Nathan Jones: Development culture was what attracted me to Southampton

Jones was today appointed Southampton manager on a three-and-a-half-year contract

Jones was today appointed Southampton manager on a three-and-a-half-year contract

NATHAN JONES has said that Southampton’s strategy of “developing” players rather than getting them in “ready-made” is what attracted him to become their new manager.

The 49-year-old Welshman was today appointed by the Saints on a three-and-a-half-year contract to replace Ralph Hassenhuttl, who was sacked on Monday after almost four years in charge.

Jones said. “I feel this is a real calculated club. Obviously I wanted to manage in the Premier League, I’ve dreamt of that since I’ve become a coach or a manager, but this club in particular – because of how it’s run, because of the structure, because of how they look deeper than just results – really appeals to me.

“There are certain things which are specific - of how they look and what they look for - that we’ve been doing well at Luton that they want to implement here. It’s always a gamble when you employ a manager, when you take a job at a football club, but for me this is one I’m excited about and really feel I can impact.

“There are so many things that are specific to how I work and how my team works, in terms of working with younger players, in terms of not getting ready-made [players] but developing them and putting them into a system and that there’s a clear identity, and then hopefully getting the best out of them and making them better.

“If some individuals move quicker than the club, so be it, we have others who can replace those, so it’s that hunger, it’s that aggressive environment that we want to create and it’s one that wants to win football games, because that’s the most important thing.”

Jones has brought Chris Cohen and Alan Sheehan in with him from Luton Town as assistants. Richard Kitzbichler left the club along with Hassenhuttl this week, but a trio of staff - in-possession specialist Carl Martin, Lead Coach Ruben Selles and goalkeeper coach Andrew Sparkes - stayed on. They had all been brought in by the club rather than the Austrian manager.

Cohen, 35, was Jones’ assistant at Luton from July this year. Previously he was U23s joint Head Coach and then first-team coach at Nottingham Forest, for whom he had made more than 300 appearances as a player.

This summer Cohen graduated with his Uefa Pro Licence from the English Football Association. Part of the course was to deliver a project and his was on ‘How the adult brain behaves: Coaching individuals and teams to achieve optimum performance.’ (I was fortunate to watch him deliver this project to tutors and fellow students and it was excellent).

Sheehan, 36, is a former Luton captain. He was a player-coach at Oldham Athletic before returning to the Hatters as first-team coach in January this year.

At the time Jones said: "He’s hungry and wants to learn.

“The most important thing is that he knows us, he knows our environment, he’s earned the opportunity by being a wonderful player for us, a fantastic captain and also a fantastic human being. We believe that with further learning – because he’s had about a year of being a first-team coach – he can be a fantastic asset to us."

On TGG we’ve closely followed Southampton's focus on player development, which is much more than just words. Here are five initiatives that illustrate their commitment to development:

1. LEARNING LAB

In April this year, the Saints announced they were launching a “unique” Learning Lab that would embed a “research culture focused on modern Ecological Approaches” in their club and Academy.

The Lab is the brainchild of the club's Head of Psychology, Malcolm Frame, and Dr Andrew Wilson, a Reader in Psychology at Leeds Beckett University. Iain Brunnschweiler, who was promoted to Head of Technical Development in February, appeared on the TGG Podcast (which you can listen to below) alongside Wilson in June to tell us more about the Lab.

“The idea was to try and help bring all of Malcolm and Andrew's concepts and theoretical underpinnings into the context and reality of the Academy,” Brunnschweiler explained.

Wilson outlined ecological learning, which he said was based on "the notion of direct perception, that as we’re going through the world there is perceptual information that is deeply informative and enables us to be very closely coupled with our environment."

Three PhD projects have been deployed within the Learning Lab to "interrogate our coaching and learning environment, both on and off the pitch."

"One is trying to validate a psychological model and look at how well it informs practice and player development," Brunnschweiler said. "The second is looking at our coaching and learning environment and whether what we’ve got written down in our Academy player development framework and session design principles and coach development work is being represented on the ground. The third is about virtual reality."

2. B TEAM 

In September 2020, Southampton announced that they were changing their Under-23s side to a B team. This was more than just a re-branding exercise.

Speaking at our Individual Development Webinar last year, Director of Football Operations Matt Crocker explained that the B Team would be more closely aligned with the senior side than the U23s had been. This was in terms of style of play, training and coaching methods.

Crocker said the club would also be looking to develop players within the B Team rather than sending them out on loan, as most other clubs do.

“There is no point in us sending an 18-year-old kid - no disrespect - to a League Two club if they don’t play similarly to us,” the former Football Association Head of Coaching said.

Southampton are going to great lengths to ensure that their first team and B Team are aligned. Speaking at TGG’s Big Data Webinar in 2020, Lead Data Scientist Alex Kleyn explained how data was being used to help do this. You can read more about that HERE.

3. DEVELOPMENT COACHES

Last year, Southampton scrapped the traditional system of Head Coach and Assistant Coach with their U18s and B Team, instead introducing the roles of Game Coach and Individual Development Coach.

Speaking at the 2021 Individual Development Webinar, Crocker explained: "The Game Coach is responsible for delivering the Playbook (which you can read about below), to make sure the players understand how we play, the terminology, the roles within the team; to make sure we prepare the players for the game effectively, to coach and deliver that game and then review that game.

"We have also introduced an Individual Development Coach to sit alongside. Their role is to make sure there are robust, simple, player-led Individual Development Plans (IDPs).

"When there’s a need identified by a player, they can go to that Individual Development Coach to pull the relevant staff in to talk about that issue, to find out where that support could come from and to make sure that, on a regular basis, we are reviewing the IDPs based on performances in training, in games, and making sure that they are on track.”

4. PLAYBOOK

This was introduced in 2020, shortly after Crocker had arrived at the club, and is an ever-evolving document that lays down the club’s style of play, training methods and coaching approach.

This applies not only to the first team but also the B team and Academy sides. The idea is to have a unified approach, much as the England sides do with their 'DNA', which was introduced by Dan Ashworth and Crocker. Hassenhuttl had a major role in formulating the Playbook, but so too did coaches within the senior and Academy set-up.

5. SPECIALIST COACHING

England introduced specialist coaching, with in-possession and out-of-possession specialists, in April 2016 under former Technical Director Ashworth (now at Newcastle United) and Crocker.

These coaches - who included Aaron Danks, recently the interim manager of Aston Villa - were employed across the England age groups. Although there was scepticism to start with, the model was identified as having helped England enjoy great success at youth level in the following years.

In 2017, England won World Cups at U17 and U20 level, the European Championships at U19s and also the Toulon Tournament. The system has now been introduced at Southampton by Crocker, with Carl Martin moving up from the U18s to become an in-possession specialist with the first team for the start of this season.

Alex Clapham was also hired as a set-piece specialist, although he subsequently departed, with Ruben Selles taking on his duties. Rasmus Ankersen, who is Chief Executive of Southampton’s owners, Sport Republic, is also a huge advocate of specialist coaches. He helped to introduce set-piece coaches during his time as Director of Football at both Brentford and FC Midtjylland.

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