Romeo Jozak is Technical Director of the Croatian Football Federation. Previously he was the Academy Director of Dinamo Zagreb – recently ranked third best out of all academies in Europe. Romeo oversaw the development Luka Modrić, Eduardo da Silva, Vedran Ćorluka, Niko Kranjčar and Dejan Lovren. At age 41, he has already turned down offers from Arsenal to become their academy director and the Irish FA to become their technical director. Romeo’s opinions on the game represent those of a soccer scientist with a Ph.D. education and extensive practical experience. He has become a regular and highly recommended practitioner at the NSCAA Convention.
A youth coach here in the U.S. recently asked you for tactical advice coaching a 4-4-2 formation for his U9 team. What do you think the youth teaching development model should look like?
Schools have a specific structure for what they teach. Every age group has their own demands, windows and adaptability phases, and the same is true for football. If a coach doesn’t obey this, they will not develop players to the extent that they could. Based on the external factors of the players, kids would develop still, but not with the same level of success. Unfortunately quite a few countries are rushing in too much. I know at the age of 9 we want to compete, and maybe with a tall or fast kid at that age you want to adapt the tactics to win the game. Maybe he shouldn’t be there – in the future he will play somewhere else – but you keep him there to score goals, then you are getting tactical as opposed to focusing on technique to help players develop.
I’ve been coming here for a long time and have friends in the US Soccer Federation who I talk to regularly. This is a big country, which makes it hard to keep under the same umbrella of control because there are so many influences from every direction. However, I think the general philosophy and guidance should be in place as much as is possible and I know that people in the Federation (including a good friend of mine – Dave Chessler) are working hard to do that. People who volunteer a few hours at the end of the day to teach players aren’t automatically good coaches and their actions will have serious consequences on the future of that player. In Europe we don’t have as many volunteers and I appreciate the volunteer movement, but qualified people should be dealing with kids, if we are talking about the higher levels. At that level you need to make sacrifices – I might not like to get up early or to be pushed that hard – but to succeed at that level it will be required. Academies should be the heart of football and the most educated people should working at them.
In the US we don’t mandate on a national level the size of games or a specific style of play. Is it different in Croatia?
Yes we do, however we are talking about 4 million people and I know every academy director personally. This means it is way easier for me than it would be here. I’m convinced that if someone manages to do a similar direction in the US with hours, topics, demands and so on, you will be a great soccer country because the talent that I have seen here is great at the age of 11-13. It gets less at 14, then less at 15 and so on – the older they go they become less talented here. What that means is that we haven’t done enough throughout the education process because if anything they should be looking better at the older ages. It is very hard to control the flow for such a huge country though and I know that the guys at the Federation are doing the best they can right now to improve it. I work as a consultant for several big countries and I have seen how difficult it is.
Does Croatia have a certain style or brand of soccer that is different from other countries?
Within our region – previously as Yugoslavia and since then as Croatia or to a larger extent Southeastern Europe we have been given certain differences that apply to the game. We have a social component as a people that means we like to get together. This fits well with team sports, where we tend to do well compared to individual sports. The culture has always prioritized football so everyone is kicking the ball and follows the game. In the modern game this isn’t enough though: in the average 90 minute game players have it for less than 2 minutes each, so they are playing for 88 minutes without it. As Spain and Germany raise the level of the game we have to catch up, but with only 4.5 million people we don’t have a huge base to do that. But we have a great base of kids and good academies, with strong leadership from the federation, which gives as an overall equilibrium that looks ok. In the last twenty years we have been around the top ten teams in the world, which is a serious achievement for our size. What makes me happier is that, yes you know about Luka Modrić and Ivan Rakitić, but you don’t know these young guys at the 15-17 year age who will be our future. I watch them and am confident that the Croatian team of the future will be even better than it is now because we started with a development model that the whole country is working together to achieve.
How often should academy level teams be training at the U9-10 age group in order to get to the highest levels of technical competency?
They should be training 4-5 times each week and playing a game. Generally there are specific demands and parameters that should be in place to allow coaches to sleep at night knowing that they have done everything they can to help the players develop. They can’t control everything, but they will at least have tried to do everything they can within that time.
How do you prioritize what they should be learning when there are so many different elements of the game?
Up until the age of 10 you should be focusing only on individual technique, with a lot of playing time but with individual technique as a base. From 10-14 they should be mastering individual technique, meaning you should be able to detect what are your deficiencies, your strengths so we can take advantage of them. At 12 you should quite seriously implement dynamic and functional technique into the process of the game – functionally applying my individual technique; how to make something happen within the game. Then slowly from 12-15 you should be looking at more complicated passing actions, slowly taking away the number of touches they can take and working on individual solution-making. Tactically you can start to implement thinking forwards and backwards with three players, moving towards group thinking.
Once they have the individual tools taken care of, together with combination plays, then you look at decision-making from 14 onwards, because that can’t be done unless you have the tools first. At this age they can go from group to team thinking in regards to tactics. From 16 you are then beginning to experience serious competition because the game until that age is only for development. From then on one of the priorities should be winning and getting points.
Some coaches appear to prioritize physical development through the ages – with fitness, strength and speed training. Should that be factored into the model?
Physicality only affects games if teams are equal technically and tactically. If we are a better team implementing the principles of the game, physicality will not be much of a factor. Here in the US you focus a lot on the physical demands, which can be important, but personally I would take that time and put it towards technical development.
You talk about the importance of progressing from isolated, to passive, to levels of competition in a training session. What should you do if teams struggle with the isolated phase? Should you still move on?
No, those are general principles only. It’s a living process and the coach should be a cook with all of the ingredients, but they might find that they have to change the recipe sometimes to get it right. You shouldn’t progress if they are not ready to go on. But at the end of the day the drill should be set with a level of complexity that is appropriate for your team. If the bar is too high they will be intimidated and if it is too low it will be too easy for them. If the isolated part is too difficult you should drop down the complexity of the session and then stay for a while and try to build on the passive and competitive demands than you originally planned for. You could stay the whole practice there if necessary, but in the future adapt your level to target building through the progressions.
Players learn a great deal from the isolated stage but don’t always enjoy it as much as the competition stage. Should we be concerned about making practices enjoyable?
Firstly we are talking about elite soccer. Out of eight years of school I didn’t enjoy a single day. I had to listen and do things because my teacher knew what was good for me. The criteria wasn’t did I like it – if it was I would have been in front of the PlayStation. So coaches should make it fun for younger ages but they know what is important for development and that has to be the priority, not want the kids want. You can make the isolated part fun and competitive as they struggle with single details of it but it will also be challenging for them, which can be engaging. The fun doesn’t come from laughing, but from the fight and improvement that they get from it, which will occupy them. In the next game they will have more options to choose from too, which will make them play better and enjoy the development process as it all piles up. If you have long lines and they are only touching the ball a few times every minute then it will be boring, but that is not the way we do it. We want as many touches, movements and impacts as it is possible. For 7 year olds you can make crazy drills that they will enjoy that are still meeting the demands we are looking for, without them realizing they are working on them.
For elite level athletes here the target used to be getting into college and scholarships there. Now we are seeing players bypass that route through Development Academies and playing professionally. This looks more like the European model. Do you think it will impact our development here?
We need competition because it is a game of competing, however the focus of the game in the younger years is mastering the various abilities, not getting points. From 15-16 the primary reason to play is to win. It is important as part of that to expose kids to experiences where they face the pressure required to learn to deal with this. In Major League Soccer there is some pressure but there is no relegation for teams at the bottom to the next tier down. There should be a flow of teams up and down at the senior level from 16 onwards that creates the pressure of achieving or not achieving certain demands within the team. Without that you are not going to have a serious national league. Now the NBA also doesn’t have relegation and they have a serious league, but everyone in basketball wants to come here to play from all over the world. In soccer the best kids here still want to go play in Europe. Either they are in teams there or they are trying to get to teams there where they have the model of competing we talked about. For competitive teams the college and MLS model is not enough. If you want to compete against Brazil and Argentina later on you should prioritize setting up the parameters for competition that pressure the players appropriately.