TGG Podcast #21: Dan Micciche - Creating Strong Young Gunners
Written by Josh Schneider-Weiler and Simon Austin — December 30, 2020
ARSENAL Under-15/16s lead Dan Micciche was our guest on episode #21 of the TGG Podcast, outlining the key principles of both his own, and the club's, coaching philosophies.
He covered topics including how to foster creativity, encouraging players to take ownership and how to reinforce messages using video. You can listen to the interview via the player below - and after that there is a transcript, which splits the chat into 11 key topics.
For a bit of background on Micciche, he was with MK Dons for six years, as Head of Coaching and Assistant Academy Manager, and worked with a young Dele Alli during his time at the club. From 2013 to 2017 he worked with the Football Association as U16s coach before a short spell as manager of MK Dons.
In November 2018, Micciche was appointed U15s/16s lead at Arsenal, where he works under Academy Manager Per Mertesacker.
We hope you enjoy listening to/ reading the interview.
1. The leader: Per Mertesacker
Dan Micciche: We are very fortunate to have a leader here who is extremely humble and who practices what he preaches in terms of the values he wants for the Academy. He’s a fantastic role model.
He does remind me a lot of my time working with Gareth Southgate at the FA - both have been there, seen it, done it, but you’d never know it. You’d only find out about his experiences by chance or if you really probed him.
That shows fantastic humility, but it’s down to us to try and draw knowledge from him. I think he’s been very strategic in the time I’ve been at the club, in terms of what he’s trying to achieve and his vision and mission.
Per takes his time in making decisions, but you know that when he does communicate them - in terms of the direction and methodology and expectations and behaviours he expects - that they’ve been well thought through and are clear.
He’s been fantastic to work for and I think he’s enjoying the role. Along with the current manager, who he played with, and Edu, our Technical Director, we've got a really strong spine of people who have represented the club on the pitch and are now doing an equally good job off it.
2. Vision and mission
The vision is to create Strong Young Gunners, by creating the most caring and challenging Academy in the world. What we do as phase leads and head coaches is to work with our multi-disciplinary team to work out how we do that, both on and off the pitch.
That could be through the games programme, how we’re going to train, creating leadership groups and goal setting.
Every week we have a lead phase meeting on Microsoft Teams with Per and our Head of Coaching, Luke Hobbs, and normally somebody from another department, depending on what the theme is.
My role as phase leader is to draw out people’s knowledge and ideas and make sure it’s heading in the right direction in terms of the Academy vision and mission.
Per has been very inclusive in allowing us staff to take ownership and shape it and turn it into a day-to-day working model.
3. The four pillars
Within the vision and mission are the four pillars, which, at Arsenal, are: being a lifelong learner, an effective team player, having a champion mentality and being the most efficient mover.
People will relate to those things in terms of the four-corner model and this is a different terminology, meaning and measurements, which we believe will feed into being a Strong Young Gunner.
These pillars have been driven by Per. He will relate to a lot of these things, having played at the highest level and knowing what it takes to succeed, overcome setbacks and deal with success and failure.
Everything has to feed into the four pillars, which has to feed into the vision and mission.
4. Player reviews
We do four player reviews a season with parents, and two a season with just the player and coach. The players take a lot of ownership with them, in terms of creating their own playlist on Hudl and presenting the clips around their own individual development plans.
We add our input as and when required. We have a player tracker we share with them on a weekly basis, in terms of any activities we’ve set them - it might be a nutrition workshop they’ve had to attend online, or making their own smoothie with our nutritionist - and we track who’s achieved the task and achieved it well.
We have a leadership group of four players, which we change every two months. Their job is to help the staff facilitate the environment and reinforce our values and behaviours. At the end of the two months they hand over to the new group on how they felt it went.
We have set-piece leaders for attacking and defending as well, who will take responsibility over which players are doing which roles from an attacking and defending perspective. That will be based on set piece profiling, which they would have done in pre-season, to understand what their strengths will be.
We have the leadership group for our age group, but also an Academy-wide leadership group made up of two players from each age group from U9s to U23s.
They come together and work on different initiatives in relation to the local community and their personalities really come to light, because you see there is so much more to them than just the footballer.
We were really proud of our U14s a couple of years ago, when they went to India for a Premier League event and worked with the Oscar Foundation, who then came to London and attended our training sessions, played a friendly match and went to a first-team game.
Our young players really showed how they can represent the badge and the values of Arsenal.
5. Goal setting frameworks
Our goal setting framework is representative of the pillars and we review that with the players at the end of each month.
Let’s say it’s to do with our playing style. It could be that one of our performance goals is to be possession based and have a 15% plus average chance quality, which is high. The club have their own analysis model, which starts at U15s, and our metrics are all based on the StatDNA we use.
Last season we had a mid-season review and split the players into four groups, which represented the four areas on their goal setting framework. We gave them two evenings after training, each for 20 minutes, to go into their groups and prepare a presentation to give the staff.
They could use video clips, stats, whatever they wanted, and it was a bit Dragons Den style.
They presented on each pillar - the first group presented on being an effective team player, for example - and that was all recorded and posted on Hudl, so the other groups could see.
We did the same at the end of the season and it was fascinating the type of clips they would come out with, their honesty, how well informed they were statistically about our playing style, and how they were as a group.
I was really impressed with how they embraced it and their delivery.
6. Using video
We’ve had to utilise other means of getting our work done during the pandemic, which has been a positive in a way. It makes you work differently and be more innovative.
We’re unable to do team meetings, but we have Hudl, a very good analysis department and technology at the training ground, with the smart board system.
It’s meant going into work on a Monday afternoon and pre-recording the presentation and then posting it on Hudl, setting a question to the players around what their take-home messages are from this.
If that video gets done in the right way, by the staff and players, it can replace a training session quite easily in terms of the information they get and the learning they take from it.
The benefit is when they arrive they’re getting their boots on and playing football, as opposed to going into a team meeting that cuts a training session short or packs their schedule.
We value analysis a lot at our club. The way video clips are now presented can really paint clear pictures for players, staff and parents. I have to make sure that my communication is very clear, that the pictures I’m painting are very clear, and that my messages are consistent with our training model and the week ahead.
The scenario we’re in at the moment, we can look at it in either of two ways - you can complain about it and say, ‘we can’t do this’, or you can ask, ‘can we do what we did before, but do it differently and better?’
7. Fostering creativity
You’ve got to break creativity down, because it’s subjective and has different meanings for different people. For me, it’s something you do with and without the ball. I’m very clear on what creative actions are, so I know what I’m looking for.
Because I believe in those things so much, and have studied and analysed the game closely, I know how they fit into a game.
The important thing with players is making them understand why you do those things and what the benefit is to them and the team.
If you can show, for example, that playing a pass round the corner on your weaker side is beneficial, because it means the opposition can’t press you out of a game and you can create a 2 v 1 on the other side and it opens the pitch up.
Convincing players that these things work and are achievable is important. If you haven’t really studied the game and don’t have a library of images in your mind, then you’re forever relying on the players to self discover.
You want them to improvise and come up with their own ideas, but they’re not going to be able to come up with everything.
And giving them the confidence and belief to do things. I remember getting my job at the FA and people saying, ‘don’t expect to go there and play the football you did at MK and play Brazil and out-possess them,’ and we did it. We played Holland a few times… and were at nearly 75% possession.
In terms of the football we played and players leaving and thinking, ‘gosh, I can be as good as anyone.’
If you create that environment where you have empathy, where they can make mistakes, where you have a playing style that enables them to express themselves and dominate possession and win the ball back, then you bring out more of them than they thought was possible.
Once those things start to happen, the sky’s the limit really.
8. Creating challenges
I’ve been fortunate at a club like Arsenal that the challenges are often given to you. At MK, we had to create our own challenges.
At MK, we were able to go to games and play 10 v 11 because we had an environment where we did a lot of attacking and defending out-numbered in training, so they were used to facing those type of challenges. They were used to playing teams a lot older than them as well.
They knew why we were doing it - because we thought it would challenge them and make them better players, whether that was tactically, technically or physically.
All those challenges and scenarios you give to players, you’ve always got to psychologically prepare them for those things.
I remember in my first year at Arsenal we went to a really good tournament in Singapore (below). The number of challenges the players faced - a long flight, time zone, the weather, it was extremely warm and humid, the number of games they played in a short space of time - it was one of my proudest moments that tournament, because of the number of challenges.
The first game we played the goals were very narrow and the players were missing the target a lot. We were fortunate to have an analyst with us and reviewed every game very well. The players, as the tournament went on, became so imaginative in how to score - with one v ones, overlaps, individual play. We were very proud of them.
And they were able to physically deal with the demands of the tournament, which sometimes we underestimate but is something the game demands. In the semi final, we drew the game and the rule was that we’d go 3 v 3 on the same-size pitch and whoever scores first wins, but if it’s still a draw after a minute it goes to 2 v 2 and then 1 v 1.
When you give players challenges, more often than not they will surprise you.
9. Managing difference
With Dele Alli, the biggest learning for me was around understanding and managing difference. Certain types of players maybe haven’t fulfilled their potential in this country, but I was fortunate that I had some good mentors around me at the time who helped me to help him.
At Tottenham I’d worked with a lot of good people - Chris Ramsay, John McDermott, Alex Inglethorpe - and I was lucky that when I came across Dele I’d had a good grounding in youth and child development.
I understood football quite well, but it’s managing and fostering that environment that’s key - and relationships. I could have got that horribly wrong with him. Also, I was working for an Academy Manager in Mike Dove who gave me a lot of freedom in terms of my ideas.
So I was able to allow Dele and that group of players a playing style that gave them a lot of enjoyment and satisfaction. Then it’s about understanding the person. You’ve got to quickly develop a relationship, understand them, what motivates them, what makes them tick and tap into that and emotionally connect with them.
Once you can do that it becomes a lot easier. Young players are all so different, they’ve got different circumstances, and it can’t be a one-size-fits-all approach.
10. Reinforcing messages
I remember one of my players had scoring with his left foot in his development plan. In one game he was through on goal, it was on his left foot, he’s one-on-one with the keeper, and he’s turned his body and shot with his right foot and it’s gone over the bar.
He just walked off the pitch, because he knew what was coming. It was me sending that message that whatever we discuss in a one-to-one review, if I don’t reinforce that in real life then it doesn’t mean anything. Then it’s just a piece of paper and I’m putting the result before their development.
If it’s taken out of context, people might think it’s a bit harsh or you’re being too strict. A lot of the time it’s harmless and quite jovial, but it’s also setting boundaries.
There are things like sin bins and I do a two-ball game. You see a lot of possessions where there are a lot of footballs on the side. I do those types of games with two footballs - one on the pitch, one on the side - and if you kick the ball out you have to go and get it.
You’re trying to get them to really take care of the ball. None of them like going to get the ball, so there’s a consequence for sloppy play. Yes, intensity is important, but, for me, quality is more important.
11. Psychology and personal development
At the club we’ve got a really good psychology and personal development department. A lot of that is around mental health and wellbeing. At the start of the season we make sure we really understand the person before we start thinking about the x’s and o’s.
The players have a one-to-one with the coach and the coach will get to understand them in terms of their football motivation and what they want to achieve, their hobbies and interests.
Then the psychologist will have a one-to-one about their life away from football and we’ll come together as a multi-disciplinary team and share that info so we have a holistic understanding of the person before the player, which will inform how we are going to work with them and what kind of relationship we think we’re going to perform with them.
Then, throughout the season, we have a range of themes we cover. One was performing under pressure. Last year we went to an indoor tournament in Germany and had a checklist of things which are known to create pressure. Then we designed our sessions around those things.
One might have been high stakes. So you do a training exercise which is first to score, an unforgiving game. Concede, you’ve lost, you’re out. The tournament in Germany had 4,000 people there, indoor, different rules, different country, different type of opposition, older teams.
That’s an example of where psychology and football have come together. We also have guest speakers from inside and outside of football who come in to share their experiences.
I also use the psychologist personally, to be a critical friend, in terms of the environment, in terms of 360 feedback to develop myself.