Roy Henderson: We're Not Spanish, We're Scouse

Pic: Francisco Diez

BARCA. These days we’re reading more and more on the subject of Barca. Guardiola this, and La Masia that – every trophy they add to the cabinet comes with fresh proclamations of their righteousness – it’s not only fashionable to do so, it’s reached the stage where every fresh steaming dollop of ‘praise’ heaped upon their midden induces a little wave of nausea. Barca’s way is *the* way. Barca’s way is the Truth.

Now. When something become so fashionable that it’s taken as a universal truth, alarm bells should start ringing in wiser ears. I’ve been guilty of their deification to some extent myself; after all, we all want success for our club, and we like to think that by emulating what the management and coaching staff have put in place at Barca, we’ll guarantee our ongoing success for a generation or more. Take their mould and spit out a new version of La Masia at LFC, and we’re set – job done.

But that’s lazy thinking – the kind that might get you into trouble a few years down the line if you’re not careful. So let’s be careful. In the coming years you can bet we’ll see broadsheet articles aplenty telling us that’s just what’s happened – that we’ve straight up plagiarised that Barcelona-branded ‘Truth’. Under the stewardship of a Spanish manager, after all, Liverpool head-hunted two luminaries of the Barca coaching establishment while purging the youth set-up of its existing staff in a putsch akin to a ‘night of the long knives’. Suddenly the club were following some kind of uniform tactical blueprint. The rhetoric started sounding a little like the stuff coming out of Catalunya. So hey – if it walks like a duck and it talks like a duck… right?

Well, wrong. If you think Liverpool Football Club is operating ‘La Masia Lite’, you’re wrong. And if you’re worried that might be a bad thing – you shouldn’t. The people in charge have been thinking this stuff through.

The seeds of Liverpool’s current youth setup were sewn in the minds of Rafael Benitez and Pako Ayesteran. Neither man works for the club any more, granted; but the way the club’s footballing operations are now structured under the stewardship of Messrs Dalglish and Commolli are a result of the thinking of our erstwhile Spanish strategists. In the Autumn of 2010, Pako Ayesteran was kind enough to give us a glimpse of his thinking in this area. When asked in the context of Spanish football’s recent success what English football has to do to catch up, his reply was both subtle and enlightened.

“When we talk about having united a group of players who share similar characteristics, being nurtured in the same philosophy, then clearly there has to be an institutional reference point. That ís obvious.

“Every success story leaves clues behind, but as well as identifying them, you also have to be able to adapt them to your own philosophy and culture. So right now, English football needs to be faithful to its own culture, whilst recognising that there are different ways of playing football.”

POLICY OF TRUTH

Was Pako’s comment some empty throwaway remark aimed at placating the English journalists he was talking to? After all, what on earth could be considered ‘good’ about English football? What’s it won recently? Well, a fair bit if you take a long-term view. There’s a danger that you restrict your timeline and forget just how dominant English sides, and specifically Liverpool, were during the 70s and 80s. The game might have changed a lot since then, but lest we forget, Barca’s formula was founded on a blueprint developed in the 60s and early 70s. Michels managed them, Cruyff and Neeskens, and when Cruyff rocked into the Nou Camp in the late 80s, they decided to buy it wholesale, Victor Kiam style.

So what did they buy? They bought what was, at that time, a 20 year old approach to the game that had won its club three European cups in quick succession, and had arguably taken the Dutch national team to two World Cup finals. Old. But not so bad.

Fast forward 25 years and Barcelona are winning European Cups at much the same rate as their Dutch forebears, only this time they’ve systematised things, and considered the very risks that jeapordised the Ajax setup, while all the while tailoring it to suit their club’s own needs and context.

So what’s Pako getting at? Well, it might be possible to pick up “La Masia Lite” off the shelf, and commit to an approach hydroponically germinated in the ‘Dam 45 years ago, but why would you bother? The staff at Liverpool only needed to dust off the keys and have a look in their own vault to find a blueprint of their very own – a “Truth” a decade or two fresher than the one Barca picked up in 1988, and with an even earlier vintage – Shanks took the reins at Liverpool six years before Rinus Michels started at Ajax.

Having been convinced as a player that keeping the ball was the key to it all, it’s hardly surprising that as a manager, he set about baking in a style founded on possession. And he refined and refined it without reference to the accepted footballing ‘truths’ of his time. He took the FA coaching manual and threw it in the bin. And he refined and refined it and each time a significant challenge to his methods arrived, Shankly would respond, and tweak, and improve the system. A nice, natural, intuitive system based on simple principles that were reinforced repeatedly in his day-to-day coaching.

A good example of this came, oddly enough, when the two blueprints overlapped in 1967.

Shankly’s side faced the young Ajax side in the European Cup quarter finals, and “Cruft” (as Shanks called him) and co delivered what could only be described as a wake up call. But Shanks being Shanks, he refined and refined it, and borrowed what he felt he needed to from that Ajax approach.

And so his Liverpool side would begin to feature the sweeper keeper, and centre halves who could carry the ball into the midfield, disrupting the opposing side’s organisation, and outmanning the opposing side. Marry that with the simplicity of pass and move, and you arrive at something not far removed from the system in place at Ajax during that time, albeit stripped of its intellectual airs and graces, and founded on all that was good about the British game.

Of course, we know what happened next. His approach was taken on by successive managers and became second nature to the club from root to fruit, and refined and refined until, at its height in the late 80s, we saw the game expressed at its pinnacle in front of our very eyes. A pinnacle arguably only matched, in the words of Pep Guardiola himself, by the current Barcelona side. And if you believe Arrigo Sacchi, it was Liverpool’s version of the ‘Truth’ that he tried to copy and systematise in his approach with AC Milan. You might say we were on to something, and our brand of the ‘Truth’ was just as tasty and effective as anyone’s.

So when Pako Ayesteran talks of the importance of an “institutional reference point”, he’s not talking about some nebulous invention – he’s talking about the essence of what made Liverpool what it is: refining and refining and refining what works within the club’s community and competitive context.

PAKO ‘N’ PEP’S PREOCCUPATION

Ayesteran’s words are echoed and expanded upon by Pep Segura, and it’s here that you realise we’re not simply seeing the wholesale reproduction of the methods that he and Borrell helped put in place at Barca.

“I have seen in my short time here in this country working at Liverpool, that there is just as much talent, just as many players with the same hunger, will, and desire to learn as in every other country. All that is missing are the means to enable the players and coaches to develop. Thatís not down to the players. Itís down to the Academy heads, and those with a vested interest in youth football.

“The great thing about La Masia – the concept that Iíd like to try and bring to Liverpool – is this. Barcelonaís La Masia represents the club’s policy. It’s a symbol of the club’s philosophy. When your policies keep changing when one day you say black, the next day white, then there will always be a problem in trying to establish a clearly defined concept of player development.”

And there’s the key point. What does Segura single out as the most important thing from Barca’s approach? A simple, abstract point – the same point underlined by Ayesteran. The institutional reference point. The club embodies its own philosophy – that commitment sets it aside, and everything it achieves flows from that foundation. So why are these Spanish experts insisting on an English and Liverpudlian core to the club’s youth development?

FC Barcelona hall of fame

Pic by gaetanoporcaro

WE’RE NOT SPANISH WE ARE SCOUSE

Pako Ayesteran and Rafa Benitez were outspoken during their time at Liverpool’s helm about the nature of the English game. As well as the physical demands, however, one quote from Pako always really stuck in my mind.

“I remember a coach in Spain once said that Spanish girls in the 1970s and 1980s were brought up not to be on their own, but to always have someone with them. They were educated to be part of a family, not on their own. They were educated to be married and be with the children of her husband. I think something similar has happened with our team. Liverpool is the team that more than any other feels the difference when they play away. The support they feel when they play at home is so huge and important that when they play away, the difference is massive. When Chelsea play in Stamford Bridge, the Chelsea players don’t really feel the support of the crowd, so the difference is not massive for them. One thing the players have to learn is to compete and have the self-confidence independent of the supporters. You need the right mental attitude when the conditions are not comfortable. It’s a psychological attitude that’s so important.”

Yet he went on to qualify that later in the same interview. A Liverpool player, it seems, needs to learn not to rely on the home support to perform; but at the same time, they need to understand why that support is a privilege, and perform to a level that honours it.

“…something I hate is when the players don’t realise they lead a privileged life. They have a big responsibility to the supporters. They have to work hard not just for themselves, but for the club and the supporters who follow them everywhere. Sometimes when people say they are doing everything they can, it is not true. You can always push yourself a little bit more.”

To put it another way, a Liverpool player needs to understand and embody what it means to be a Liverpool player. So in light of that, we should take a look at what’a being put in place at the Academy. Segura recently addressed the Catalunyan INEF Football Congress on the subject of Liverpool’s approach to youth development, and Spanish blogger Marti Perarnau described its content in detail. To say the talk was interesting is an understatement.

Perarnau began as follows.

“The ‘target’ of the Liverpool Academy is twofold: to implement a common style of play in teams through all age groups, and to provide players for the first team.”

Segura then went on to explain that while the younger age groups focussed on skills and playing games, from the age of 16 on, Liverpool’s kids now start both tactical and psychological training, alongside the physical and skills-related work you’d expect.

Why?

“We want to work with our players, but do so with our style of play.” So (paraphrasing Segura) as a result, the club’s analyses four key factors when considering any new player coming into its youth ranks.

  1. The technical aspect: do they appreciate the passing game?
  2. The tactical aspect: do they know how to play when we don’t have the ball?
  3. The psychological aspect: are they interested in what it takes to be a professional?
  4. The physical aspect: do they have speed, strength and size?

Those four key building blocks differ from those used at Barca. Player assessment at Barca, we’re led to believe, is driven by clear technical and tactical criteria, but the third and fourth listed above, while intuitively important at any club, are secondary concerns. Carles Folguera, Segura’s counterpart at Barca, neatly sums this up.

“We’re always looking for a type of player who’s not physical but a very good thinker, who’s ready to take decisions, who has talent, technique and agility. Physical strength is not important.”

Back to Segura. He next underlined the importance of the institutional reference point we discussed earlier. Perarnau quotes him as saying “It’s the idea and style that make an organization strong” – the same point made in his interview with Revista.

The kids at the Academy are, it seems, being inculcated with Liverpool’s principles of play and style. The club’s strategy is central to everything – in Perarnau’s words, it all has to “work efficiently and consistent with the philosophy of the club.” And next comes the really interesting bit. They learn their craft within the framework of a 4-2-3-1. Maybe not something laid down by Shankly, but certainly something the club had become accustomed to under Rafa Benitez.

Segura’s comments here are particularly interesting. “I would have preferred a 4-3-3, but England has historically used the 4-4-2, and we had to adapt.” Another departure from the methods ingrained at Ajax and Barca, with a tip of the hat to the club’s context and recent tradition. And it’s here that Perarnau’s description starts to really chime with our own version of the “Truth”: every session focusses on moving the ball from the defense, with passing (or ball circulation as it’s referred to nowadays) at high speed.

The guiding principles for their work? Perarnau listed them as follows.

  • Everyone must put in the same amount of work
  • The work must emulate the freedom of street football
  • They must learn to use the full depth and breadth of the playing surface
  • They must play with a constant attacking spirit
  • They must understand how to work within the 4-2-3-1
  • Our game develops from the defensive line
  • We play as a collective
  • We are creative

On this last point, Perarnau expanded a on Segura’s message a little further: “the English player is disciplined and is used to learning automation and order, but Spanish players are traditionally more creative – we must move in this direction”.

So it’s intriguing. We have a mix of what’s natural to our Academy intake as predominately English players, and we have an appropriate emphasis on strength, physique, and mental toughness from a peculiarly early age. But beyond that, we take the elements of the Spanish model that mirror our own historical blueprint, and bake the approach into each and every kid we teach.

WHY ISN’T EVERYONE DOING THIS?

Well, who knows? Maybe they are. What sets Liverpool Football Club aside right now is the fact we’re aligned from Chairman and board to tea lady. That’s no mean feat, and as anyone with an insight behind the scenes at Real Madrid might tell you, resources alone aren’t always enough to engender operational harmony. The true barriers to achieving an aligned footballing setup are the emotional and psychological ones. It takes genuine buy-in from the decision makers at every level, as a result of either fear of the man at the helm, or a more collegiate buy-in to the ‘vision’ – the kind of institutional reference point Ayesteran talks about. To get to that stage, Liverpool had to literally hit rock bottom. The club were hours from the financial brink less than a year ago, but from the ashes, Henry and Co realised that they had something powerful in place, and decided to make it central to the club’s future strategy.

THE LIVERPOOL WAY

But that in itself wouldn’t be enough if it simply lifted a solution from elsewhere without a little thought. They need to keep their guiding principles in mind in whatever they do – a methodology that really isn’t too different from the one set out by Shanks. If they’re clever, they’ll refine it and refine it, and retain a healthy disregard for what everyone else tells them they ought to do.

Surely that’s the bedrock of the Liverpool Way.