Pedro Marques: Inside Benfica's talent factory
Written by Training Ground Guru — May 6, 2023
BENFICA could certainly lay claim to having the best Academy in European football.
The Portuguese giants are the reigning UEFA Youth League champions, having beaten RB Salzburg 6-0 in the final in Nyon last April, and also have the most profitable Academy, according to the CIES.
Since July 2015, player sales of their homegrown players have totalled €379. Their graduates include Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva, Joao Cancelo and Ruben Dias and they are top in Portugal this season for homegrown minutes (26.1% of their total).
The man in charge of their youth set-up is Technical Director Pedro Marques, who has been in place since July 2018. On Episode #49 of the TGG Podcast, in association with Hudl, he told us about the secrets of Benfica's talent factory.
You can listen via the player below or read an edited transcript after that.
WHAT IS THE SECRET OF BENFICA'S SUCCESS?
Pedro Marques: If you want to call it a secret, it is mainly consistency in terms of the investment and looking to player development as a way to generate value for the club, either by getting those boys into the first team or, in the end, to benefit from player trading.
The Academy and player development is clearly part of the club strategy and has been a continuous investment over the years. It is the result of a lot of work of a lot of people through a lot of years.
It is a big club, an ambitious club. It is about winning games, winning trophies. That demand is always there - from the fans, from the board, from the President - but over time the work that has been done at the Academy and the first players that started to come through reinforced the idea that this can be a stream of development for the club, a way to create value and to impact and help the team to win more trophies.
There is no better feeling than seeing one of these boys playing for the first team and winning trophies for the club. This is what we are all working for - to help these boys reach their potential and realise their dreams.
You can consider it a development club for the amount of players we develop - not only for the first team but also to other clubs. There is almost every club in the first division in Portugal that has one or other players that was at one point or another in the Benfica system.
Our main focus of scouting and recruitment is Portugal. We have five talent centres across the country and those centres - and the scouting network we have put together in Portugal - is pretty comprehensive and can help us spot players across the whole region.
These centres are the initial feed for the system - plus the Lisbon site - and they go from Under-6 to U12. At 12 years-of-age we make a big selection of players to transition to Benfica Campus, where we build two teams of U14, two teams of U15 and we go from that.
Our player development goes across at least seven sites. Benfica Campus is for our older age groups, so from 14 up.
It is a little bit of a pyramid system, which starts with our first pillar on the scouting network and the fantastic work those guys do to spot talent. Then, when they are with us, all the work we do with the boys on and off the pitch.
Scouting is the first pillar because it is one of the most important. If you don’t get the good talent in it is difficult to develop the players to the level we are managing.
We have a lot of people on the ground. It is off the back of the work and dedication of a lot of guys that travel the country to watch players. In Portugal, compared to England, we can recruit from all over the country, which is an advantage for our ecosystem and supported by the five talent centres, which allow us not to move the players so early, so they can stay close to their families and develop in the region where they live before they make the transition to Benfica Campus.
We have people who have been here a lot of years seeing this through. The majority of players who come through to the first team are in the system for a lot of years. If you look at the U21 minutes this year, it is well above the average of the Champions League and the majority are boys who have been here a long time, boys made in Benfica.
(Benfica Campus houses the club’s Academy and training ground. It is based in Seixal in Lisbon and was officially opened in September 2006).
Benfica Campus was a massive gamechanger. It is now 16-years-old, so it is a massive investment. Before this, the club was working across different rented pitches across the city, always with the house on their backs, with the balls in the cars, taking players from one site to another.
Benfica Campus helped improve the quality of our work and the environment. It was a step up for everyone - the pitches, the changing rooms and also the first team coming here and having a place to train was inspirational for the Academy boys to train closely with them.
It was a strategic decision that was taken with a lot of confidence.
It all starts with the younger boys.
How things have evolved in terms of the game and competition for the best talent it has been forcing the clubs to go younger and younger, which is in some part is a worry, but is also a consequence of outside society and today the world is more global and digital.
There is a big mix between sports, fashion, gaming, and that also forces everyone to want things quicker. The competition is very fierce. The talent because of the disappearance of street football and the other stimulus that call for the boys, if it is gaming, we feel might lead to the disappearance of that boy that has a special talent.
We tend to have more players that look the same, on a broader scale, so the challenge to find the player that is different, that solves the problems of the game in a creative, independent way, is becoming rarer. That is why everyone is trying to get that at the bottom of the age groups.
Overall our (Academy) system has almost 520 players. Around 200 are in those talent centres, 100 are in Lisbon and the other part is here with us (at Benfica Campus).
It is slightly different in terms of the scholar system in Portugal compared to England. Here you can sign the first youth contract at 14 and the first pro contract at 16. This is valid for three years. At 18 you can sign the second pro contract for five years, which is common in a lot of the countries in Europe.
Before 16 they cannot move between countries, which is another reason why we start young and focus on players in Portugal.
We feel that the boys at young ages need to play, enjoy and have fun. That is the core of everything - to have passion for the game. The physical thing is not the most important at those age groups.
We treat the boys on those basics of passion for the game, to play, get the basics right, experience different ways. First touch, positioning on the pitch, body shapes. Those small things are more important for development than pressure for tactics. When you take that to training with young boys a lot of time you risk to reduce the richness of the game, of being autonomous, problem solving, of relating with each other.
I have been following the Right to Dream project for some years. It is exciting and very inspirational; to have character as the base of the programme is fantastic.
Our investment and energy is about also trying to learn about the human side of the boy, about the family structure and to connect with them. When you go more to the mental, psychological traits you don’t have a GPS to measure that. The psycho-social characteristics are so important that we feel at the end of the line those are differentiating the good from the outstanding and that transition to the first team.
All players that are normally in top Academies are good when they get to 16, 17, from a technical point of view, from a physical point of view, they understand the game.
That special talent that can differentiate the one from the other, that special weapon, is mentality, being ready to deal with the challenge of the transition to professional.
DEVELOPING PEOPLE AS WELL AS PLAYERS
We recognise that our system is elitist, it is a pyramid. But we try to support our boys so they grow as people as well. In the end it is about the person and the children that join our system.
If they drop out of this pyramid, they need to be ready to take another goal or continue their development in another club or experience. They will take some of those experiences to other careers and to society in general.
Our connection with schools, the investment in a private college that also delivers a good education for some of the age groups - all of this adds to the experience of being in Benfica and we feel that when they transition they will be prepared as best as possible.
The boys from Lisbon go to schools around the region. The residents (of Benfica Campus) go to a school we have connection with, here in Seixal. The older boys go to a private college we again have a connection with.
We have study rooms and teachers that support extra education on the campus. It is a dual career and we try to support that as much as possible. If they go away with the national team, for example, they might miss classes at school so we give some support in education here.
The ways we prepare the meetings, the feedback, managing expectations for the future is something we think a lot about: how we communicate when we involve the parents; if there is a release meeting, how we support that; with our psychology department.
Outside of our system is sometimes a big step. The dreams don’t finish in Benfica though, sometimes they are when they leave. A lot of them continue to play football, at other levels, and we feel part of that and feel that responsibility.
We have almost 90 players here at Benfica Campus, which is a big residency, I know. The ones who are from further away live with us and spend a year with us. There is a lot of investment from the club to take care of the boys from a personal point of view.
Our education and welfare department takes care of the boys in here, we are almost like their parents away from home, and we support everything from school to social activities to free time to the work they do on the sporting front. It is an investment from a financial and also emotional point of view.
Once you have the players, when scouting has done its work, it’s about what context we provide for the players to thrive and develop. We are always thinking what are the players and people we need to develop to play the game in future. The future can be three years, five years or 10 years.
Then we create the right environment and context for those players to develop, from the younger age groups all the way to the B team and first team.
From younger ages you have a lot of diversity, so we do futsal, dance, gymnastics, cage football, all of this on top of football. The games programme has specific rules and an internal league. So you go from broad and diverse to more specialism and detail and refined. The individual aspect with the player at the centre of the process is they key for us and core for our methodology, both inside and outside the pitch.
It’s a different type of surface, a different contract, a lot of interaction with the ball. If you use the rebounds it promotes a lot of continuity, a lot of interactions, smaller numbers, so for the boys development it is a fantastic tool to support the development, the relation with the ball and this is great.
If you look to our teams, we like to think that even if you play without a shirt you would recognise the way we play. That is in regards of systems of play, even if we have a base that evolves from five a side to 11 a side. In a 11 a side we play mostly from a 4-3-3 base although in the first team now we are playing more with a 4-4-2. It is not so much about the system as the principles and ideas and what we want to show on the pitch in terms of the identity and connection with the fans.
That style of play is a base for everything we do. It is about intensity, having initiative on the game, to play with the ball, press high, regain quickly, to score a lot of goals, to create a lot of chances. It is a very positive way of playing and something that is cultural within the club - to play an attractive forward football and win titles.
Today, especially for the youth coaches, it is a risk to think about that structure, that organisation, and be rigid on it. Sometimes the risk is to imitate or recreate the tactics, the post match review they saw on Sky Sports, with young boys, and they are not mini adults and their needs for their development are not the same as the first team.
It is one of the pillars, to have the right stimulus for the boys all the way through the age groups. In Portugal we are able to have a B team in the second tier which, for us, is great, because it is about men’s football, getting our young boys playing in there, our best U18s, U19s competing against men. It is real football to play in a league that is tough.
In England I know since the inception of Premier League 2 it has been trying to get these experiences, with the EFL Trophy and different competitions. It is positive there are good steps there but I know also a lot of guys in England think it is a little bit short.
We are fortunate to have that and try to make the most of it. It is a good stepping stone to reach the first team.
We have been doing well. We have been always maintaining in this league, which is good. We have done fourth a couple of times but usually we finish around mid table. This season we are a little bit below, but this is also a reflection of the youth. Some of the young boys in the first team could also be playing in the B team.
Our trophies in the end are those - for boys to be competing and adding to the first team. We used to say if we are doing very well in the B team in the table it is because some of the boys should already be moving up.
When you register with the league you can go to the first team at any moment. Some of our boys are also regularly training with the first team and getting those opportunities. Today there were two boys that went to train with the first team. Maybe at the weekend one will train with the first team and one with the B team. Regular communication is key.
It is rewarding to see them there. They left as better persons and with great experiences. At the end they achieved their dreams of becoming professional footballers and winning things.
Ruben (Dias) is a good example. He played two seasons with the first team here at Benfica, he had a great experience and eventually he moved on. But I cannot leave a word about the other boys that don’t make it or who play at a lower level.
Even if we don’t have a formal alumni system it is great to see these boys, from Ruben to Joao (Cancelo), return sometimes to the training ground, to recover from an injury or see a match or see the coaches that worked with them.
That is the word we use to realise everything we do here, through a lot of years it is about at the end creating those opportunities. Those are created by the squad planning with the first team, regular communication between the Academy and first team, and between the President, Sporting Director and Head Coach, and recruitment in trying to build that squad and create some spaces for those players as well.
The challenge for us is to deliver players that are ready for that challenge, because the level is high. We challenge for titles every year in Portugal, we are in quarter-finals of the Champion League twice in a row, so for the boys to make that step they need to be up for it. The challenge for the first team and president is to create the spaces for them to get in. I think we have been really successful in that transition over the last years.
Even with the managerial change this season, with Roger Schmidt coming in, I think he fits like a fantastic piece in the project. Pre-season he took 14 of the boys with him to know them better. Nine stayed in the squad and some of them are regularly playing. Last game against Club Brugge Champions League five of them finished on the pitch.
When the club was developing that was our performance side of things, in terms of supporting all the coaching staff and teams. Over the last years it evolved to a bigger structure, to a health and performance unit and department.
At Benfica we have not only football but a multi-sports club, so the human performance department works across the different sports and Olympic project. The key word for the work we do is integration and getting the people in the different multi-disciplinary teams working together to make the most of the resources we are fortunate to have.
OUR ULTIMATE DREAM
The big dream is to win trophies and eventually a Champions League. If we can do this with boys from the Academy, I think this is going to be the way forward - to balance the players we develop with more experienced players who give good support to them.
Our ambition and goal is to get players developing and to our first team and to have those boys lifting trophies. That is the dream. We know the market we are in, in terms of revenue, although we sit 24th in the Deloitte Money League, the first team outside the big five leagues.
For the Academy, every day is about trying to improve and keep this legacy of player development and getting the context and experience for the next crop that comes in.