“We don’t buy success – we create it.”
By John Portch
So says Marijn Beuker, the Head of Performance & Development at Dutch Eredivisie club AZ Alkmaar and its AZ Academy.
AZ are the embodiment of the mid-market club who, if they want to compete more readily with the league’s leading sides, must find a competitive edge that goes beyond their larger rivals’ financial resources.
“We know that if you find the right talent you can develop almost all aspects of their game,” Beuker tells the Leaders Performance Institute. “There are lots of players in senior teams who say ‘well, I was never the best but I made it in the end’.”
He refers to these players as ‘whispering talents’ – players who did not necessarily stick out at age-group level but, with the right development, were able to develop ability beyond peers who were more akin to ‘shouting talents’.
“How can you not be the best but still make it?” asks Beuker, who has led the club’s research into finding the answer. “We look for players who are not the best in their age group but have the potential to become the best.”
AZ, whose board includes former New York Yankee Robert Eenhoorn as CEO and the Oakland A’s Billy Beane as an advisor, aim to be one of the top 25 teams in Europe with regular forays into European competition. That means being competitive in a division dominated by the Netherlands’ big three of Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord. The idea is that they should be able to field teams that can, with the right make-up and a fair wind, usurp one or more of those sides. The club certainly uses the Champions League, rather than the Eredivisie, as a benchmark for the talent it seeks to identify and develop.
“We want to be a competitor in Europe, but with a totally different strategy to some of the richer clubs; that is the challenge,” explains Beuker, who has been in his current post for the last six years of his 12-year tenure at AZ. The club is making progress: last season AZ finished comfortably above Feyenoord to claim a creditable third place and secure qualification for the second qualifying round of the Uefa Europa League.
Such feats are possible because of the club’s track record in producing and developing talent despite its modest resources. In the last 15 years alone, AZ can point to the likes of Wesley Hoedt, Vincent Janssen and Alireza Jahanbakhsh, who all currently ply their trade in the English Premier League. Another AZ alumnus to take the path to England is AZ vice-captain Ron Vlaar, who also represented the Netherlands in the 2014 Fifa World Cup semi-finals, before returning to the club in 2015.
AZ’s current flag-bearer is Guus Til, who was made club captain last summer at the age of just 20. Til’s performances at club level recently saw him called up to the Dutch men’s national team and the midfielder is well on the way to fulfilling his potential.
Beuker walks us through AZ’s attempts to tune their ears to the soft call of Dutch football’s ‘whispering talents’.
With former Major League baseball player Eenhoorn serving as Chief Executive and Beane, Mr Moneyball himself, advising from the wings, AZ have stepped up their use of data and analytics in recent years, but the club still defers to what Beuker calls ‘the eye of the master’ – the coaches that deliver AZ’s programme.
Beuker tells the Leaders Performance Institute that there are three main aspects that a professional footballer needs: their physiology, cognitive skills and their passion. “The first two are genetic, while ‘passion’ comes from the Latin ‘pati’, which means ‘to suffer’. If you want something enough then you’re willing to suffer for it.” That drive – or its absence – is often the determining factor in whether or not a player makes it to the professional ranks.
Another marker, biological age, is one reason why young players can get lost in the churn of talent development, as bigger and stronger kids are given more opportunities. This is the case in professional and amateur football in the Netherlands and beyond and Beuker tries to change this approach when he speaks to coaches across the grassroots game. AZ’s net is cast far and wide; their aim is to assess as many boys as possible in the pursuit of whispering talents. Beuker’s advice to the amateur coaches who bring teams to the AZ training facility in Alkmaar is clear: “We will give you a report of how your boys are working but, first of all, you must not make selections; just let the boys play for different teams against different opponents, big, small; you have to challenge all of your boys, even the big ones, otherwise you’re getting lazy players who don’t think they have to think differently.”
The benefits of this approach gradually reveal themselves: “In the end, this player might look like the weakest but, according to our results, he is also the youngest based on biological age, but is also top in cognitive skill. Maybe he is the real talent.”
Beuker argues that is the reason why someone such as England captain Harry Kane, who was loaned out by Tottenham Hotspur to lower league teams on four occasions before establishing himself as one of the most prolific Premier League forwards of the modern era.
“He had elements in his body that he’s used to develop his ability but, in the process of getting there, he certainly wasn’t great,” he says in reflection on Kane’s uneven loan spells.
“Passion is necessary because I see young players all the time who lack in one way or another, whether they are smaller, thinner, younger or just more inexperienced. They are weaker in that moment but they create the necessity to think differently, to adapt.”
The programme is boss
To generate the adaptations that AZ and Beuker desire, the club has adopted an academy programme rooted in implicit learning where players, as Beuker says, “are forced into a situation where they are forced to adapt without the player knowing it.”
“The programme is boss,” he declares, and coaches are encouraged to work towards explicit outcomes in any manner they deem fit. “The programme doesn’t tell you what to do, it only tells you what has to be done at the end. You are free to come up with creative ideas and ways of training.
“We ask our coaches to prepare their week in a certain way but the way that each prepares is different. If you have that freedom you are more creative, more efficient, and it’s also more fun to do. If I have to tell you what to do all the time it gets stressful in the end. If I give you the freedom of how to do it that gives you the energy and it also gives you better solutions.
“You have to focus on the early maturers; you create overloads in training; three against four or five against six. You have to create problems to stimulate creativity; you stimulate the boys into coming up with their own ideas, which means that you should never tell your players what to do but just make them aware of what needs to be achieved at the end.”
AZ’s coaches will manipulate training in simple but innovative ways. “I will tell a player that he cannot pull a player’s shirt, that I want him to choose possession. Then, if he then uses his hands to stop a player I can halt play once again and hand the player two tennis balls so that they are forced to come up with a different solution. It’s a trick to manipulate the game. You have to make sure that they are surprised, that they have to think, because then they are training themselves to be in control of everything.”
Another tried and trusted method is scenario training, where AZ’s coaches will simulate a match scenario in conditions as realistic as possible. “That could mean that when training is over and they’re exhausted, we’ll say ‘hey guys, we still have one thing to do’; we will simulate the last 10 minutes of a Champions League match where the attacking team is 1-0 down and they have to equalise in order to qualify for the knockout phase. Then, you’re not coaching content, principles or game intelligence, you just focus the boys on the ability to win and remaining focused on resolving the problem in order to score.
“The programme forces them to think all the time, to reflect; we have brilliant coaches working with the boys, asking them questions, letting them self-reflect. It can have great impact because our goal is not to get the best out of people, our goal is to make sure the players get the maximum out of themselves.”
Beuker takes pride in the programmes developed at the AZ Academy. He says: “We all protect the programme; I protect the programme, the Academy Director is protecting the programme; the Technical Director also protects the programme.
“Our trainers have to raise the bar all the time; you have to challenge the players and put them in difficult situations all the time, especially the guys who are the ‘shouting talents’ at that moment, because the whispering talents are challenged all the time because of their disadvantages.
“I am always looking to improve the programme too. It’s not necessarily from season to season because when we learn something new we add it; you can call it a very big soup, but we have to make sure it is practical.
“For example, I talked with a couple of former players about team cohesion and characteristics and I learned something about how you can test that and we used a Myers-Briggs personality test; I’m now thinking about how we can use that and make it logical for coaches to implement.”
Beuker is also something of a magpie when it comes to other teams. “One club I visited held training with all of their best talents across different ages groups; they also did individual training. We stole that and it inspired us to come up with our own version. Another club had a board with magnets of each of its teams with players, their situation and their periodisation; we just copied that. It can be a big or small thing, the only important thing is that it has to happen on the field as a consequence; there has to be a connection to the field. If it improves the coach it improves the players. We always say ‘does it help us get three points more? Does it help you to win?’”
The team is in focus throughout. “In every aspect we use with our boys it’s always related to the team and the bigger picture. You can ask players what they want to develop this year, what they want to improve, and what they are going to do to be better. If I ask that question ten years in a row you will eventually create a culture where people are only thinking about themselves.
“If, by contrast, I ask what is the main objective for the team to develop and what are you going to do about it; what is the biggest improvement for the team and what is your role, the answer will be the same relating to your development but the reference is starting with the team. For me, it’s important to create a culture where you as the individual are also trained as a team player.
“There are clubs where they only ask questions such as how can you help your colleagues get better; what are you going to do to make the guy on the left or right of you better. That creates a different mindset.”
Beuker also speaks out against early specialisation in young players, even if AZ have a firm understanding by the time the player reaches under-16 level. “There’s physical, technical and cognitive reasons why you should begin your career playing in multiple positions,” he argues. “We’ll constantly have the boys playing in different positions, both in training and in matches, until under-13 level. Then at under-14s, 15s, and 16s we will change them across two or three position; and we’re constantly changing formations in training so that they can understand the different principles of a formation.
“Finally, we know this is your position and we begin to specialise; this is necessary with the under-15s and 16s to make sure they’re in the right position, that they understand the other real talents in the team; it’s good for team cohesion and the lines of working together will be thicker.”
By using such means is talent created at AZ Alkmaar and it does not have cost the earth.
Want more from Marijn Beuker and AZ Alkmaar?
Looking for more performance insight?
Why not download the latest Leaders Performance Special Report? The focus for this edition is coach education and development across elite sport and features organisations as diverse as the Irish Rugby Football Union, Southampton FC of the English Premier League and Fremantle of the Australian Football League.