sided games, as well as physical education, are the core of learning. "This stage is very important, as it is the basis of all training. We are going to eliminate the custom of only calling players at the top of the roster and the bulky substitute benches with the intention of involving everyone, having them active every weekend in the league competition and in the VCF Academy tournament, a policy similar to the one that we will also implement in the upper stages of the academy." In the upper stages of the academy - Infantiles (Under-14) and Cadetes (Under-16), tactical concepts are central and emphasized more, as well as physical preparation, all of which are strengthened and reinforced in the final high performance stages of Juveniles (Under 19/18/17) and those players joining Mestalla (Valencia's Second Team) and tested in weekly competitive league matches.
[NOTE: In the diagram below. "Etapa" means stage - Stage 1, Stage 2 and Stage 3. The size of the circle for each learning area signifies the weight or emphasis a particular area of learning has for a given age group. For example, Collective Tactics has low emphasis at the younger ages, whereas it is a major emphasis at the older ages.]
Curriculum & Personalized Development Plans
"At that very special moment of promotion to the first team, or to the professional world, the objective will be achieved if we have, apart from his or her talent, a footballer with personality and trained to perform under the command of any coach and system of play. Valencia employs a player development profile designed to create a dynamic and intense football player. Starting at age 13, the player begins learning the different tactical situations and diversity of game systems. As they approach the first team, in addition to the collective curriculum in Stages 1 and 2, a personalized curriculum is developed for the player focusing on strengths and weaknesses to be addressed through daily and weekly planning sessions and in all the football, physical, medical or psychological aspects surrounding such strengths and weaknesses."
José Jiménez and David Fuster: Two Key Pieces
Among the Academy's specific departments, the recruitment or scouting department stands out and is where the experience of José Jiménez continues to lead scouts covering the area of Catalonia to Almería, with the Valencian Community as its main focus. In addition, the Academy has 37 active satellite schools under its radar screen. Valencia would like to go even further by developing external high-performance centers in Castellón, Alicante or Murcia in which, as a platform for regional selection, there will be complimentary training sessions one or two times a week with the best players from the partner schools or clubs. Former Villarreal and Olimpiacos player David Fuster is another key staff addition in this new stage of the Academy. Hailing from Gandia, Fuster is in charge of scheduling and putting into practice specific training sessions for individual or group improvement, as has traditionally been done with goalkeepers. "We created several projects per category, including an initial project for the little ones in order to enliven psycho-motor structures that are closely related to movement and which, unfortunately, are being lost as children have stopped playing in the street spontaneously, situations that help the practice of sport", says Otero.
On the other hand, this new Academy structure does not neglect the external aspects of the game that help to increase performance, such as physical preparation, the analysis and use of physical-medical data and nutrition. "We help each player to choose their most appropriate diet depending on whether they should gain muscle mass or lose fat. All of this helps to limit the risk of injury." In addition to the measures taken to increase the players' physical workload and beyond the warm-ups on the pitch with the physical trainers, a gymnasium was built specifically for the for the Academy with new equipment. "We have also introduced a unique dining situation. The boys from the Academy residence eat exactly the same as the first team. The pizza after the games has disappeared from the locker rooms”, says with Otero with great satisfaction, noting that the Academy shares its food/nutritional menu with all of its collaborating schools.
"Autonomous" and "responsible" are two words that are integral to the player prototype around which Otero and Martínez have made the Academy revolve. In fact, a code of conduct has been created with the aim of reinforcing the truth that a positive image of the club is always depends on the exemplary behavior of its players. Everything begins with education, so the agreements with the public schools adjacent to the Ciudad Deportiva have been consolidated, including that of Mas Camarena. The results are obvious. This season, before the Covid-19 pandemic, the rate of players who have passed all of their classes has gone from 38% to more than 90%.
Financial Controls & Professionalization of Coaches
Another fundamental point in the reorganized Valencia academy is the imposition of strict financial controls, setting a red line so as not to exceed salary caps in line with the different training stages. This emphasis lines up well with this new time in which football must redefine itself after the coronavirus crisis. In parallel, an increase in investment is planned to improve the conditions of professional trainers. Professionalization is the ultimate goal, both for players and coaches. The eye of recruitment is also focused on young trainers at other clubs in the region who stand out more for the quality of their training than in obtaining results. This season, in addition to the normal complement of coaches on the payroll of Mestalla and Juvenil A, the club will add full-time coaches for teams at Juvenil B (Under 19,18,17 B), Cadet A (Under-16 A), Cadete Fundación (Under 15), Infantil A (Under-14 A), Infantil Fundación (Under-14), Alevín A (Under-12 A), Benjamin A (Under-10 A) and Prebenjamin A (Under-8 A).
Exporting players - Boosting the Club's Finances
“We are not going to develop four or five players for the first team every year, but we will develop more players for professional football. And for Valencia, we seek excellence. If one player becomes established in the first team every season, and we export even more players to the national and international market, thereby providing financial sustainability, we will be satisfied", said Marco Otero, putting an exclamation mark on his explanation of this new stage of the Valencia CF youth academy.