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Euro Trip Days 8-10: Bayer Leverkusen

LEVERKUSEN, Germany — As NorCal Premier Soccer’s Coaching Education Trip to Europe entered its second week, the roughly 25 Directors of Coaching abroad were again welcomed by a top German club: Bayer Leverkusen.

The three-day visit began with Slawomir Czarniecki, the club’s sports coordinator who first explained the club’s general philosophy regarding how it acquires players.

“One of our strategic pillars is to focus on scouting as well as the youth academy,” Czarniecki said. “We cannot fight with Borussia Dortmund, we cannot fight with Bayern Munich (for the best players).”

Once those players are then acquired at the youth level, the focus shifts to teaching said players, with the club placing family and education paramount — Bayer knows that most of the players in its youth academy will never play for the first team, so it’s imperative that the club works to develop them into well-rounded individuals.

“Every player is a human being and every human being is different,” Czarniecki said. “The family is the center of the player’s life. We are the other family of the player.”

“For us it’s fantastic if we have one player each year that we can add to the first team,” he added. “There are such a small percentage of the academy that don’t make the first team, so we have them focus on school (rather than just soccer).”

Unique Structure For Youth Teams

Czarniecki then changed the focus of the lecture, explaining how Bayer rejected the norms for youth team structure and essentially marched to the beat of their own drum.

Both Leverkusen’s U17 team and U19 team each have co-coaches, with each tasked with a different main responsibility.

Furthermore, Bayer is one of the only professional clubs in the country that doesn’t field a U16 team. According to them, this is because if a player is good enough after his U15 year, that player’s development should be accelerated as soon as possible.

The club also chooses not to field a second team for a variety of reasons. Because German rules don’t allow for a second team to be promoted higher than the fourth division, Leverkusen believe that the level of play will always be too low to translate to the first team.

“No player needs the second team to make it into the first team,” Czarniecki said. “The only reason the second team exists is during the FIFA break when you need extra players for first team training.”

Instead of having a second team, players are loaned out to other amateur clubs, which also helps Bayer save money that they would otherwise spend on player contracts, coaching, and staff.

“Bayer Leverkusen think the difference from them compared to other clubs is that they have better coaches,” said NorCal Premier Soccer Vice President Paolo Bonomo. “They really put an emphasis on that — they have two coaches in their U17s and U19s and I believe they have 15 staff between those two teams. That’s a big investment in the staff and the quality of the coaches to make sure that the development is happening.”

“It’s like what schools are considered the best? The ones that have the best teachers.”

Training Session Analysis

After Czarniecki finished, NorCal’s Directors of Coaching received a lecture from Jan Hoepner, one of Bayer’s U19 coaches, who went through several filmed training sessions, explaining the aim of each.

Hoepner must work to maximize the amount of time available, making sure that every element of every session has a clear purpose that will help the youth players.

“The idea is to work better than the other teams, to develop better than the other teams,” Hoepner said. “In Germany all teams have the same amount of time to develop players, it’s all the same. We don’t have more time in minutes or hours, so we want to make the quality better than the other teams.”

All of Hoepner’s warm-ups feature tactical elements — the sessions provide as much relevance to an actual soccer game as possible.

“We’re not passing just to pass,” he said.

What Makes A Professional Goalkeeper?

One aspect of the game that hasn’t been covered much thus far on the trip was goalkeeping, something that Bayer were more than happy to explain all of their thoughts on through U19 goalkeeper coach Jan-Paul Conradi.

While the obvious trend in the game in the past 20 years has been to focus more on all aspects of goalkeeping — netminders are no longer purely shot-stoppers in 2017 — Conradi was able to actually quantify each aspect of the position and explain the deliberate process used to help improve his young charges.

According to Conradi, goalkeeping can be divided into three main aspects: goal defending (stopping shots, headers, one-v-ones, etc…), zonal defending (crosses, through balls, protecting the goal indirectly), and distribution (passes, goal kicks, punts, throws).

While Bayer assert that goal defending is by far the most important of these three aspects, their data suggest that goalkeepers only spend 13 percent of their actual time on this task in games.

The club thinks that zonal defending is the second most important, but only takes up 17 percent of game time.

Conversely, Leverkusen have found that distribution takes up a massive 70 percent of keepers’ game time, and yet is the least important.

Still, Conradi and his co-workers try to design most of their training exercises to include all three parts of the game when they train their keepers separate from the field players before the full practice starts.

Once that training does begin, the Bayer goalkeepers join the regular players because Conradi feels that you can’t make trainings realistic without field players.

“It’s not possible to create the same situations as in the game,” he said. “That’s why it’s important for the goalkeepers to train in the team’s training.”

Scouting A Talent-Rich Region

A common theme between clubs in this area of Germany has been the fact that there’s so much competition at the youth level, with Borussia Dortmund, Schalke, Borussia Moenchengladbach, and several other top teams fighting over a population of roughly 17 million.

Tim Mattern, Bayer Leverkusen’s head of scouting, finished up the day’s lectures by explaining how the club attempts to get a leg up on all this competition in what has proven to be one of the most fertile regions in the world for producing talent.

“It’s important to watch many games on video because it’s important for the economy of the club that our time is focused. If we spend a lot of time in the car, it’s time we lose,” Mattern said. “It’s important that we work at a high quality. If we see a good player in Berlin, for example, we watch him two, three, four, or five times, then we drive to Berlin. But that’s 600 kilometers away, which is 15 hours of driving. With 15 hours, we can watch six or seven games.”

Mattern’s department looks for four key things in players: their running speed and speed of thought, their intrinsic motivation, their willingness to learn, and how well they move on the pitch.

From there, players can be signed to the academy using the “six-eyes principle,” which states that no player is even approached until at least three different scouts have watched him play.

Then it goes to development — the player is signed and integrated into the team, where he may one day make it onto the pitch at Bayer’s 30,210 capacity BayArena.

But according to Mattern, it’s that team that motivates the player will ultimately make it as a professional.

“The team is the reason why the player can develop better,” he said.

“The individual player development was a priority,” Bonomo said, reflecting on the first day of the visit. “Especially in this club where they need to develop players to survive financially and then sell them for a higher value. It’s imperative that they have good coaches because that’s where everything starts and then a good structure and system to help the development to make it happen.”

Running One of the Most Successful Youth Academies in the Country

With Wednesday designated for watching a Bayer Leverkusen first team match — an eventual 1-0 victory that improved the record of home teams to 5-0 during this trip — NorCal’s Directors were back at it Thursday with a visit to the club’s academy.

Only Schalke produce more Bundesliga players in their academy in Germany, with Leverkusen promoting roughly 1.8 players to the first team every year.

One of the factors that was attributed to this success rate was the method in which Leverkusen operates at the youth level, opting to give all players as much playing time as possible, sometime even going against governing body standards to do so.

“If you have 12 players on your U13 team and Cologne comes with 12 players, play 12 v 12,” said Jorg Bittner, who oversees the U8-U15 age groups. “They want to play, so let them play.”

Bittner referenced a recent match against Schalke’s youth team as an example for this philosophy. In the game, Leverkusen only had one substitute, while Schalke changed their entire team multiple times in the game.

Bayer ended up losing 9-7 in a competitive game, but each of their players played 55 of the possible 60 minutes of the match.

“I think that if you speak with some parents, they will say that they would like to win,” Bittner said. “That’s when you speak to them and say, all our kids played 55 minutes today, the opponents only played 30. We lost the game, but their players played half the game…during the last 10 minutes, our players maybe have to fight, but that’s okay.”

The Value of a Non-Soccer Education

The final Thursday lecture had NorCal learning from Frank Ditgens, the club’s Player Support and Education Director, whose first-ever students were Americans Landon Donovan and Frankie Hejduk.

Ditgens reinforced the club’s dedication to education in a different way. Earlier, NorCal had heard that education was important because a player needs a backup plan, something that Ditgens disagrees with.

He hates it when he hears players say “if I don’t become a professional player, (education) is important.”

“This is the wrong way of thinking,” Ditgens said. “In the last 10 years, no player who was bad in school became a professional footballer. No one. It’s a good argument for them that if you want to become a professional, you have to do it in school as well.”