Player Development at the Olympique Lyonnais Academy

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Laurent Courtois is the head coach for the Olympique Lyonnais U15 Groupe.  ‘OL’ has one of the most successful academies in Europe, with 33 graduates currently playing in the Big Five European leagues. Unlike most regular Champions League contenders, the majority of OL’s first team squad came through their own academy. As a player, Laurent developed in the OL academy himself and enjoyed a 17 year career at clubs in France, Spain, England and the United States – at Chivas and LA Galaxy. He has the USSF A license and is obtaining UEFA licenses through the French Federation. 

Do the academy teams at OL all use the same formation that is set by the club philosophy or first team?

No – the approach of the first team changes over time. At the moment they are being successful playing with a 4-4-2 diamond midfield, but that is a very specific way of playing. They are governed by results and if they need to change something to improve their results, they will. If a new coach comes in for the first team, we are not going to change our entire academy philosophy to match what they are doing. The reserve team, U19 and U17 coaches prioritize player development – giving the players the tools and opportunity to use them. Our goal is to have the players recognize cues and act together.

If your whole club plays in a 4-3-3 with outside midfielders who are basically strikers, and one number 9 [center forward], what happens if tomorrow a fantastic number 10 shows up who doesn’t fit in that system?  Similarly, if you use the 4-4-2 our first team currently plays with, but have three fantastic strikers at U15, you and they will miss out if you don’t adapt your formation to work for them. So rather than creating a system and trying to fit players into it, we try to build the brain and skills of a players and allow them to grow and their position to come by itself.

We look for intelligent players. We want players who move well and play well, but more than that we look for the players who can recognize by age 10-12 when they need to play with one touch, know how to use and create space around them, change the rhythm of their play, and so on. We don’t look to see who will be fast for the next three years because we have a need for a specific winger on a team – we look at who has the best football brain and physical ability.

The approach appears to be working… Olympique Lyonnais has a renowned track record for developing top class players. What do you think are the core reasons for this?

Firstly, in my opinion Lyon is located in the region with the largest number of quality players in France [Rhone-Alps Region has six million people and is one of the most productive regions in all of Europe. Lyon is the second largest city in France]. Our job is to identify which ones should be playing in the academy as soon as is possible. We are lucky to have a great number of quality coaches in the club who are able to help them grow and develop as players, while remaining local in their family home environment. The club has a specific view on how to develop players too, which it follows carefully. That all added together makes Lyon one of the most successful clubs, in terms of player development.

Even though our first team has done very well, the academy has also produced many players who have gone on to clubs all over the world. I wasn’t going to win titles at Lyon with the first team, so I went on to other clubs and was strong enough to have a decent career myself.

As a player, what was your experience like going through it? When did you start and how much were you training?

I joined the club when I was 13-14. Because I lived so close I was able to go back to my family every day.  We were training four times each week at that time. Around 15-16 I chose to join the internship program, where I lived (boarded) at the club. I wanted to sleep there so I could better train and rest instead of having to get home every night. At 17 I was playing for the Lyon second team, then at 19 I was loaned out to a second division club in France. For me that was a big step in my life because my world changed so much that day. It was the first time I had been outside of the environment I had grown up in, and the first year wasn’t easy, but the program I had from Lyon had prepared me for it.

Do you see a difference now between the technical/tactical level of your players compared to when you were there?

Not really. I came back here twenty years after I started in Lyon as a player and a lot of same coaches are still here working in the club and who worked with the national team are now here. Many of the players who were 5-10 years older than me in the club have come back to coach too, so I was shocked and surprised by how warm of a welcome I received when I came back. For the program itself, the little adjustments that they make have kept Lyon up-to-date without losing the overall principals that the club has had success with.

How structured is the coaching? Do you have specific targets and a philosophy to follow?

Because I grew up in the system myself, and already function in that model, I am trusted to coach the team in the Lyon way. Right now, I am working hard on my coaching and learning how to teach, which is completely different from playing the game. The challenge is learning to take a situation that you find in the game and translate it into the training cycle so that your players can identify what the problem is. Lyon have a great approach, and my goal is to understand everything they do well – to learn from all of the fantastic coaches that we have here. If I can add my own sensibilities to that then I can become a good coach myself.

Lyon’s philosophy does well at developing talented, creative midfielders and forwards. Instead of focusing on talented individual players here and there, Lyon tries to identify principals of play that are collective – for the good of the team. We have a consistent approach for each age group, so players going through it will find familiarities between U13-15-17 and so on.

How are your training sessions and seasons organized by coaching topic?  

We coach within a cycle, to a general club training plan. Each coach then adds their own sensibilities to it. I have 6-8 week cycles in which I focus on one principle of play. There are six principles of which three are defensive and three are offensive – how to possess the ball, how to progress (break lines and penetrate), how to unbalance and finish play. The defensive principles are the opposite – how do you deny the ball, deny the progression, and how do you win it. We balance working on these principals with improving our athletic performance – speed, strength, power, capacity etc.. If I am working on possession I will be working on aerobic capacity at the same time. If we are working on unbalancing the team and finishing, I will be working more on speed and strength. Within each session we will then target the specific technical component that fits with the principle – so maybe working on first touch, making a turn, or adding a move to the dribble.

So what does a typical training session look like?

We break the session down in to four parts – problem, tools, application, and game. The first part will involve a warm up game that shows the players what you want to work on (what is going wrong in their game). Secondly you get into what we call situations where you take that moment from the previous part and break it down into something that can be repeated in a simple form. Little by little you can then build on it and give players different ways to deal with the issue (A, B or C?).  After that you get into the third phase, which is the technical exercise where they try to use the tool we chose in the previous activity and improve their application/mechanism of it. Finally, we go back to the game, where the players should be able to identify the problem, use what they learned, and solve it at game speed.

This approach is not always easy, and not something that always fits perfectly within a 90 minute training session, and players might not be successful from the beginning to the end of the session, but as you show the same problem over and over, the next month when you do it again they will be able to have success.

Do you do specific training on different days of the week? How important is the game at the weekend?

It depends on the coach, their style, and the age group. Some might focus more on the playing load in order to be ready for the weekend game. Maybe they work very hard on Tuesday and Wednesday then they are lighter on Thursday and Friday to be ready for Saturday. Others don’t care about the game as their goal is to make them better players, so they train them as hard as they want in each session. The winning aspect that appears to be so important in North America might not be the same for the youth coaches here. You can win every game 5-0 but if by the time they are 17-18 they are on a different team and don’t know how to deal with any of the issues we talked about earlier, they’re not that good any more.

You did your USSF A License when you were working with the LA Galaxy, and now you are working on your UEFA A License while at Lyon. How do the two compare?

I was surprised because the American A license is similar in difficulty to the French one. The main difference is that over here the course takes an entire year, and not eight days like to does in the United States. I have to be coaching a team and have someone checking on how I train. He comes to watch how I coach at games and during the week. Also there are seven weeks where I am specifically on an internship learning from instructors and they are grading us. You can’t do all that in eight days, so it is different in that way.  By continually learning from the instructors, then going away to apply what you have learned to your team, you can make some real progress with your coaching. My understanding is that the US approach will be changing though and might become quite similar to the model here.

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