Irrespective of their size, infrastructure and level, every professional football club academy around the world shares one common goal: to produce players who can step-up into the club’s first-team and make an on-field impact.
Establishing a successful academy pathway requires long-term investment in each player’s development, from a technical, tactical, physical and mental perspective – and each club has its own unique challenges when it comes to preparing its players for the rigours of senior football.
One club who has made an investment this summer to enhance their pathway is SønderjyskE, a club who for the past 20 years have punched above their weight in Danish football.
Based in the town of Haderslev, boasting a population of just 20,000, SE enjoyed a fourteen-year uninterrupted run in the Danish top-flight between 2008 and 2022, as well as winning the Pokalen, Denmark’s domestic cup competition, in 2020.
Now in the second tier, they are looking to secure an immediate return to the Superliga under Head Coach Henrik Hansen. The core of Hansen’s first-team group includes two academy products: 24-year old defensive midfielder Rasmus Vinderslev, who is approaching 100 league appearances, and forward Peter Christiansen, 22, who has appeared in the league over 70 times. Gustav Wagner, a member of Denmark’s Under 17 international squad, has also made his league debut this season.
Despite the involvement of these academy products, SønderjyskE want to increase the number of players who successfully transition from their youth setup and into the heart of the first team, with the help of Stats Perform’s Pro Wearables technology. However, like most teams in Denmark, they do not have a ‘B’ or reserve team, which means that the next step for players in the under 19 academy squad is straight into the first-team.
Bridging the First-Team Gap Through Measuring Intensity, Not Volume
Helping to manage this transition to men’s football is the club’s Head of Performance, Yannick Durand, who believes that one of the ways of helping academy graduates be better prepared is to first quantify the intensity of their existing youth team training sessions, before adapting them to reflect what they will be exposed to with the first-team.
“Despite the players training hard, we have had difficulties recently with some of our under 19s being able to manage the transition,” explains Durand.
“These players could run, some of them came top in the squad in running tests, but they were not used to the intensity, to such a fast-paced game, which meant they often struggled physically and were prone to picking up injuries. So one of our key objectives has to be replicating this intensity before we expose them to our first-team environment.”
To help address this objective, SønderjyskE have chosen to expand their backroom team this summer and increase its use of athlete wearables, provided by Stats Perform and the company’s SPIN network partner K-Sport, which will help the support staff better monitor the physical performance of each first-team and academy player during 2022-23.
Durand has been joined in the strength and conditioning team by another full-time member of staff, Norbert Banoocy, who works across both the first-team and the academy. The academy also has two other S&C staff members who work across different age groups.
In addition, every training session and match played by the under 19 and under 17 squads will be tracked using Stats Perform’s latest-generation athlete wearable device, the K-AI Wearable Tech, and analysed using the Dynamix platform, where they can utilise up to 300 different performance parameters.
The same system has been in use by SønderjyskE’s first-team for the past twelve months and Durand believes that by extending its use into the academy, overseen by the new personnel, will help the club make more informed decisions around how to best bridge the intensity gap between the different groups.
He points out: “This is the first time we have adopted this set-up, to have Norbert Banoocy who acts as Head of Academy Strength and Conditioning as well as being an Assistant in Strength and Conditioning with the first-team, which has been done because we are trying to strengthen the pathway between the academy and the first-team.
“This is also why we have chosen to work with just one solutions provider across these groups as well.
“It is very important that you can generate data that you can then compare. Last year, we worked with a different provider in the academy, and it was OK, but then I could see that there were some differences in the measurements.
“For example, we could easily compare distances, high intensity, but not accelerations and decelerations. By having the same system in use across three teams, we can compare all of our data. We know exactly what our players do and what they need to do if we want them to be ready, physically, to reach the first-team.
“With one single provider it’s already proving much easier to share data from the first-team to youth, and from youth to the first-team.”
In the weeks leading up to pre-season, Stats Perform and K-Sport worked closely with Durand and his team to assist with the implementation of the additional wearables into the academy, with the club having previously not captured any GPS data on players below under 19 level on a daily basis.
This hands-on support was provided to the club by a K-Sport Sport Scientist, Vincenzo Gissi, which was one of the key determining factors in the club’s decision to work with Stats Perform and K-Sport as a club-wide solutions provider.
“Vincenzo is a very skilful Sports Scientist,” says Durand. “When I spoke to people working with other providers, I felt that they were just there to sell, not to help me achieve my main objectives.
“However with Vincenzo, he invested a lot of time in thinking about the parameters I needed, shared some ideas, and even recommended some new measurable parameters that we as a club hadn’t used before – providing detailed explanations of why and how they worked and their measurable power. It was very inspiring for us to hear and was a key factor in why I chose to work with this system.”
Providing a Performance Benchmark for Age Groups
The SønderjyskE first-team are using K-AI Wearable Tech devices in a live environment, utilising the hardware’s sensor fusion technology and high-end processor which capture accurate real-time KPIs during every match and training session. This enables the Strength and Conditioning team to monitor and control the load of every player as a session progresses, to ensure players are not pushed beyond the parameters that have been originally set.
It also means that the staff can monitor the physical condition of all eleven players during a match, so that they can notify the coaching staff if any player is high in their load, insights which may inform tactical decisions if a player becomes fatigued.
Having already built a huge database of first-team performance data from 2021-22, the main short-term objective for Durand and his team is to apply the same thresholds, across different sessions and drills, for the under 19s and under 17s so that they can objectively compare their intensity levels.
He explains: “We know what we do with the first-team and the level that they train at. Now we need to train the under 19s to be able to reach that level.
“To start the season we are using the same thresholds for the under 17s, under 19s and first-team because as the season progresses we can see exactly how our different age groups compare. Then we may re-evaluate and introduce some different thresholds, as well as tailor sessions to increase intensity, such as adopting the same drills we use with the first-team but change the number of reps, or the time duration. So for example, a ten minute drill we do with the first-team may be cut down to only being five minutes with the under 19s, but at least they have reached the level of intensity we need.”
With the club having established their session parameters for the opening months of the campaign, the analysis of this data will be crucial in not only determining how the intensity gap between the age groups can be bridged, but also how programmes can be tailored to the specific needs of each individual player on a week-by-week basis.
This analysis will be undertaken using Stats Perform’s cloud-based Dynamix platform, which archives the data captured from every session. For SønderjyskE’s Strength and Conditioning team, there is one particular analysis feature in the platform which is key to their decision making, K-Compare, which allows them to compare each player’s performance against different benchmarks.
“Using K-Compare, I can compare each player against their own benchmarks with a colour-coded system: green, yellow and red,” says Durand.
“I can then compare them to each session we undertake in training – how did the performance in a specific session compare to the average session we have done during the season? We can also break the squad down so that we can group players by their on-field positions and then do direct comparisons.
“For a youth player, it can be easy to match the volume of a first-team player. For example it is easy to run one thousand metres, but having the same intensity as the first-team is quite difficult and K-Compare helps me to evaluate their training intensity.
“I can see in each drill, in each training session, in each game, how does a player’s intensity compare with other players, in the same position, and where do they rank in the squad?
“So for example, if I have four full backs in the squad where three are performing, but one is underperforming, we can review the data to try and understand why. Then we can determine what we need to do to help that player individually.”
Strengthening the Pathway Long-Term
Whilst it is early days for the club in terms of setting up an infrastructure to enhance their day-to-day academy player monitoring and training intensity, Durand is confident that their investment will result in long-term benefits.
As well as creating a club-wide fitness hub, encompassing multiple age groups, it will provide the club’s leadership with crucial insights which can help the club better prepare youth players for the physical demands of first-team football, as well as informing academy recruitment decisions.
“I am pleased that the club have backed us in allowing us to invest in our department, bringing in new people and allowing us to extend the use of wearable hardware into the academy,” says Durand.
“In the long-term I expect, if we implement it correctly, that within half a year we should have a database that is big enough for us to know exactly what our squads have done, and then use that performance data to determine what the physical gap is between the age groups.
“Then we can establish what strategies are required to close the gap between the under 19s and the first-team, and the under 17s and under U19s, to help ease the progression of each player.
“Also from a recruitment perspective, nearly all clubs in Denmark capture GPS data on their youth team players, so if we are considering to recruit one of their players we can request their data. Using this data, we can establish if they are used to training at the level we expect them to operate at.
“Looking ahead, we want to go even further in strengthening our pathway. So next we want to close the gap between our under 15s and under 17s, so that in two years’ time, our players will be in better physical shape, so that their transition to the first-team will be much easier.”
By acting decisively in strengthening an area deemed crucial to increasing the chances of youth team players breaking through, SønderjyskE will be hoping that many more players, from future generations, follow in the footsteps of Vinderslev and Christiansen to ensure the healthy relationship between the academy and first-team remains strong.
Click here for more information on Stats Perform’s wearable solutions.