We’ve all seen how a well structured and run academy can lead to the making of many great players. FC Barcelona, for example, have seen their academy produce amazing talents such as Sergio Busquets, Xavi, Andrés Iniesta, Lionel Messi and many more. Not only do they produce great players but they grow them to play in their specific style of play from very young ages, the result? When the academy graduates make their debut for the first team it looks like they were born to play in that team. But how do they do it? More importantly, how are FC Nordsjaelland doing it?
In this piece we will be taking a look at FC Nordsjaelland’s peculiar approach to youth development and coaching, we will also make a tactical analysis of its in-game results and try to demonstrate how it can be a good example for other clubs to follow.
In order to obtain more and better information I had a chat with Flemming Pedersen, the former technical director and current FC Nordsjaelland manager about the topic. Some quotes from the conversation will be included throughout the piece.
Youth development: a main pillar
FC Nordsjaelland have reached the European qualifiers for four years in a row now and have done so with the youngest team across all Europe’s top divisions, with an average age of 22 years and six months (CIES Football Observatory). Not only that, but 60% of the players on their first team come from their academies, making the achievement even more impressive. We can say that the development of youth players through their academy system is one of the main pillars of the club and that shows in the fact that their academy is in perfect alignment and fully cooperates with the other Right to Dream Academy facilities in Ghana and the USA. By training the players to play in a certain way since they are as young as 11/12 years old they are able to ensure that the players know their game model well and have the exact characteristics to play their specific role in the team. The players are scouted, they enter the youth academy as an unshaped stone and by the time they play for the first team they are polished diamonds who fit in it perfectly.
The whole process aims to develop players that can perform at the highest level, and the standard is set looking precisely at games from said level – the UEFA Champions League. But what is so special about the way FC Nordsjaelland are developing their youth players, where does the secret lie? The answer to that question must be on the approach to training.
“We say in our academy that we have to be 5 years ahead of time, when we teach players in the academy we have to aim for an even higher level.” (Flemming Pedersen)
Training is the best tool for anyone to learn and develop themselves, no question about that. But the way we see training, engage with the trainees, and the methodology used have a lot of influence in its success. FC Nordsjaelland’s approach to training is one that sees it as an evolving learning process, guided by the same main principles throughout the way, and that not only teaches players out to play the game, but also how to understand the game.
This is achieved by adding tactical analysis and tactical theory sessions to the regular training sessions. The players have a predetermined curriculum that has all the lessons that are part of their learning process from the age of 11 to the time they enter the first team. By doing this FC Nordsjaelland ensures that all players go through the same process, and also that every player will learn to play by the same playing principles.
The style of play book
As it was mentioned before, FC Nordsjaelland maintain the same playing principles for all their teams so that they can develop players shaped to their specific style of play, this also means that all coaches from all teams must know and apply those principles. But where do those principles come from? An actual book.
FC Nordsjaelland have their game model written and represented in a digital book that breaks down the style of play into 8 phases, 4 attacking phases and 4 defensive phases, also including the transitions of the two moments. This book has animations for the typical situations they want to happen in each phase and is shown to players since they join the academy. What this allows then is for players to know what the team should be doing in the different phases of the game, giving them a place to look at for guidance. It also allows for coaches to plan training sessions referring to a certain part of the book, this way players can easily know what they will practice and even do some “homework” before training. The book works as a common reference and allows players and coaches to have a sort of common language to communicate between them.
The approach is very similar to a school book, and like any other book it was written after doing some research. FC Nordsjaelland have built their game model based on high level football and situations that occur repeatedly on games from that level. Analysing UEFA Champions league games they identified certain trends: how and from where are most goals scored, where do most assists come from, what spaces are most exploited by teams? They then gathered that information and developed their own way of getting the ball to those specific areas. The model was developed with the focus on how to score goals, once that was defined, they started to see what consequences would that bring to the defensive process and tweaked everything according to their principles and beliefs. We will see the end result later in this article.
“We have WhatsApp groups that we call learning platforms where we share videos of certain situations of our style of play with the players, and then they can reply. They see and reply if they want, so each player will use as many learning platforms as he wants, depending on his personal investment.” (Flemming Pedersen)
FC Nordsjaelland use tactical periodisation as their training methodology, in simple terms, they try and recreate certain game situations in training sessions so that players can practice the same exact things they will be doing in games. This is all done ensuring that players have the playing principles of the game model present so they don’t forget that the specific situation they’re practicing is just that, a particular piece of the whole puzzle. This training methodology was created by a Portuguese teacher named Vítor Frade and is used by a variety of coaches and academies all around the world. What’s different about Nordsjaelland is not the type of methodology per se, but the way in which they use it.
Simplify the game
One of the main training principles used in the academy is to simplify the game, and this can be done in many different ways. Take the example from the image below, in this situation the red team are practicing the build-up from the goalkeeper, while the blue team is pressing them.
By limiting the blue players’s movement to the line where they are positioned we are making the game simpler for the red team, this way the players will be able to get a good amount of repetitions of the build-up process in which they are successful because they will have time and space to decide and execute. When they get enough repetitions the complexity will increase, and eventually the players will start to adapt and will find ways to get around the new obstacles. They already know how to do the process successfully, they are only adapting to new circumstances. This type of approach will inevitably appeal to the players creativity as they are encouraged to find themselves out to beat the obstacles the coach starts to put ahead of them.
Football is a constant decision making process and nowadays players need to be able to make decisions very quickly. This demand of the modern game makes the players more prone to make bad decisions as they have to make them in a split second. FC Nordsjaelland try to solve this problem by reducing the amount of options players have. It might seem contradictory at first, but it makes a lot of sense. The following problem will serve as an example:
Imagine that you are the red player that is on the ball and you are presented with following passing options. Where would you pass the ball to?
Surely your decision wasn’t an instant one, and players need to be able to decide that fast in the modern game. Because you were presented with six different options, you had to take the time to decide which one was best. Now look at the same problem only with a few changes. Where would you pass the ball to this time?
Surely your decision was faster this time, and most likely it was easier for you to spot the best one out of the three. By deliberately reducing the options players have we can improve their decisions making, making it better and faster. You might have noticed that because the red midfielder moved a bit to the left side the blue midfielder followed him, creating space for the other two to receive the ball. The options for the ball carrier are less this time, but they are also clearer and better ones.
“You can also train decision making without opponents because decision making is also dependent on how your teammates are moving.” (Flemming Pedersen)
Tactical theory lessons
Another big part of FC Nordsjaelland’s methodology are the tactical theory and analysis sessions. The players start to take part in the sessions from the U13 team, most of the sessions involve the whole group while some only individual players.
The group sessions are the most important ones, in these sessions the players are encouraged to look at footage from their own games and training sessions and, between them and the coaches, they make an analysis. The main goal is for players to understand how the team are performing in a tactical level, and, with references to the style of play book it becomes easier for them to identify good and bad actions.
The sessions also allow players to look at their individual game play and how it relates and influences the performance of the team. This way players can understand how they should be playing to fulfil their role and contribute to the team. If players understand the game beyond their own position and see the complete picture that is around them their performances will undoubtedly improve, and most importantly, so will the team’s.
“It’s very normal in a U13 or U14 game for a player to step up, take the tactics board at half-time and say something like: if the opponent is pressing this way then we can do it this way .” (Flemming Pedersen)
In-game and practical results
Now that we’ve seen how FC Nordsjaelland are teaching and developing their players, we’ll take a look at the practical and in-game results of the whole process.
Game model and style of play
FC Nordsjaelland’s style of play can be described, in general terms, as attacking and possession based football. Because the game model was based on champions league football, the spaces the team tries to exploit are the same ones that came out of the already mentioned study of trends. The main focus, as it was mentioned, is to score goals and the team has been very successful in this chapter. FC Nordsjaelland are the best attack in the Danish Superliga with 44 goals scored in 24 games played. But what are those spaces they try to exploit?
A study made by Douglas Jakobsen, the Head coach of Karlebergs BK, about primary and secondary assist locations in the 2017/2018 Champions League knock-out stages showed how teams were accessing the danger zone, or in his words, the golden zone. This zone is the space in front of goal and inside the penalty area, it is also where 85% of Champions League goals are scored from.
The major finding of the study was what the author calls the “assists-V”, a new way of dividing the pitch that can also “act as a substructure for coaches of all age groups and levels when designing their own footballing strategy and tactical schemes”. The assists-V represents the area of the pitch where most secondary and primary assists come from. Inside that area are the golden zone, where the majority of the goals are scored, and the assist zones, where most primary assists come from. Here is a visual representation:
If we take a look at FC Nordsjaelland goal map this season we can see that the majority of the goals were scored in the golden zone, proving that they aim to get the ball to that area in order to score.
The way they get to the golden zone is also consistent with the assists-V, thus the Champions League’s trends. As it was mentioned FC Nordsjaelland like to play possession based football, this season in the league they averaged 477 passes per 90 minutes (85% success rate) and 56.3% ball possession. These stats make FC Nordsjaelland the third team with the most passes in the league and the second best in terms of possession average. If we look further into the stats we find that FC Nordsjaelland average 83.37 progressive passes (per 90min) and 65.87 passes to the final third (per 90min) being top of the league on both chapters.
This data starts to give us glances of the teams tactics and how they try to get the ball to finishing areas, valuing possession and always trying to progress up the pitch. If we add to it the fact that the team averages 12.68 deep completions (per 90min) and 19.07 touches in the penalty area (per 90min) then the picture is complete. FC Nordsjaelland try and work the ball into the box through passing combinations, creating zonal overloads so that they can progress the ball easily to the assist and golden zones.
In the image below we can see a zonal overload created by FC Nordsjaelland. Kamaldeen Sulemana (14) is making a run into the assist area while two other players are making diagonal runs to the golden zone from the opposite side. The play ends in a goal. This is a good example of how players know exactly what spaces to exploit as they start moving there before the cross or pass is made.
Another piece of evidence that FC Nordsjaelland aim to get to the golden zone, via the assist zones and position themselves somewhere inside that assists-V can be found on the team’s key passes map for the last 5 games. Although this map doesn’t account for the entire season it serves the purpose well as we’re able to understand the pattern. An analysis of this map shows us that a lot of shot assists come from the assists zone and most of them go to the golden zone. The assists and shot assists that aren’t made from those zones come almost all from inside the assists-V showing exactly how FC Nordsjaelland are being able to put to practice their game model.
When it comes to player development the success from FC Nordsjaelland has been noticeable. The club has now seen several players go through the entire learning process that lasts somewhere around ten years. It takes about seven years to form a first-team level player, in the next three or four years the players compete in the Danish Superliga before being sold to teams of Europe’s top five leagues. Names like Mathias Jensen (RC Celta Vigo) and Andreas Skov Olsen (Bologna F.C.) are good examples of FC Nordsjaelland academy graduates that are now competing in big European Leagues.
Most recently the club sold Mikkel Damsgaard to U.C. Sampdoria for seven million euros, since he is the most recent product of the academy to launch himself in one of Europe’s best leagues we will take a brief look at his player profile.
Mikkel Damsgaard is a 19 year old left winger who can also play as a centre-forward or as a midfielder. He is a very agile player who also has some speed, but his physical attributes aren’t what defines him best. Damsgaard’s technical ability is very good for a 19 year old, he has good ball control, he is able to dribble well in 1vs1 situations and has great passing and shooting technique.
This season in the Danish Superliga he scored 9 goals and provided 3 assists in 23 games played. These are all positive stats for such a young player but the effect from FC Nordsjaelland’s training process is most noticeable in his decision making and in the spaces he is able to find due to his intelligence and understanding of the game.
The image below shows us his heat map for this season
Mikkel Damsgaard averaged 2.53 deep completions (per 90min) this season. Deep completions are passes received (excluding crosses) in a 20 metre radius of the opposition’s goal line. Alongside that he averages 36.07 received passes (per 90min) and that’s the highest value amongst attacking players (forwards, wing-forwards, attacking midfielders) in the Danish Superliga. This data, alongside the heat map, shows that Damsgaard is able to receive the ball very often and in dangerous areas, and that he is very good at finding spaces to make himself a viable passing option.
Besides getting into good positions he makes good use of them. An analysis of the graphic below shows us how Damsgaard makes use of those positions and compares him to other players in the Danish Superliga that have played at least 1000 minutes this season. We plotted deep completions per 90min and chances created per 90min on both axes. This way we can see which players get into those spaces more frequently and how many chances they create. We then filtered the circle colour to display the amount of goals scored and the size to display the shots per 90 min, showing the amount of chances players take themselves.
By looking at the graphic we can clearly see the already mentioned ability Damsgaard has to get into dangerous areas compared to others. We can also see that he creates a good amount of chances per 90 min (0,77) but also shoots and scores a lot, his 2.26 shots per 90min and nine goals scored show exactly that. The stats don’t show all sides of his game but they show key attributes for a player in his position whose main responsibilities are chance creation and conversion.
All in all Mikkel Damsgaard has been great this season, he played an important role for FC Nordsjaelland creating chances but was also the team’s top scorer with nine goals alongside his teammate Mohammed Kudus. The potential for him to shine in Serie A is certainly very high and he has his education in his favor as the game model he trained and played in for so many years was created based on the highest of standards. Damsgaard is definitely a player to add to your ones to watch list and this short scout report showed just that.
This analysis has shown how FC Nordsjaelland are doing it differently when it comes to developing young players. Not only are they teaching players to play and understand the game, but they are doing it using the highest level matches and teams as a standard. Add to that the fact that the club is always trying to think five years ahead of our time, predicting how the demands of top level games will evolve, and the whole recipe results in players that perform at a good level at very young ages and, most importantly, with huge potential.
But that is not all, besides the football side of the player’s education, there is a more humane one. FC Nordsjaelland also teaches the players morale values since they are very young, they aren’t only developing players but persons as well. The club is also a member of the Common Goal Organisation and donates 1% of their revenue every year to a collective fund that powers good causes and community charities.
FC Nordsjaelland have a well organised project for the academy and youth development that has already produced good results despite the fact it only started in 2006. Keeping the consistency of the methodology for all the teams and teaching coaches and players the club’s game model creates common references for everyone to communicate and help each other. The environment in which the players grow and develop is one of unity and friendship between them, which also improves their chemistry when playing.
All in all, not only is FC Nordsjaelland teaching the game to players differently and successfully, but also setting an example for other clubs to see and, who knows, to follow as well.