At the first glance, a record from "Mitro" training resembles undulating mountain ranges. The Heart rate and speed values imposed on a chart from the GPS system repeatedly rise and fall in a very abrupt manner. It's a clear signal for Kuba. These are the capabilities expected from a present-day Premier League winger.
One our before, when the temperature dropped down to zero, Polish Football Academy started their endurance tests on the suburbs of Leeds, wearing special GPS vests. For the next couple of dozen minutes, they perform high-intensity running, skips, sprints and decelerations along and across the field. The collected data is supposed to provide answers to a number of questions: what kind of work do the players actually perform during training, how many kilometers did they run, is their performance and endurance on the rise or quite the opposite?
Regular motor tests provide a lot of information about the initial state of the players and simulate real match conditions, where they often need to accelerate and only have a few seconds of rest.
Jakub Bokiej, the founder of PFA and the youngest scout of Manchester City is standing on the side line and carefully observing the players. His mobile office: a laptop and small briefcase with a power bank for 20 GPS trackers is lying next to him on the grass. "The monitoring enables not only to check the response to particular exercises but also to track regeneration and dozens of statistics that otherwise would go unnoticed", he explains. "Based on this data, we can assess the running and endurance potential of each player and provide him with an individual development plan".
Clash with reality
5 years ago in Sweden, he understood that he needed to move into another direction. This was a true life lesson. Ten-odd degrees below zero, snowstorm at the end of April and taped windows so that he could get some sleep during white nights. His club, Kurina FF, was playing in the fourth division, he just turned 18 and at that time he felt that his football journey was coming to an end.
It seemed very promising at first, when he was spotted by a Leeds United scout during a Sunday League match. For a 14-year-old who has just come to the UK with his father, this was a dream come true. His physical deficiencies, however, quickly manifested themselves on the field.
"I was behind in terms of physical capabilities. Most shoulder-to-shoulder situations ended up with me losing balance, I was not ready to jostle with my peers and this didn't help me to defend myself as a player", he recounts.
There was Leeds, Chesterfield, Halifax Town and finally six months in Sweden. When he finally decided to make up for his deficiencies by going to the gym, he started having problems with his lower back. With one of his legs being shorter, the vertebrae started to press against one another. When the pain became so unbearable that he was unable to tie his shoelaces, he gave up on his football dreams and returned to England. But he had a precise vision of what he was going to do.
"I've seen plenty of talented players who couldn't get their foot in the professional football. They came from Poland and didn't know the language, and their parents had no idea whom to contact whereas professional academies tend to invite scout recommended players for tests. Due to such situations, dozens of boys with great potential simply got lost".
Speed is paramount
Today, Polish Football Academy has 4 coaches who train one hundred boys in several age categories. All of them are children of Polish immigrants. They go to training session three times a week, sometimes travelling even 100 km.
They don't play in a league. To optimise their development, the academy organises matches with semi-professional or professional clubs in order to allow the young players to compete with strong teams and present their skills in front of scouts of professional clubs.
"I'd rather measure the success of our Academy in terms of the number of players who got into professional football instead of the number of trophies in our showcase", he explains and goes on to enumerate its biggest achievements: Oskar Woźniczka and Kornel Misciur are now in Hull City, Olaf Figurny plays in Sheffield Wednesday, Alan Tomaszewski is one of the top players in Leeds United U9, Szymon Skibiński spends his first season in Barnsley FC. Three of our players will soon start tests at Sheffield United Academy and our winger with incredible dribbling skills is currently being tested by Manchester City".
He received the first call from a scout of The Citizens already in 2016. "I was shocked that I was noticed by man who's been in this discipline for a couple of dozen years and he decided to trust me", he recalls. Today, he works as a scout of Manchester City and his most talent players are the first to be tested in the Citizens' academy. "These two projects drive and complement each other", he explains.
Potential of the cloud
After the training, Kuba takes a seat at a table in the club lobby. Next to his laptop, he puts a little briefcase containing 20 multicoloured GPS trackers – small round devices resembling flying saucers. It takes several minutes for the data recorded by these devices to be uploaded to a computing cloud; dozens of statistics, bars and diagrams then start to appear on the screen.
When analysing physical parameters of particular players in relation to the team, Kuba's immediately takes notice of "Mitro", a thin blond boy playing as a central midfielder. Not only does he achieve the highest speeds but also his regenerative capacity is quite impressive. Large range between resting and maximum heart rate enables him to play with high intensity and create many situations during a match. Each stop results in immediate heart rate drop, which means that his body is instantly ready to go at full speed again. It's a clear signal for Kuba. These are the capabilities expected from a present-day Premier League winger. They are the ones to cover the biggest distances and make the largest number of sprints, moving between their own and the opponent's penalty box.
Thanks to GPS monitoring, we know that the distance covered by sprint and fast running has increased by 30% in the last couple years. Footballers accelerate with greater intensity and achieve higher speeds. At the pinnacle of his career, Łukasz Piszczek covered the first 25 meters faster than none other than Usain Bolt, and Gareth Bale was measured to reach the highest momentary speed of 43.1 km/h (with a ball)! The only person to beat that is the Jamaican champion himself, who reached 44.7 km/h when beating the 100 m world record.
They are both regarded as exemplary players on their respective positions. It's no surprise then that professional academies are searching for players with similar characteristics.
Dancing, parkour, climbing
"Physical elements are extremely important for us in the initial stage of training. We pay most attention to physical strength and speed", explains Simon Jennings, training coordinator at the Everton academy. This opinion is also shared by Ben Knight from the Chelsea academy: "Today, speed is paramount. Innate capabilities are important to us because they provide a basis. Then we focus on attitude to the game, because this will enable us to avoid many problems in the future – he explained recently during Lech Conference. "Sometimes we admit street boys to the academy if we're just impressed with their speed. We can teach them everything else".
The Blues, however, face the problem of rapidly declining fitness in children. "In teams from U-9 to U-12, we need to make up for their lack of flexibility, jump ability, reflexes and coordination" – says Knight. "This all used to come naturally through playing outside. Nowadays, it's different. Another problem lies in the PE classes. Too little gymnastics, all-around exercises and playing with the body."
For this reason, the Chelsea academy organised a parkour playground. It also provides gymnastics, acrobatics, climbing and dancing classes. The academy also organises "adventure weekends" that resemble three-day survival camps. Children solve puzzles, receive points and gain knowledge about physics and biology.
"General physical conditioning activities not only improve fitness but also protect players from injuries", explains prof. Neeru Jayanthi of the Sports Medicine Department of Loyola University in Chicago. Several years ago his team analysed 1200 injuries in young athletes and found out that the largest amount of injuries happens to children under 12 who practice only one discipline. With these children, the risk of injury was 1.5 times bigger and the most serious injuries happened even 3 times more often.
This is becoming a serious problem in the United States, where 70 million people under the age of 18 play sports. The pursuit of sports scholarship, dreams about great career as well as overly ambitious parents and coaches cause children to focus on a single discipline at increasingly younger age. As a result, the number of children practicing different disciplines is decreasing while the number of injuries is growing.
"Medical reports state that the number of injuries at children under 12 increased by 25-30% in the last 5 years", estimates dr Paul Stricker, a pediatrician specialising in sports medicine in the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego. "Recently I had a quite shocking case of an 8-year-old who suffered tibia fracture due to overtraining and excessive strain", he adds. "He was playing football. In four different teams".
Data from the National Electronic Surveillance System indicate that as many as half of all injuries in football happen to players under the age of 15.
GPS to prevent injuries
In order to avoid the plague of injuries among teenagers, Americans sports medicine experts published a set of guidelines for parents and coaches in "American Journal of Sports Medicine":
- Children below 12 should not focus on a single discipline.
- The maximum number of hours of training per week should not exceed their years of age.
- Provide 1-2 days of rest per week,
- 2-3 months of rest from each discipline per year.
- Alternate specialised trainings with common games, which should take more time.
Kuba monitors the risk of injury in his players with Sonda Sports, a system used by such clubs as Lech Poznań, Zagłębie Lubin, Górnik Zabrze, Lechia Warszawa or Śląsk Wrocław. It uses data taken from GPS vests to track training load statistics and compares daily values to the average from the previous week. Based on this information, it analyses symptoms of overtraining and undertraining – the most common causes of soft tissue injuries. Statistically speaking, as much as 90% of these injuries are caused by insufficient motor fitness.
In England, young players are protected by the Elite Player Performance Plan (EPPP). This development strategy adopted in 2011 by 72 clubs associated in the Football Legaue regulates all rules for training players between the age of 9 to 21. Among many aspects, it precisely defines the recommended number of classes, number of training hours per week as well as minimum number of pitches and coaches working in an academy. Coaches are required to scrupulously document the development of young players by means of the so-called Performance Clock – an electronic database. This database contains all information about the numbers of games played, psychological development, training progress, school results and even individual conversations with coaches.
Half a million for a 14-year-old.
The EPPP also regulates all aspects related to recruitment and transfers of young players. However, this didn't stop the ever increasing professionalisation of teenage players, which is reflected by the growing sums clubs are willing to pay for the most promising footballers.
In 2017, 13-year-old Finley Burns from Southend United academy was bought by Manchester City for a quarter million pounds, which was a record for a player of this age. Several months before that, 14-year-old Brahim Diaz from Malaga, Spain was bough by the Citizens for 200.000 pounds whereas his peer Jadon Sancho, now regarded as the greatest football talent, was bought from Watford for as much as half a million pounds.
These sums may come as a shock to many, but they are just one manifestation of the incredible competition in this discipline. As of now, all clubs down to League 2 have professional academies which are marked from 1 to 4 in terms of their infrastructure and coaching quality, among other aspects. The higher the score, the greater the competition. In Yorkshire alone, which is the area assigned to Kuba Bokiej, we have Premier League and Championship clubs: Sheffield United, Leeds United, Hull City, Barnsley FC, Sheffield Wednesday and Huddersfield Town, as well as clubs competing in League One and League Two.
It's nearly impossible to find an 8-year-old who hasn't participated in any scout tests, which is why Manchester City regularly organises open days. Invitations to the so-called "Fun Day" are sent even to... 4-year-olds. "To gain advantage over the competition, sometimes you have to do something different", explains Kuba. "Giants such as Liverpool or Manchester United are one step away. They have a perfectly developed scouting network and such boys are a treasure for any scout. Nobody else has seen them before – only their parents watched them kick the ball in the living room or the backyard."
This policy may seem controversial but it yields measurable results. Within 4 years, Manchester City earned 95 million pounds on selling its youth players. It's more than all TOP 6 clubs altogether.
In the dream factory
"I'm in awe of how the Citizens started to go about training the youth", said Paul Scholes when the Citizens opened their new training facility in 2014. Built for 200 million pounds, the Etihad Campus combines the features of 70 top sports facilities in the world;16 full-sized pitches (with 12 dedicated to youth teams), a stadium for youth teams with 7000 seats, 6 swimming pools, 3 gyms, a television room with 56 seats, a separate department for dealing with players' affairs (taxes, mental health, addictions, social media etc.) and 95-member staff.
Equally impressive are the several-year-old players whose playing styles are similar to their those of their idols. When receiving a ball, they always turn to the direction where there is no opponent. Before that, they look around and extend their arms behind the back to check the space around them. "This is how they estimate the distance from a defender behind their back", says Kuba. They have automatic reactions, make decisions in an instant, they are not afraid to dribble and move the ball from one goal to the other in a matter of seconds.
They are connected to Etihad Stadium by a symbolic bridge which has a length of two football pitches. "Out of all players who are currently in the academy, less than 1% will make a debut in the first team, but the examples of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho or Brahim Diaz show that this philosophy is reasonable", says Kuba.
Black shoe policy
During scout tests, Polish Football Academy (PFA) players who dream about playing in Manchester City must first and foremost deal with their mentality. "There are kids who seem unbelievably good on the playgrounds and in smaller clubs but they forget how to receive a ball the moment they come to Etihad Campus", explains Kuba. "Your composure plays a big role here".
That is why he's focused on teaching his players about respect and humility. "Even if a player doesn't sign a contract with the club, the sole fact that they participated in the tests is a great distinction and lesson to them, and may bear fruit in the future", he says and carefully notes how the boys address their parents, teammates, opponents and referees. Especially when things don't go well during the match. He likes the oldschool English style and black shoe policy. "I'm much more convinced when a player stands out due to his skills instead of shoes, hairstyle or clothes", smiles Bokiej.
He points Oleksandr Zinchenko as the role model to follow. A young boy who had to flee from war at the age of 18 and started his career in amateur leagues near Moscow; now an important figure in Guardiola's team due to his ambition and character.
"There are dozens of variables which affect the final decision", he adds. "But even if only one of these boys transitions to professional football, this will indicate that my work is meaningful".
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