With the help of Pro Soccer Development, Dave Wright examines whether Jamie Vardy is a football anomaly or personification of a problem in elite player development.

Unless you’ve been living in total football isolation, away from the world of social media and headline news, it’s fair to say that by now, we know that Jamie Vardy has experienced a meteoric rise over the last eight years. This has culminated in seeing him go from striker for the Stocksbridge Park Steels (in the eighth tier of English Football) to the current golden boy of the 2015/16 Premier League with Leicester City, and England international.

With the help of Pro Soccer Development and their advanced analysis tool known as the PSDSystem – used by top clubs the world over, we are going to investigate just how effective Jamie Vardy has become as a player in 2015 and question why he was lost to the system before finding his own way back.

At the halfway point in the season, Leicester are being touted as potential Champions and have given the traditional powerhouses a serious shake up along the way. The Foxes currently sit at the top of the Premier League table and Vardy has recently smashed Ruud Van Nistelrooy’s goal scoring record of 10 goals in 10 consecutive games in England’s top flight making it 11 in 11 against (of all teams), Manchester United in their recent 1-1 draw.

The Vardy story is one of hardship, family challenges, a run in with the law, and hard-graft – a typical tale for many English players. Released at the age of 16 by Sheffield Wednesday, Vardy quit the game for a time before resuming with Stocksbridge Park & moving on to FC Halifax Town and then to Fleetwood Town. Leceister picked him up on a £1million transfer in May 2012 and the rest is history. Was it as simple as facing so much adversity at a young age that Vardy rolled his sleeves up and decided to show the world what he was made of, or is it just a case of a player needing time to go away and develop?

Alternatively, it’s possible that Vardy could well be the definition of what’s wrong with elite level player development. Why do we create systems that say a player must be deemed ready for professional football at age 15 or 16? With hindsight being ever so clear, it now seems apparent that Jamie Vardy just wasn’t ready to be the player he was capable of being as a teenager. There could have been any number of factors as to why that was the case, maybe he didn’t want it enough, maybe he needed time to improve technically or he didn’t not have the physical traits that Sheffield Wednesday defined as necessary? Regardless of the reasons, the psychological effect this can have on young footballers can be devastating – years of work and sacrifice undone on an opinion at a moment in time where a player hasn’t yet reached maturity on any number of levels. Secondly, how many other Jamie Vardy’s are out there who may not get seen or are lost to the system? Either way, Vardy needs to be applauded for taking the challenge on and finding a way back.

Not every player is going to be suited to academy football or make it through the academy pathway. Some may not enjoy it, some may not be ready, but others just need time. Adults are in control of designing the definitions of age groups and cut off limits, yet we still have the issue of Relative Age Effect (RAE) – this phenomenon that is entirely man-made and doesn’t allow every player their time. Vardy is a January born player, so it may not have been a factor in his release, but it’s obviously important that we know our players ages and understand just how significant a few months difference them can be when assessing their development whether it’s elite or grassroots football.

Our resident RAE expert and contributor, Steve Lawrence (Consultant to Ajax) explains. “Research shows us that relative age bias in high performance football is most extreme at young ages; it declines as players get older and it disappears at about the age of 27.”

Lawrence continues, “At age 15, (which is a critical period in the selection of players for promotion to scholarship level in football academies), the bias is about 75% early-born to 25% late-born and not only are those late-born players outnumbered but they also tend to get fewer playing opportunities, they sit on the bench longer and they’re lower down the coaching staff priority list – expectations for them are low and to an extent they’re used to make up squads where early-born players are prioritised.”

So what examples do we have of this happening in the world of academy football? Lawrence explains, “If we observe the development trajectory of late-born talented athletes who have succeeded, we see that there is a tendency to begin to emerge in the peer group at around the age of 19 and to really shine at 23 but this is much too late in an academy system which has already written them off by 18. Whilst most scouts and coaches are focused on younger adolescent players coming through some coaches keep an eye on older late-born players and argue the case for them to be given an extra chance – some very talented late-born players such as Gareth Bale and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain benefited from this.”

So how does a player who wasn’t even on the radar of top flight football 8 years ago, now have statistics that make him more effective than Manchester United’s Wayne Rooney and almost on par with two of the greatest players to have ever kicked a football, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi?

The first set of position intelligence ratings shows Vardy’s effectiveness in different areas of attack in comparison with, Ronaldo, Rooney and Messi.

Player Ratings Comparison

The second set of performance metrics provides a detailed break down of Vardy’s effectiveness in front of goal, in terms of shots taken, shots completed per game, 1 v 1 attacking and more. You can see in a number of these graphs, Vardy is right alongside or better than these football legends.

PSDSystem Comparison Tables

These key metrics were produced by Pro Soccer Development across the ten match period that lead up to the Manchester United fixture, as seen in the graph below.

Jamie Vardy PSDSystem Analysis 10

The final graphic gives you an understanding of how each metric is interpreted, measured and what they mean.

Jamie Vardy PSDSystem Analysis 4

Whilst fascinating and and impressive reflection of Vardy’s ability, these performance measurements are more evidence that we have a potential problem with talent identification, recruitment and most of all patience in the game.

Player development is a non-linear journey. Players will experience ups and downs, success and failure. Without these bumps in the road, we won’t produce players. Some will deal with those challenges, others will struggle, but as coaches we have to try and help all of our players.

In Mark Upton’s article, ‘The Perfect Storm‘ in Issue 5 of PDP Magazine, he said “Taking a constraints-led approach to skill development helps us appreciate the complex mix of variables that can affect the development of skill. In his book ‘Outliers’, Malcolm Gladwell demonstrated that there are a lot more variables involved in an individual’s success than society cares to admit. Our job is to understand these variables in the hope that we can create an environment that maximizes skill development. The coach’s goal is to manipulate the environmental conditions to create a ‘perfect storm’ for player development. To do this we must understand the principles of nonlinearity and constraints.”

If Upton is correct (and research suggests he is), then why are we often giving up on players so young who have yet to maximise their potential? Is it a case of redefining academy football to allow for longer scholarships, for an U23 league, or some other kind of solution to fill the void that is the gap between U21 and first team level? Having seen first hand the benefits of top young players playing up an age group, perhaps introducing age bands instead of age groups could be a solution?

Maybe Vardy was simply a player who just needed a new environment to become the player he was and non-league football was his playground. He could be the result of the Perfect Storm that Mark Upton speaks of…“a weather system, all be it a powerful, dynamic and complex one. It has formed from seemingly harmless atmospheric conditions that have combined, interacted and evolved to create something with devastating consequences. In the same way, we can think of a player’s development journey as the formation of a weather system.“

Players such as Miroslav Klose, Didier Drogba, Ian Wright and Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer are others who emerged slightly later than many of their contemporaries, signing their first big contracts at the age of 21 – 23. There is no doubt there is a case for persisting with players who come through non-traditional pathways or or overcome adversity.

Unfortunately, professional academies are between a rock and a hard place. They are competing in a system that is defined by age groups, where decisions have to be made on players before the club invests another two years into trying to turn their young proteges into professional players. More over, they are competing with other clubs for talent and are in an industry where there are financial realities in terms of club budgets and pressure to turn players into first team products or talent worthy of a transfer to another club. Is the system the problem?

Perhaps Vardy is the beacon of hope for all the players who never get to see a scholarship or even the inside of an academy. Out on the football pitches, streets, parks and playgrounds of the world, there are many young players who no doubt have the potential to be anything they want to be with the right mindset and attitude. It is up to us as player developers at all levels to appreciate that many of them just need time, guidance, support and most of all, the chance to play and develop at their own speed, not just because they’re approaching their 16th birthday.

About Pro Soccer Development:

PSDSystem, the most advanced Professional Soccer Development System commercially available in the world used in synergy by clubs, coaches, scouts, analysts and players, for Elite and Premier Levels to Youth and Grassroots levels, that’s powered by an exclusive and revolutionary Player Rating System.

A fully customisable product, specifically engineered to National Organisation or individual Club philosophies, it enables powerful performance enhancing decision-making. The PSDSystem integrates with existing products and is fully scalable – delivered securely via the Internet (Software as a Service). The pathway to success at all levels of the game is assured with the revolutionary PSDSystem.

Website: www.pro-soccerdevelopment.com Twitter: @PsdSports

For more information on Pro Soccer Development, their powerful PSDSystem analysis capabilities and how you could gain an advantage on the competition with their advanced technology click here.

About the Author

Dave is currently working towards his UEFA A License with The FA & has attained his FA Youth Award after completing The FA Youth Modules. He has 13 years’ coaching experience from high school first teams through to professional academy football in England. Currently working as a foundation phase coach at Brentford FC in London, Dave has also worked in elite development at state level for Football NSW in Australia and National Youth Level & National Women’s League level for Northern Football in New Zealand. Finally, Dave is the Editor of Player Development Project Magazine and published his first coaching ebook in 2015, Performance Soccer Coach: A Guide to Positive Player Development – available on Amazon.

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