Sam Malcolmson at Barcelona FC.

In October of 2013 former NZ ‘All White’ Sam Malcolmson spent several days at the Football Academy of one of the world’s most prominent clubs; Barcelona FC of Spain.   In this article, he related to me some of the most salient themes and rationales which he drew from his experiences.

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Sam Malcolmson at Barcelona FC.

Founded in 1899 Barcelona FC is a symbol of Catalan culture and has evolved over the years to become in the top echelon of the world’s sporting club.   In its whole history Barcelona FC has never been relegated from Spain’s top division, La Liga; and in recent years its achievements have been so outstanding that many pundits have regarded them as the best club side ever.

Barcelona FC pride themselves on their development of young footballers, and can point to hundreds of players graduating through the ranks of their Academy into top class football.   World recognised players of the calibre of Messi, Iniesta, Xavi, Pique and Fabregas have come through their development system, along with lesser known stars such as Amor, Guardiola, Puyol, Pepe Reina, Valdes and Gabri.

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Malcolmson in action for the NZ ‘All Whites’.

Having represented New Zealand in the World Cup finals in Spain 1982, Sam Malcolmson was keen to return to the country and witness, at first hand, some of the player development processes utilised by Barcelona FC.   With the assistance of several influential footballing contacts, he was able to gain an invitation to spend a number of days at the club’s training grounds, where he could observe how Barcelona FC approaches its development of footballers.

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The magnificent Nou Camp Stadium.

The Academy and training grounds are located approximately 5 km away from the main Nou Camp Stadium and comprise of, 5 grass pitches, 4 synthetic pitches, 3 gymnasiums, training areas for Goalkeepers, a pool and a sauna.   There are also housing and administration buildings on the complex, and complimenting this are doctors, psychologists, physiologists, and nutritionists, plus a ratio of coaches to serve the large number of players.

The youth program begins at 7 years, with many youngsters trialling for admittance, scouts are deployed throughout Catalonia and other parts of Spain.   The club has scouts scattered around the world thus ensuring that the club’s recruitment system is well organised, effective, and all-compassing.

In his time at the academy Malcolmson was able to observe training sessions being conducted from the youngest age, right up to the young professional category.  One of the highlights of his visit was an invitation (along with a few others) to observe a first team training session.   The technical abilities of the players was of no surprise to him, however, the camaraderie, exuberance and sheer enjoyment of playing football impressed him.

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Barcelona FC first team players warming up.

“The attitude of the players was to train at a very high tempo, but with great camaraderie,” he commented.

Malcolmson was able to witness the rapport of Barcelona’s top players, particularly when acknowledging their supporters, this he put down to a reflection of the principles of comradeship and humility, which is indoctrinated into them early in their development years at the club.

Principally many of the sessions took the form of ‘small sided games’ using numbers such as 7 v 7 and 8 v 8 but varying the size of the playing area to accommodate very tight situations, interspersed with more open conditions.   For example; 8 v 8 on half-pitch, reducing down to a third-pitch and quarter-pitch, with an emphasis on passing and movement; when ‘out of possession’; win it back quickly and open up to play, keeping possession once again.   These practices were played-out under immense pressure.

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Small Sided Games in tight areas were a feature of most sessions.

Sessions using small units of the team were also observed, for example, quick breaking by centre-backs as the keeper took possession.   These were often built up from a functional practice into a phase of play.

Sam Malcolmson observed that extended warm-ups were used, with an emphasis on stretching (to help develop pace & flexibility) and the importance of a quick change of pace was stressed.   The ‘warm-ups’ were mainly carried out in contact with a ball.

In the short time that he spent at Barcelona FC he was able to gain an insight to the methodology of the club, which it imparts to its players at all levels.   Their analysts have made a study of ‘best practices’ which can be applied to their charges; this incorporates the physical, technical/tactical, psychological, social/emotional aspects of a player’s make-up.    They pride themselves that their players are special, and this comes through the prestige of wearing of a Barcelona FC shirt from a young age.   The players are taught social/emotional values such a comradeship and humility, alongside psychological skills such as handling pressure and good ‘decision making,’ both on and off the field of play.   A prerequisite for all the players at the academy is technical ability, but this has to flourish alongside game awareness and speed of thought.

Malcolmson observed a 4-1-3-2 system of play being employed in the few games which he saw, however, this was very flexible and incorporated the typical one touch play, possession and pressurising associated with Barcelona FC and the Spanish National team.

One of the Coaches explained a simple but effective philosophy.

“When we have possession of the ball; enjoy keeping it and moving it around.   When we don’t have possession, we don’t enjoy it; therefore; win it back quickly!”

Players at all levels were encouraged to experiment and try new ideas within the session.   If a mistake was made the coaches were quick to encourage them, never berating a player who made an error due trying something different.   As far as Malcolmson could discern this philosophy applied from the youngest players’ right up to the seniors.

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Obviously, from the vast numbers of players brought into Barcelona’s Academy only a small percentage could gravitate through to the first team, however, it was pointed out to Malcolmson the large number of players making their way at other clubs, after they had left Barcelona FC.

Although there is always an abundance of class players at the Academy the question of Goalkeepers seems to pose a different problem.   Apparently there is a minimum of Spanish keepers who grow to a desirable minimum height of 1.85 metre.

The Academy Director of leading French Club Marseilles was also in attendance illustrating the sharing of knowledge between top clubs in the quest to develop quality players.

Summing up his experience at Barcelona FC; Sam Malcolmson was impressed by the sheer exuberance and enjoyment of football which ran through the club like a golden thread.   Camaraderie and enjoyment, not drudgery, was a major theme, with players, administrators and staff all proud to be part of what is not only a football club, but a Spanish institution.