Marijn Beuker: Thinking differently with AZ Alkmaar
Written by Josh Schneider-Weiler and Simon Austin — February 9, 2021
IS there another club in Europe that punches above its weight quite as much as AZ Alkmaar?
Last season, the Dutch outfit finished level on points at the top of the Eredivisie, losing out to Ajax only on goal difference. This was despite the fact that their wage bill (€19m in 2019) and revenue (€25m) was dwarfed by that of their more illustrious rivals (who spent €92m in wages and had revenues of €199m in 2019).
In European terms, Ajax, let alone AZ, aren't among the financial heavyweights, with even Bournemouth, for example, having a wage bill of £110.9m (€126m at today’s exchange rate) in 2019.
Yet AZ are truly elite when it comes to fielding homegrown players. This season, 42.5% of their league minutes have come from club-trained players, according to the CIES Football Observatory (club-trained players are those who have been with the club for at least three years between the ages of 15 and 21).
This puts them way ahead of second-placed Ajax (33.6% of minutes) in Holland and 21st in Europe.
One of the key figures behind AZ's success is Sport Development Director Marijn Beuker, who has been with them since 2007 and in his current role for the last eight years.
In an interview for the Training Ground Guru Podcast, he revealed the secrets of AZ’s success and most of it boiled down to one thing: thinking differently.
1. Working out the essence of what you want to do
Marijn Beuker: At the club we have one big ambition - to become champions again (they last did in 2008/9) and to make an impact in Europe in terms of the way we play football and educate talents.
If we tried to compete based on budget, it wouldn’t work, because we have the sixth or seventh biggest budget in Holland. So we said we have to think differently. Or maybe call it thinking logically.
Really understanding the essence of what we do was important and we always ask ourselves three questions: 1. What is the real talent. 2. How do you develop a culture where people can develop themselves to the maximum? 3. How do you create winning teams?
We want to be one of the best clubs in the world at understanding the answers to those questions. There might be some other clubs that say that, but what is really an advantage here is that it’s a common belief, from the Chairman to the Technical Director to the Head Coach to the youth coaches to the bus drivers.
It starts with our Board of Directors - including our CEO, Robert Eenhoorn, who is a former baseball player who played at the New York Yankees and our Technical Director Max Huiberts, who was a former player at AZ - and they really believe in the philosophy we have at the club.
We say the programme is in charge, not any one individual.
2. Taking a helicopter view
Every club has a Technical Director, a Head Coach, a Scouting Director, an Academy Director and and Medical Director.
In our club they are all terrific guys who are busy with important stuff, but mostly they are focused on the short term.
I came in 14 years ago as an addition to that team, more or less between those directors and the Technical Director, looking more to the future.
My main job is to look with a helicopter view and ask how we are going to be champions in the future. I always ask myself what success is going to look like in five years and then calculate it backwards.
I have a clear understanding of what success looks like and the way of gathering information and using data and knowledge and putting that in a programme which is the best way to develop people and win championships.
I think in European school systems people learn. They are just reproducing knowledge that somebody has made up to be important. I am more into finding curiosity and creativity and solution-focused thinking and that is also something we believe in strongly at the club.
Also, in my job there is a lot of change happening there. That keeps you sharp, which is important in our training methodology - to always be challenging and surprising.
If you know what’s coming, your brain is not open to learn that much.
3. The building blocks of future potential
Of the players who came through from our Academy to the first team, the average age we recruited them at was 11.8 years.
If you reach the U13s of AZ, you have a 46% chance of becoming a professional player. If you reach the U16s, you have a 58% chance. That is because we have to make good decisions; we cannot afford to lose too much talent.
Our philosophy is mostly focused around growth and development. We believe not so much in buying success as creating success.
If you look at talent, we know there are a few elements that we call the building blocks of future potential: physical, cognitive, attitude and ability to learn.
We start at Under-9s, but we don’t put them in our Academy at that age, we invite in one of our soccer schools. We have five, six soccer schools, which have maybe 150 players in total at that age group.
We test them based on physical and cognitive data and also test them mentally. We put them into, as we call it, shitty situations, where they have to struggle and compete to show if they are willing to learn and to suffer.
So we look at the personality aspect as well in those two years. After we have tested them we invite them to the official age groups.
We don’t want to start too soon, because the body is not developed enough in our opinion, but, most important, we don’t want to make quick decisions.
There is a Dutch saying - we don’t want to skate on one-night ice, we want to make good decisions.
4. Beware confirmation bias
What we see in football and child development is that people make assumptions all the time. Coaches see what they want to see.
If you look at a child, you have some preferences; maybe you see he is very technical, and your brain gets triggered.
In the 14 years that I have worked for AZ, I am still trying to learn what is really a talent. What elements of talent are relevant?
Because there is a lot of irrelevant information when you look with your naked eye. You see a player’s behaviours, his skills, his bad things and what we’ve found is that that isn’t true all the time.
Confirmation bias is something you see a lot when you look at potential and performance. For a trainer, it is almost impossible to look at every aspect of every player in every game. What comes in then, if you don’t do that, is confirmation bias.
If you don’t gather that information, the trainer is using his feelings in his guts, which is important, but don’t use it as the starting point of the discussion.
5. Starting discussions with objective data
This is why, in our club, we want to use objective information as the starting point of a discussion. We don’t have discussions any more about whether something has happened or not.
We still ask the specialists for their opinion, but we ask them not about whether it’s happened, but why. 'How can it be that this player’s expected threat has been 0.10 points less than average?' Not whether that is the case or not.
I always refer to a quote from Einstein - “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I'd spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.'
If you’ve analysed the problem, you can look for the solution in the last minutes. Step two is that the same process is very important for the player as well.
The data we gather and share with the players is objective. Then we ask the players why is this happening? What do you think?
6.Implicit v explicit learning
When we play football, we use knowledge stored in the implicit (or non-declarative) memory. So we want to fill that part of the brain.
You do that not so much by explaining what is going to happen, but by experiencing it. For example, if you do an exercise where your focus is on giving pressure, 3 v3, then we can say, ‘When you recover the ball within three seconds you have three points, when you do it after three seconds you have one point.’
The players want to win so they do it.
Or you can tell your full-backs, ‘Go ahead and play 20 metres up the field’ - explicit information - or you can cut the corners off the field so they have to start 20m in front.
Unconsciously, you have forced them to do the essence of the training.
I can tell my defenders not to grab the shirt of the opponent, or I can put two tennis balls in their hands so they cannot do it. The training is done by the exercise, not through the mouth of the coach.
If you understand the brain and the different parts you use in football, it’s easy to train the wrong part of the brain.
As a coach you have to observe, reflect, help the players. But tshe exercise has to be that smart that implicitly they will do what the principles related to the principles of our football.
7. Principles of football
We divide principles of football into three aspects - at U11, 12, 13, we say 'you just have to understand the technical movement patterns you will need later on. You just have to understand playing football.'
When you are in the U14/15/16 grade, we call that game intelligence; the principles we make are through the essence of football. You have to understand different patterns on the field.
We want to fill your brain with a large number of experience patterns, because that’s the way your long-term memory works.
In the U17s upwards, you have your principles to win games.
8. The word 'tactics' is banned at the younger ages
Tactics are important at the end of the Academy journey, when you have to win matches, but they are sometimes the opposite of creativity.
If you do that too early, even in the U15s, you may win that game for the short term, but for the long term memory it’s not good.
What you want to achieve in the lower teams is to stimulate creativity, so that players have pattern recognition on high speed and translate that into their brains. Then they can compare what has happened before and what is going to happen and can execute that pattern.
If you put too much emphasis on tactics, you erase that development possibility for your players. So, until the U16s, tactics is a forbidden word in our club.
We don’t want to make decisions based on strategy to win games. We would rather win championships with the first team. Therefore, we need players who are creative, who are game intelligent and, at the end, the coach can come up with a tactical plan.
Tactical is not that difficult. It’s basically follow what somebody else tells you what you have to do. What is important in achieving that tactical plan is that you, as an individual, can recognise situations. Then you can adjust your tactical plan in an instant.
9. Coaches working across the age groups
We work with a group of 10 Academy trainers. What we don’t want is for everybody to only be responsible for their own team. We want multiple hands on the field.
We also want two or three assistant coaches specifically for that team. We want the U18 coach also to be assisting with the U15 teams and maybe the U12 teams. And the U12 coach to assist with the U14s and maybe the second team.
We do that not because we want to keep the budget tight, but because we want them involved and to understand every aspect. If you know why we do it in the U12s, then you also understand how it fits into in the bigger picture for the U18s.
10. Importance of biobanding
If we look at physical information, it would be dumb to compare boys of the same calendar age, because we know biologically there can be a huge difference between 14-year-old boys, for example.
Some are early maturers and some are late maturers. So we compared our boys with some physical test results based on the same biological age groups, which makes it a more honest comparison.
We started doing this 12, 13 years ago, so now we have a big data set of players who came through the Academy and now play somewhere in Europe. We can look back at their data scores when they were 12-years-old.
11. Giving people freedom and responsibility
The direction and boundaries are clear, but the way to get there is down to the specialists and there is a lot of freedom.
Trainers are free to do what they want to do on the field, but they have to understand very well, based on our football methodology, what is the essence of those principles, of the vision, in training.
We are also having more and more good talks with the players and they are more eager to learn because they are involved in their own development process.
This is going to be the next step in data science - to make the connection with players and make them a part of their development programme as well.
We don’t tell our players what they need to do, but we make them understand what needs to be done at the end. We give them responsibility.
That’s easier said than done for trainers who sometimes want to be in control of everything, but they have to come up with their own solutions.
You have to accept that people will make mistakes. Sometimes, coaches say the self reflecting of players is not good enough, but that is also a process of growing up.
If you’re smart, you create obstacles so you sometimes force them to make mistakes, because that’s the area where you want to be once in a while to develop.
12. Billy Beane and data science
For six, seven years, data has been a big influence at the club and we have a huge data science department. Another catalyst was Billy Beane (who bought a 5% stake in the club in September 2020), who is the club’s advisor and helps us with that.
Of course he is a huge inspiration - we are always open to people who understand things better than us, because our philosophy is that if you surround yourself with people who know more, you have the most potential to learn.
We always want to be improving. We consider ourselves good, but good is not enough.
One lesson is that if you want to use objective information as the starting point of conversations, you have to do it all the way. You can’t do it in this department, yes, in this department no. You have to think what it looks like in every aspect of your business.
13. Being lean and nimble
We want to keep the group of people working at our club as small as possible, because the bigger it is, the more problems there can be in communicating.
When people are successful, they want to expand every fast. They want two trainers instead of one. We have a focus on remaining a small group of specialists who believe in the same aspects.
So we have three physical trainers in the Academy and two in the first team, three coaches with the first team and two in the second team, two lifestyle trainers, two video analysts.
We have six guys responsible for recruitment, seniors and youth, the Academy Director, the Scouting Director, myself and two student counsellors.
I think it’s still a lot, but when you compare it to other organisations in Europe, it’s nothing. And that’s a good thing.
People think success is built with buying your way with lots and lots of people and lots and lots of good facilities, but for us, maybe the opposite is true.
You can add somebody, but there has to be a good reason for it. We want to have long relationships with our coaches. We invest in them, we help them grow, but we expect them to be working here for a long period as well.
14. Developing the person as well as the player
We have a holistic way of looking at development - we combine every aspect, mental, technical, game intelligence, nutrition, sleep, and with all the experts we speak about it.
It only works when all those elements are improved. If you have one aspect which is phenomenal and the others are not, you won’t be successful at the end.
What is a very important factor is wanting to develop the human beings behind the players as well. We want to develop good individuals with passion and pro athletes who know how to treat their bodies 24/7.
With Tom Brady, how is it possible that with his age he is one of the best in the sport? That’s because his lifestyle is insane, in a positive way.
There is hard data you can measure - physical, cognitive tests - but you cannot really measure soft skills, like communication, attitude, passion, the ability to suffer for something you want.
That is also something we have our emphasis on and our lifestyle trainers play a crucial role in our philosophy.