Player Development Project Magazine Editor, Dave Wright was fortunate enough go behind the scenes at Liverpool FC Academy with U21 Manager Mick Beale. Following on from our 2015 interview, Dave gets Mick’s views on developing better people and watches the U21’s train prior to their match against Middlesborough.
On a gloomy day in the North West, I arrive at the Liverpool Academy with fellow coach and friend, Dan Wright to meet with U21 Manager, Mick Beale – a man who was featured in Issue 7 of Player Development Project Magazine.
Mick had invited us in to observe his U21 training session and discuss his philosophy. We’re fortunate enough that our visit is on a day where a number of senior players are involved in the session, meaning it’s a chance to observe an 11 v 11 session involving some of the club’s top performers prior to their U21 match against Middleborough the next evening. First team regulars Jon Flanagan and Jose Enrique are to be pitted head to head against some of the club’s top young prospects, fighting to progress within the historical club.
Mick starts the day by providing a copy of his session plan. A light warm up is to be followed by two separate short and sharp possession practices that focus on switching play & speed of pass. The space is tight. Using coaches as bounce players (so all the squad members are involved in the practice), the tempo is sharp and combinations are bright. Flanagan is all energy and shows a number of classy touches whilst young players like Sheyi Ojo and Jerome Sinclair display athletic prowess and speed on top of their clear ability with the ball.
The main part of the session is an interference style 11 v 11 pattern practice which involves the theme of switching play and working combinations in wide areas between fullback and wingers. With the foundations laid, multiple combinations come out and the ball speed is excellent. Enrique shows his class with a number of punched longer passes into midfield. The session progresses into an opposed 11 v 11 from box to box with a focus on defensive organisation. Adam Bogdan makes some great saves, and for a supposedly light session the competition is high.
After the session we discuss the challenges of dealing with young players who are in such a transitional point in their careers. Mick explains the difficulty of juggling the individuals in this week’s group, saying, “It can be hard when young players have so many expectations on them. We have to keep them grounded and ensure that we’re stretching the first year pros and ensuring they get what they need as well as making sure that those first team players who are dropping back to us are working at the right tempo and with quality.”
After eating lunch with the playing group and talking about Mick’s pathway through the academy system, including his time at Chelsea, his move to Liverpool and the difficulties of the U21 age group – often seen as a developmental black hole – we head to his office. Surprisingly, given the state-of-the-art facility, he is based in a humble set of port-a-cabins next to the training pitches, which incorporate the medical room, the changing room and Mick’s office. He explains, “We want the offices to be simple so the players stay grounded and don’t get too far ahead of themselves.” He continues, “They get a lot at a young age, so it’s important to keep them focused on the big picture.” As I walk in, the office is a series of tactical drawings, diagrams, players’ names, lists of who is where (out on loan, injured or with the first team at Melwood). Mick elaborates on many of the key factors in the Liverpool FC playing philosophy and the requirements of working under the club’s exciting new manager, Jurgen Klopp.
‘Are you playing together, or are you just playing at the same time?
Klopp has clearly stamped his mark on the club and this can be seen in the first team’s performances – high energy, counter-attacking football with a smile. Mick explains, “Jurgen wants players who will work hard and recover. He is very defensively organised and demands players ‘move as fast as the ball’. We like to counter press and ‘jump’ on players when the appropriate triggers happen.”
One of the notable features of Mick’s philosophy (developed with Academy Director, Alex Inglethorpe) is the emphasis on the social side of the game. They are almost obsessed with the social and psychological aspects of not only developing footballers, but developing people, something which leaves a resounding impression. “We challenge the players with mantras like ‘Are you playing together, or are you just playing at the same time?’ – connecting the dots if you will.”
As Mick shows us through a number of slides and some excellent video analysis the one thing that strikes me is the consistency and clarity in how he speaks and what he presents. This is a club with a clear vision from age 6–16 and then a flexible framework from the age of 17–21 (the performance phase) that is designed to give players the optimum chance at a professional career.
“…your personality has to come out first and your content is second.”
Whilst Mick’s technical and tactical knowledge were a personal learning curve in my own understanding as a coach, the focus around individual development stood out. He talks of the idea of developing self-awareness, awareness of others and the importance of relationship management, saying, “Many young players will go out on loan, they have to know how to have a conversation with grown men, how to hold their own in the dressing room. Those life skills and ability to deal with people are paramount.” And how does he ensure his performance incorporates these elements? Mick explains, “From a coaching aspect, your personality has to come out first and your content is second. If they don’t buy in to you, your job is going to be more difficult.”
When previously interviewed for Player Development Project, Mick elaborated extensively on the impact of many of the academy success stories on the young players coming through. The likes of Fowler, McManaman, Jones and Dalglish are regular visitors, mentors and contributors on and off the pitch. Beale tells the story of Robbie Fowler recently joining in a session. “It was fantastic,” he says. “Robbie joined in and was just working with the front players, helping them with their movement and so on. We happened to be on the front pitch which meant that as many of the young academy players arrived for training, there was one of the club’s greatest ever players in a session with the U21s”. He continues, “A lot of people talk about a family feel at a club, but at Liverpool it’s ingrained in our culture.”
After a day at one of England’s top academies I can’t help but feel that I personally came away with an insight into how the best operate, and the number of quality players on show is testament to the work going on at Liverpool under Alex Inglethorpe and Mick Beale. The players under the guidance of these experienced player developers and their support staff are being given every chance to develop and fulfill their potential.