How to run a Professional Academy – FC Inter in Finland

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Job Dragtsma has been the head coach of FC Inter Turku in the top professional division in Finland since 2007, where he has won both cup competitions and been coach of the year. Previously he coached at AZ Alkmaar and FC Volendam in his native Netherlands and Fenerbahçe in Turkey. Job has been a KNVB (Dutch Federation) licensing course instructor for over 10 years and has the UEFA Pro License. He played professionally for Ajax and represented Holland at two indoor European Championships.

How much involvement do you have in setting the curriculum for your academy program?

When I signed for FC Inter, one of my tasks was to set up a new curriculum for the youth teams. I did that in my second year together with the head of the youth academy. Every year we evaluate the program and make changes as necessary. In every country there is a different system and clubs have to adapt to whatever requirements their particular system has. In our case we have qualifiers before the league season starts and we have to be ready for those. We also put more emphasis on individual training in the mornings and do team training in the academy in the afternoons. To facilitate this we try to get as many coaches as possible on the fields in the mornings. We do not get program instructions from the Finnish Federation – they focus more on the national youth teams.

Do they all play the same formation? How did you choose which one to use?  

All of our youth teams play in a 4-3-3 formation. I think that it is the best formation for youth players to learn how to play. Also the first team plays the same way, so we can be developing players for it from a young age. I try to find players who will fit into position requirements for the system, but I will change it in some games if that is necessary (for example, if we have injuries). Formations are just a starting point though. What is important is creating a structure in which youth players can learn. Before the age of 10-11 the players work mostly on technical skills, but from then we play on a bigger field and introduce more of the way we play.

We play with two holding midfielders and a number 10. There are three strikers also, but you could at times call it a 4-2-3-1, depending on the striker position. I always try to find and make wingers, and to educate them to take advantage of our system. We also need our players to learn how to play against other systems but that isn’t really until they are 15-16 years old. My belief is that clubs should have tactical philosophy regarding how they want to play, and that message should go out to all of the coaches and players to make sure they understand what we are trying to do.

In my opinion, the 4-3-3 formation allows us to play our short passing game better, building up from the back. When we wrote the curriculum we set out exactly what should be in every training session – passing drills, position play, big games, and so on. It’s not so much about getting as many exercises as you can in a training session, it is about the quality of the activities – doing maybe two or three things, not ten things. When I got here they were doing five minutes of sprinting, then five of passing and so on. There was no methodology behind it.

Is the goal of your academy to make players for the first team, or to sell on to other clubs?

The primary aim is to produce players for the first team. Inter FC currently have the most home grown players of any team in Finland. During my time here, some of our best players have been sold on to bigger clubs in Germany and Holland. There are always a lot of scouts coming to watch our games from Sweden, Holland, Denmark and Germany. As I have relationships with some of the Dutch clubs, they will contact me to talk about players at times too. Even our youth players who get into the national team pools will get invited to week-long tryouts at some of the larger European clubs.

Is there regular (weekly) movement between the teams across age groups?

We look at all of the players as individuals. If a player is good enough to play in an older group we let him play in that group. For the youth teams winning is important but the first aim is to produce players who can move up to the first team. For that to happen it is important for players to face the highest level of challenge in games. We try to avoid giving the best players easy games as much as we can. For that the head of the youth program decides where everyone will play on a given day, depending on the strength of the opponent.

It is very important that movement is communicated clearly to the players so that they understand what is happening and why. At the beginning of the season it is explained who makes the decisions, and that coaches are moving players in their best interests. When I was working in Turkey it was much more difficult because coaches were only on one year contracts. The need to win every game became a priority because they were afraid of being fired. If you have good youth coaches they should have a three or four year contract so that you can focus on development within a structure that works.

Right now we have a player who is 15 in our first team squad, which shows that we will move players when they are able to perform at the next level. A lot of time the academy is too easy for really talented youth players and that hurts their development. Movement should benefit the club and the player, not the individual coach and their team.

 Is there a Finnish style of play or player that you try to incorporate into the way your teams play?

In Inter we try to play a passing game, building up from the back as much as we can. One of the most famous Finnish players was Jari Litmanen (who played for Ajax, Barcelona and Liverpool) and he fit that style of play and became role model for many of our players. Our owner loves the passing style of game, and as our players want to play like that too, it makes sense for us to have that approach.

Historically, Finland was more focused on the traditional English style of the game – playing very physically and direct. The current Premier League has a much more continental style though because of all of the outstanding players there. Ten years ago it was more long balls though and you could see that being replicated in Finland. Being able to play a more technical passing game makes our players more desirable to the bigger clubs also.

How much of a factor is the environment in determining how you set up your team to play?

It’s not really a factor because unlike the major leagues of Europe we play our season during the summer months – from April till October. During that period of the year the conditions are pretty good for playing in. During the season we are playing a game every three days or less, so our training schedule gets affected more by that than by the weather. If we have an away game that is far away (Finland is a big country) we need to think about what time in the night we will get back. Normally our morning training is at 10:30am and our afternoon if we are having one will be at 2:30pm.

A few years ago in Iceland they built indoor centers around the country which allowed teams to train year-round, and they have been having success at the professional level recently. In Finland we are building similar centers, but soccer is second in priority to ice hockey, so we haven’t had the same level of investment yet.

How do you use the winter period and prepare for the league season?

In winter we have access to two indoor facilities, with a full-size pitch which allows us to train year-round. This weekend (March 7th) will be our first outdoor training for the season. We start preparing from January 8th for the April start date. We play friendly games and have a league cup competition before the season starts. I use the first few months to test the players and look for any that we will need, because our transfer window is longer than in the rest of Europe, which allows us to add new players beyond January. Right now I am finished with that and have five weeks left to get the team playing together. Many clubs will go to Spain for a week as part of the training, or to Sweden or Estonia to play friendly games.

When the seasons ends in October you might be still playing in European competitions so you need to be prepared for that too. I keep training until December then give them a month off. During that time I give them a lot of individual strength work and just go two times on the field each week to keep them in the game. The month of vacation is important for the players to recover, then they have another week off in February, during the pre-season.

How do you scout and attract foreign players to the academy or first team?

I have a good network of friends, agents and scouts around Europe who help when we are looking for players. For our youth teams the players around Turku (where the team is based) will mostly come to find us on their own, but we do have a few youth scouts working in the area too. We follow the Finnish National Teams too for any useful young players. I have a full time scout for the first team but we don’t have the money that the larger clubs have for that. Some years we have a lot of success and others we don’t. This year looks to be a good one so far for us.

We also talked to Job about how Ajax are changing their approach to training, in his native Holland. Read that interview here

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