If you were asked which club in world football is responsible for developing the highest number of top-level professional footballers, I imagine the answers may include the likes of Barcelona and their famed La Masia academy, perhaps Ajax who have produced a number of the world’s top players, or maybe in the UK, Manchester United, particularly with their “class of 92”, including the likes of Giggs, Beckham and the Neville brothers. Like me, you may be surprised to know that statistically, the most successful youth academy is at Real Madrid, measured in terms of number of players who after spending time at the academy, end up playing in the top five European leagues (England, Spain, Italy, France and Germany). At the start of season 2015-6, there were 42 players who had spent at least one season at Real Madrid’s academy playing at the top level, compared to 35 from Barcelona and 33 from Manchester United.
In March 2016, I was fortunate enough to join a group of Coerver coaches on a study visit to Real Madrid, to spend time at Ciudad Real Madrid (Real Madrid City, the club’s famed training complex in Valdebabas), to watch the youth teams both in training and in match action, to spend time with some of the club’s coaching staff, and also see both Real Madrid and Real Madrid Castilla (Real Madrid’s B Team) in action. Coerver have a long-standing relationship with the Spanish giants, including taking some of their most promising young players over to Madrid on a yearly basis to receive coaching from the club’s coaching staff.
Ciudad Real Madrid, the club’s academy and training ground was completed in 2005 as the club moved away from the more central Real Madrid Sports City. Covering more than 1000 hectares of land, it comprises a T-shaped building which climbs in a steps up a hill. The first team train at the top level, and the design signifies the steps the young players must take to reach the top. At each level there is also a training pitch for each academy side with entrances into individual changing rooms. Talk in the UK has been of small-sided games for younger players, however teams at u11 and u12 play 11-a-side but on smaller pitches. Although parents can watch the academy teams play and train, either from small stands or even from ‘La Cantera’ – the on-site cafe-restaurant, nobody except players and staff have access to the youth team buildings.
We were fortunate enough to tour the whole of the academy facility and see the changing and training facilities close at hand. Each academy level has its own changing room with individual players’ lockers outside. There is a central gym area and a kit desk where players and staff can go and collect any training kit requirements. The coaches have one large area which includes departments for the physios, analytics team, specific goalkeeper coaches, referees and welfare officers. In all, there are 40 coaching staff at the academy and it is also possible for 70 academy players to be accommodated on site. Although we didn’t see the first team section, this includes accommodation, a gym, and physiotherapy as well as two training pitches and a specific goalkeeper training pitch. The pitches are slightly sunken to reduce the effects of the wind – the training ground is on the side of a hill. Needless to say, there is also plenty of on-site security.
Real Madrid encourage their teams to play a common game style – that is not necessarily a particular formation as this depends more on the strengths of the players available, although the teams we saw in action generally played a version of 4-3-3 – but more playing principles. They look for their teams to take the initiative, be ambitious, brave and attacking in their play, press high and try and dominate the opposition. The coaches are responsible for getting their teams to play in the correct style and should coach with enthusiasm and make their sessions stimulating for the players. The players are understood to be representatives of Real Madrid and expected to be tolerant and respectful at all times.
Players are selected for the academy primarily by their technical ability and relationship with the ball, but also by their decision-making and temperament. Players are evaluated by coaches and scouts in training facilities and their own environment – weekly trial sessions which previously were the main recruitment method are now seen as more social occasions. Prospective recruits should excel at all factors mentioned, but that is not to say that the coaching staff do not feel they can improve players further – they can improve a player tactically and psychologically and most players will naturally improve physically or can undergo extra strength work. However if a player is not strong enough technically, the feeling is that they will not reach the sufficient level to succeed at the top level. Ultimately, despite the club’s reputation for buying top players, the academy is for developing future Real Madrid first team players. Those that cannot find a pathway into the team may be sold elsewhere with the fees helping to finance the academy, however it was noted that most transfers will include a first option to repurchase the player in the future.
Similar to the coaching staff, Real Madrid’s scouts need to have full knowledge of the club’s requirements in a player. There are nine scouts covering Madrid itself and a further seventeen covering the provinces. From u14 upwards, Real can scout players anywhere in Spain, below this level only the Madrid area. They also have an agreement with neighbours Athletico to not try and sign players affiliated to the other club. The coaching staff, much like coaches I’ve listened to in the UK, conceded that finding players in the modern age is more difficult with social changes – there is less hunger to put in the work required to play the game at the top level, street football has disappeared, and other sports have become more popular. There are greater levels of regulation, particularly with signing players from abroad, issues with immigration, agents and other teams competitiveness.
The working week for a Real academy player would start with two sessions a week in the youngest age groups, sessions lasting 90 minutes, plus a match that is likely to be no longer than 15-20 minutes each way. In the higher age groups as far up as Real Madrid Castilla (the club’s ‘B’ team), there would be as many as six sessions a week including a double session on one day, with one full game. This would be adjusted if there was a midweek fixture. What was particularly interesting was the coaching staff’s view on the amount of football played. Here in the UK there is a lot of talk of too much football, yet Real Madrid youngsters play as many as 75-80 games per season upto the age of 14, plus inter-club training matches. Above this age group, there are likely to be at least 40-50 fixtures. When asked their views on where the British game could improve, the Spanish coaches felt that young British players were a match for their counterparts upto the age of 18, but don’t play enough football between the ages of 18 and 23. Looking at the Premier League u23 leagues, clubs are playing in the region of only 25-30 games. Compare to Real Madrid Castilla who last season played 38 games in a competitive professional league. It is little wonder that many Premier League clubs feel the u23 league is too uncompetitive, preferring to send players out on loan to the Football League or abroad for competitive experience. Of course, many young Premier League players are already earning six figure annual wages despite not playing any first team football. At Madrid, these players would not have reached the top of the training complex so it is clear to them they still have work to do.
During our time in the Spanish capital, we were able to watch Castilla in a league game against Getafe B, a match supported with as much passion as the following night’s first team game against Sevilla, plus a fiery u17 fixture against local rivals Leganés. We also saw a number of academy training sessions including u11s, u13s, and the final session before a Champions League tie for the u19 squad. In parts two and three of our review of the Real Madrid study visit, we take a more detailed look at the Real Madrid academy training sessions, including the full session plan for the u19 Champions League squad practise we observed. Simply fill in your name and email address below to receive the next parts FREE to your inbox.