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Dan Micciche: Brave New England

In the last issue of PDP magazine we featured part one of our exclusive interview with Dan Micciche, covering his early coaching career at Crystal Palace and Tottenham Hotspur through to his position as Assistant Academy Manager at MK Dons, where he coached a young Dele Alli for 5 years.

In this second part of our interview Dave Wright speaks with Dan about his role as England U16 national team’s Head Coach, building challenging learning environments, session/programme design, impact of playing styles and the challenge of nurturing creative footballers.

After almost a decade in the academy system and developing a reputation as an innovator in player development, beginning through his time at MK Dons, Dan Micciche moved on to a role with The FA as the national technical lead for U12-U16 aged players and coaches and is now England U16 Head Coach.

“My role now is purely with the national teams,” he says. “For the two-and-a-half years as technical lead (U12-U16) I was involved predominantly in coach education, which included planning, delivering and presenting at national conferences and in professional clubs across the country as well as designing and presenting content on the Advanced Youth Award to academy coaches and helping build and deliver the new England DNA. A key part of my role in the England DNA was overseeing a leadership group for FA phase (12-16) priorities that was launched in December 2015. From there, I was also responsible for developing a new England U15 development programme and was U16 assistant coach.”

Dan continues, “Last year I worked with Steve Cooper for a year and I learnt a lot of new skills to add to my toolbox. As well as being an excellent coach, Steve’s planning and organisational skills are far better than mine as well as his experience of working effectively within a multidisciplinary team.”

Dan describes his coaching style as being “extremely flexible and instinctive”, and believes that working at the FA has been good in order to strike a balance between the two. “Previously [at MK Dons] I would have a broad plan but only confirm things like midweek matches a week or two beforehand,” he says, “because I’d need to see and feel our previous performance(s) – this would dictate the type of challenge the players would need. Working with England we have such limited time with the players that our planning needs to be meticulous in order to maximize our time with the players both on and off the pitch. The Plan – do – review model becomes really important to how we work, and dedicating equal time to those is challenging but crucial to working most effectively.”

With his role as England U16 Head Coach, Dan gets to work with some of the most exciting talent in the country, which obviously incorporates the planning element mentioned previously. The transition to his new role has brought some challenges, however.

 

Dan explains, “It’s probably taken me two years to feel completely ready for the U16 National Coach role and manage the number of challenges we face to support the players including things like leading a large pool of staff, talent ID, squad selection, age and camp appropriate timetabling, training sessions, workshops, video analysis, individual programmes etc. We went to France in March for our 4th tournament of the season and the planning started last September.”

So organisationally there has been a big change for Dan, but what is his core focus when it comes to dealing with these potential future internationals?

“In terms of working with the players, it’s fundamentally about relationships. I believe that’s what coaching is. If people ask me ‘can I come and watch you coach?’ then I’ll say come and spend the week with us because you can’t just watch an hour on the grass without seeing how it all links together. Alex Inglethorpe (Liverpool FC Academy Director) calls this ‘invisible coaching’. For example, coaching off the pitch is as important, as there’s only so much work we can do on the grass so developing a vibrant learning environment in team meetings is crucial and making sure our messages to the players are simple, clear and consistent. Strategic use of visuals and what to emphasise is key. Working at The FA has really helped me develop my skills as I’ve been fortunate to work with some extremely skilled people in this area.”

One big challenge in any national set up is the fact you’ve got limited contact time. Dan explains that it’s important to get the players feeling comfortable with their environment – “relaxed and ready” – before approaching tactics. “I will always start a camp with an ice-breaker. We’ve always got new players coming into the group or players who may not have seen each other for two months so social integration for me has to come first before we even get to the football.”

“You can also let the players lead you where they want it to go next. Understanding the players’ strengths is important.”

He continues, “Once the players get comfortable, you can review what you’ve done and preview what you’re about to do. You can also let the players lead you where they want it to go next. Understanding the players’ strengths is important. The players all have bespoke programmes. We have 11 playing principles and the players have to outline which 5 of those 11 they are best at. This allows us to then ensure we are playing to their strengths and check we have got our selection right since the style and formation(s) drive who we select. We can then fill the blanks with anything the players might need to add to their game in order to perform in a tournament environment, such as resting with the ball to conserve energy, for example.”

So is there a cost to limited contact time in terms of building those relationships with players, or is it more challenging creating rapport with players who you may barely know?

“When players come in, building instant relationships is crucial,” answers Dan. “We might have 20 players turn up and I don’t know them as well as I used to when I worked in academy football. We will ensure we have a picture of the player so all staff know who they are upon arrival and importantly what they look like if they’ve never met! Generally I’ll know most of them but occasionally you will get a player who you don’t know. By using a picture, we can avoid that awkward first day where staff are asking ‘who are you?’ I will also either visit or FaceTime a new player with agreement from his club with a staff member from their academy. I will have a quick chat and introduce myself before they come into camp and break the ice so we have some rapport.”

Once the ice is broken and the players are finally settled into camp, Dan has to get to know them even further. This is done through interactive team meetings, and informal one-to-ones in order to “know them better as a person, not just a footballer.”

But Micciche says it’s important not to “rush” the dialogue. “I will check myself to ensure I have spoken to all the players each day whether it’s at the airport, passing in the corridor or a planned time. If I know I have time, I will ensure it’s a productive and informal conversation.”

Importantly, another challenge is to mould the various playing philosophies that players may bring from their clubs. “We emphasise ‘there’s a lot of good work going on in their clubs but that no two teams play exactly the same way, so when they report to England duty they need to get their England hat on and adapt and we will support them as much as possible along the way.”

Of course, the reality of national squads is that players will come in and out, which means Micciche has to deal with the challenge of players missing out on selection having been part of a previous squad. The key to this, explains Dan, is communication directly with the club and player. “If a player is left out, I will contact them and explain it personally and it’s usually a case of reassuring them as we have to look at other players and no one is being written off at such a young age,” he says. “Communication is so important, it’s now not just someone else’s children it’s someone else’s player. We want them to have a brilliant experience, enjoy it and go back wanting more!”

Once in camp, technology is a key part of maximizing the time players spend there. Dan explains England’s approach, saying: “Using technology like Replay Analysis our analyst can send them clips which may be video footage of the playing style – this helps their confidence, particularly if they feature in the footage, and it’s a reminder of the 11 principles that link to the DNA age phase priorities launched in December and are therefore our non-negotiables. They are then set a task, which we will follow up when they come in to activate the learning process.”

“They aren’t silly, they know you’re making an extra effort with them and that you care about them having a positive experience and succeeding.”

He continues, “If we have new players come in to camp who haven’t been with us before or it’s been a while since they’ve been with the group, I will make sure I prioritise them as my one-to-ones or get them in the night before the others so they can have a bit of extra time, get a refresher and then the next day when the rest arrive they have caught up on things they might have missed. By doing that, you’re ‘in credit’ with them in regards to the relationship you have. They aren’t silly, they know you’re making an extra effort with them and that you care about them having a positive experience and succeeding.”

Dan elaborates on how he goes about building effective classroom environments, saying: “We will work hard to make the classroom all about the players and have a relaxed feel. They will have their own pictures on the wall, the chairs might be set out in a horse shoe or there may be no chairs at all and we have music on and it’s a very relaxed but focused setting.”

One of our favourite subjects at the Player Development Projects is ‘creativity’. We took the opportunity to ask Dan about his thoughts on this, and challenged him around the perception that England hasn’t produced enough truly creative players since Gazza (Paul Gascoigne). Does he agree?

“Our football culture has perhaps not accepted and appreciated thoughtful and creative play like some other countries – we have some catching up to do in that regard.”

Standing true to his convictions, Dan replies, “I think we do develop creative players and the evidence is there when you think of names like Paul Scholes, Joe Cole, Ravel Morrison, Matt Le Tissier, Rio Ferdinand, John Bostock, Ross Barkley, Jack Wilshere and so on there are certainly quality creative players who have been involved in the national setup. People ask me a lot about Dele – there are hundreds of Deles in England. We have always had good players – Hoddle and Barnes, for example – there’s never been a shortage. We should develop more of these types of players though, and yes, we should clean up when you consider the investment and knowledge in this country. But something is clearly holding us back because the players are certainly here.”

Dan elaborates on what kind of environment is best practice in terms of enabling these kinds of players: “The style of football you play drives everything you say and do. My view is to develop and support creatively. You can wrap football around these simple words :

  • Freedom
  • Fluidity
  • Framework
  • Flexibility
  • Fun
  • Flair

“Those 6 things help you to have creative players and cannot operate in isolation. You need a framework but not to the point that it’s overly-structured and puts limits on what players can do. We’ve perhaps been guilty of lacking flexibility in the past whether it is the formation we play, the positions we play our best players and what we allow or don’t allow them to do. Giving our players the licence to do more than perhaps we assume they are capable of can unleash their true potential. Also our football culture has perhaps not accepted and appreciated thoughtful and creative play like some other countries – we have some catching up to do in that regard.”

“Giving our players the licence to do more than perhaps we assume they are capable of can unleash their true potential.”

Dan’s passion for these ideals shines through as he continues: “If we give players freedom in all areas of the pitch to express themselves within a framework perhaps we will develop more creative players. The 6 Fs can support this process. Of course, the coach then has to be bold with their approach and value creativity in the first instance and understand the process to nurture and support it. Convincing the players is easy – their role models alone tells us that and the type of football that excites them whether it be on TV or on Xbox. We often ask them to write their world XI and the names and type of players that appear won’t surprise you.”

So with the ideas around Dan’s beliefs on environment very clear, how does he deal with the psychological side of players at the top of their age group in a country where football is tribal and expectations are so high? Is fear a factor when players arrive to work with him and how does he deal with it?

“The coach then has to be bold with their approach and value creativity in the first instance and understand the process to nurture and support it.”

He explains, “When they come in for their first time at U15s we’ll always speak to the club first and see if they think the player is mentally ready for a different challenge and enter the international arena. If the club says ‘maybe not this time, he’s had a dip in form or he’s behind at school’ we will support this in most cases and work with the club which is really important. In the main, they are psychologically ready and the club supports it. One example of a player being challenged when coming in is someone like a centre back who at his club is not as encouraged or as willing to step into midfield.”

He continues, “We will try and encourage that kind of ‘play’ and ensure there is freedom when they come in with our big strapline ‘PLAY WITH FREEDOM’. I’ve never had a player say to me they are fed up with me letting them express themselves too much! Praising that kind of intent or style of play from them individually and ensuring my match-day behaviour supports it is important. Then they can get comfortable with the added freedom. I had one player this year who is a wide player. In one example, he’s on the touchline, facing towards his own goal on the halfway line. As the ball comes to him, he sets it back to our fullback. As he’s done it, I’ve said ‘That’s boring!’ because what he could have done was play a back heel inside and he would’ve opened the pitch up and we could’ve got out that way with an overload. Now the reason he’s done that could be that it’s because it’s what he’s used to doing for his club and that’s fine, but when I spoke to him afterwards and asked him if he knew why I’d said what I did? He knew exactly what I meant and wanted him to do (flick it inside). As a result, I explained to him that I know he’s capable of doing it and capable of more, that’s why he’s in the group. I try and send out a strong message to the players that I’m not limiting them. I want to unleash their potential. Saying things like ‘You’re capable of that! You don’t have to be Spanish or South American to flick it round the corner!’ or, ‘You don’t have to be Portuguese to nutmeg someone’ can be a useful way of saying ‘you can do this’.”

To drive these ideas home, Micciche says it’s all about reinforcing them in order to let the players become willing enough to execute these ideas. “I might challenge them with footage of a square pass or back pass and ask what else they could’ve done,” he says. “They might say, ‘Well I kept the ball’. I’ll say, ‘What else could you have done now that you have watched it back?’ The players can identify these things so if the player does flick it round the corner or do something clever it helps us get up the pitch, and as a result they understand the why. Why it helps us, why we want to overload in central areas or why we ask them to take these risks (or opportunities, which is a more appropriate phrase).”

“Not once did we clear our lines – that’s one of our principles. To win the ball cleanly by regaining and retaining the ball in one action.”

So what kind of objectives does Dan set in tournaments?

He explains, “We came back from Florida recently and played against USA, Holland and Brazil in the Nike International Tournament and were happy we’d controlled possession in all three games with an average possession of 65%. Not once did we clear our lines – that’s one of our principles. To win the ball cleanly by regaining and retaining the ball in one action.”

Achieving these actions has implications in a broader context on the environment and culture of the team. He explains, “Once you have one group which has done it consistently for two years it becomes easy, as the group below can learn off the older group (peer learning). Our current U15 group see all the U16 footage which gives them a point of reference. We will then remind them they have an obligation to the group below them that when we show their footage, they inspire that generation. This creates a strong identity – they build it themselves and pull each other by the bootlaces!”

Dan winds back the clock and revisits a couple of examples from his time at MK Dons to further clarify his point, saying, “We had that at MK Dons in Dele’s group which included the likes of George Williams (now at Fulham and a full Wales International), Brendan Galloway (now at Everton) and Sheyi Ojo (now at Liverpool), and many other very talented individuals. Brendan for example would have learnt more from his team mates than he did from me. He would see them do things and think ‘I want to be able to do that too!’ He knew he had to learn how to do it to survive and went through some times when things he tried didn’t quite come off for him. However, as long as you are patient and view this as a long-term process they will feel psychologically safe that you’re on their side, you’re there to give them unconditional support they will crack on and persist because kids are very resilient.”

Dan’s point around safety in the learning environment is critical and one we endorse through Player Development Project via one of our own mentors, cultural anthropologist and leadership expert Simon Sinek. His TED talk on good leaders illustrates the value in what Dan is saying. Having seen Dan coach at St George’s Park myself in late 2015 and heard about his reputation for innovation I am keen to dig deeper and get some practical advice for coaches, asking him to give us some information about his innovative methods and session design.

He explains, “I think I have a library in my head now, of things I can do or that I’ve seen – I gained a foundation from the original FA Youth Coaches Award which gave me a practice checklist with things like benefit for all, challenge, enjoyable etc – this applied to matchday as well as training. For example, a goalkeeper catches the ball in a session. Instead of just putting the ball down, I will have him throw it in a mini goal. I like to use equipment where possible so that there is a benefit for all. I’ll always ask myself, what can I give each player that’s relevant to him? It might be that the keeper at the opposite end does the same and they have a competition. If I have to be talking all the time in a session, then perhaps I haven’t got my session design right.”

“If I have to be talking all the time in a session, then perhaps I haven’t got my session design right.”

“I also focus on looking at the game of football. For example, in a game you generally attack outnumbered, so players have to practice that. I will aim for realism and often reflect on my childhood, or look at street football or my research of what the best players have done to achieve their level. Generally, the key things that stand out are the fact they play with older kids, on varied sized and type of pitches and player numbers (one team having more or less) wasn’t an issue.” He continues, “I try to recreate that in a more formalised setting. I might play U13s against U15s. People might then say, well that’s a bit hard on the U13s. But it’s not if you play 11 v 8. It’s now a new challenge if you put the best U15 on the younger team. The U15s have to attack and defend outnumbered, the younger ones get a bit more time or space on the ball, they are playing with peer mentors, if they get closed down it’s going to be quicker than what they’re used to. You could swap your keepers around. You can do whatever you want if you can justify it with logic for the players’ benefit.”

It seems Dan replicates the game by breaking it into key elements. He explains, “The game is simple really. At a CPD event recently a coach asked me, ‘what was the theme of the practice?’ I turned and said (tongue-in-cheek), ‘football!’ It’s different with the national teams as we’re preparing for a tournament or when I am presenting on a course, but in the academies or with young players of U12s for example there has to be three things in my sessions: attacking, defending and transition.”

Dan goes on to explain how he organises the flow of these sessions and what he does he do to vary the environment, saying: “I’ll do a tight area practice, I’ll do a bigger area and I’ll always do a wave practice where there is counter attacking and changing overloads. If they are doing those kind of sessions plus a couple of games a week and mixing up environments from futsal halls to other surfaces – they get variation.”

At Player Development Project, we believe who we are is how we play and an environment can be reflected in individual playing style. Does Dan agree with the premise?

“I think players aren’t silly. They will do what they need to do in order to stay in the system and forge a career. They’ll express themselves only based on the signals from the environment they’re in, so that comes down to coach behaviour and philosophy/culture. I watched Suarez in a recent clip, he is 1 against 3, nutmegs one of the defenders with the outside of his foot and he’s away. He runs towards the penalty area and takes on the centre back by tapping the ball past him and running around him and then has a shot. So what he’s done there isn’t rocket science, it’s a result of the playing style and the coach accepting diversity and allowing him to use his imagination. Lets be honest, as coaches we have all discouraged that kind of play at some stage in our coaching careers, perhaps in specific areas or scenarios, so players’ actions will reflect that the end product is we end up with players who are quite similar and safe.”

“We don’t want to limit them because they can do so much. Nothing is impossible.”

From the first time we started speaking it’s clear that Micciche keeps his glass half-full and likes to be optimistic. I ask him to discuss that mindset.

He explains, “I tend to use the word ‘do’ instead of ‘don’t’ in our environments so player performance reflects that. In their problem solving, if they’re making mistakes, ask the players why they tried things as opposed to just criticising or stopping them. We need to find solutions to get them to ensure these ‘risks’ work as opposed to saying these things don’t work. We don’t want to limit them because they can do so much. Nothing is impossible.”

He continues, “Sometimes players need a coach to take them on a guided discovery to ensure creativity comes out. They need to be able to engage in trial and error. Sometimes a coach has to help with the ideas to ensure they see creative moments too, a player won’t always see everything. As a coach you have to realise whether your player needs a quick bit of information in a direct manner, or if they want a 10 minute chat afterwards.”

When it comes to advice as to how a coach in a grassroots or developmental setting should carry themselves, what does Dan think are crucial ingredients in ensuring players maximise their potential?

He starts simply, “I would say first and foremost, are you maximising your contact time and do you see a match as the same event say 30 times (a season) or as 30 different events because they are two very different things. Also ask yourself if you’re catering to the needs of the player? Are you enabling him or blocking him by what you do or don’t say or through your behaviour? Are you enabling them through your style of play? Creativity is enabled or blocked. It’s whether you see a mistake as an opportunity to learn or messing up your team. As soon as you see it as messing up your team, you’re becoming more ego-oriented rather than task orientated. It becomes more about you and the outcome, and how it looks and the outcome as opposed to the process and supporting the player.”

“For me, integrity is doing what you say you’re going to do, but when no-ones looking. We can all talk it. We can all document it, put it down on paper. But do we live it?

Excellent advice and ego is a topic we’ve discussed previously at length and will continue to challenge in what should be seen as best practice. So is it just a case of sticking to your guns when it comes to a personal coaching philosophy? How does a coach practice what they preach and maintain integrity and a task focus?

“For me, integrity is doing what you say you’re going to do, but when no-ones looking. We can all talk it. We can all document it, put it down on paper. But do we live it? Does it transfer on to the grass?” He continues, explaining how important a coach’s behaviour is by suggesting we should ask ourselves questions constantly. Dan explains, “John Allpress once told me everyone’s a player developer until they go 0–1 down and I’ve always remembered that. You can’t say you create an environment and then throw it out the window when the outcome changes. Then you’re not living it.”

He refers back to his protégé, Dele Alli saying, “Using Dele as an example, I can evidence his programme with video footage of his development journey and with him talking about it. If he couldn’t articulate what his programme was, what the playing style was, it, explain it, justify how it benefitted him and even outline what mistakes I made (and I made loads of them with all the players!) or what he liked or disliked then I’ve failed him. As a result of this comprehensive understanding, he can help inform me of what works for him and what motivates him. For example one of the things he said was he liked the fact we played more matches than we did training sessions so he could transfer what he learnt in matches into training. I had always looked at it the other way around so he gave me a different perspective on this and programme design.”

And does this fierce view on integrity create benefits for the players? Micciche cites another MK Dons example, this time using Danny Collinge as a reference, saying “At 13 he was very nervous and didn’t quite know if he belonged in the environment. He was a perfectionist (which was his biggest strength and weakness), his feet weren’t polished but he had fantastic drive, and a supportive family so he had some ‘bricks in his wall’ but the wall needed supporting and completing this to compliment what he had. The first thing we did was give him a club registration until he was 16. We played him up three years (with the U16s at times). We did that strategically – in games where we knew perhaps he wouldn’t have to defend much. We did it for the players who were playing next to him so they had to coach him through the game and so develop their leadership skills. I knew even if the match was a stroll for us, it would be a challenge for him. I just wanted the player to believe in himself and use football (rather than a filling in a questionnaire) to get that outcome.

Having referred to moving players around the ages, Dan elaborates on his thoughts about juggling players or playing them down an age. “Playing players down can have an adverse effect in my experience. If I have ever tried it, it hasn’t worked unless its been done in a ‘hidden’ way (playing down as well as staying in your own group and up). As a result we had a ‘training up roster’ regardless of the four corners, regardless or size, you got that opportunity to go and learn off your peers and play up and age group or two.”

So what words of wisdom would Dan use to summarise all of the theories and evidence he’s outlined?

He explains, “For me, overall, how you treat the players is the most important thing. Be as nice to the kids as you would your own ensuring you have actually taught them the things you expect them to be good at and put them into as many varied match environments as you can according to their needs and play a style which encourages the 6 Fs. If you do the simple things like those brilliantly, you’re doing more good than harm. If you aren’t doing those things and overcomplicating development you could be doing more harm than good. If they’re not playing enough football and you’re not consistent and fair, well…all the best with that!” He laughs.

So as our time comes to an end I refer Dan back to his own ego and quiz him on his personal ambitions. Where does he want to go, does he want to manage or has he found his niche?

“I believe English kids are as good as anyone else in the world”

Micciche says, “Football is such an unpredictable industry it’s hard to plan for where exactly you’re going to be in five years’ time. I get my buzz from helping players and coaches and showing them we can play better football than they thought was possible and give them the confidence to believe in a style and brand of football which takes players onto new levels.

I believe English kids are as good as anyone else in the world – and that’s my ambition – to prove it and change perceptions about English football around the world! It’s not about me or what job I end up in. I want us [England] to be the best in the world. I want our English players to be on ‘Football’s Greatest’ on Sky Sports, I want Ballon D’or winners to be English players. I would love it if in 10 years time England fans could pick up the newspaper and have a checklist of what an England team looks like and think, ‘I could watch this all day!’ I don’t want us to be talking about Germany or Barcelona as the models to follow. I want us to build a reputation that takes us to the forefront of player development and develop exciting, creative players who get you off your seat and whose posters you want to put on your bedroom wall. Finally, he adds, “ I want other countries to look at us and talk like they do about people like Pep Guardiola – game changers – and I believe we can get there.”

 

Cover Image:

England U16 Team vs Norway U16 Team – International Friendly.  Photo: Tony Marshall / Stringer

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