Geplaatst: 9 Nov, 2023

A computer game for children reveals secrets that the world’s biggest football clubs are looking for answers to

AZ Alkmaar: The club where coaching goes against convention

AZ Alkmaar made Dutch footballing history in April.

They became the first team from the Netherlands to win the UEFA Youth League, the under-19 age group’s Champions League equivalent.

AZ’s youngsters scored 14 goals and kept three clean sheets in their four single-leg knockout matches from play-off stage to the semi-finals, eliminating Eintracht Frankfurt (5-0), Barcelona (3-0), Real Madrid (4-0) and Sporting Lisbon (on penalties after a 2-2 draw), before beating Hajduk Split 5-0 in the final.

Last month, they played Boca Juniors Under-20s at the Argentine club’s iconic La Bombonera stadium in Buenos Aires for the Under-20 Intercontinental Cup, a Super Cup of sorts, after Boca won the Under-20 Copa Libertadores in July. AZ lost on penalties after a 1-1 draw in front of a crowd of over 37,000 with seven of their starting XI having played in that final against Hajduk.

And now, AZ’s next generation of academy talent have begun the defence of their Youth League crown in dominant fashion. Their 12-0 defeat of Lithuanian visitors Klaipedos on Tuesday is the biggest win in the competition’s history.

Paul Brandenburg, AZ’s academy director, told Sky Sports that “each generation is different, it is all about the talent and the individual. When we see talent, we are convinced that our programme will make sure that the talents will arise”.

He was not speaking there about their ‘class of 2023’ but AZ’s first team, who were pushing Ajax for the Eredivisie title in the early spring of 2020. The clubs had identical records — 18 wins, two draws and five losses — when the pandemic hit that March, with the Dutch football season subsequently abandoned and voided the following month with no champions crowned and no relegations.

“It is really exciting to see how much we can achieve with players of our academy,” Brandenburg also said.

AZ continue to vindicate Brandenburg and top some of Europe’s biggest clubs for talent identification and development, even though they are on Amsterdam-based Ajax’s doorstep, with Alkmaar located just 40 kilometres (25 miles) to the north.

Their AFAS Stadium holds 19,400 people — less than half of Ajax’s Johan Cruyff Arena and their budget is a fraction of what Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV Eindhoven have to spend. But put those four clubs into their own mini-league from 2018-19, and AZ come out on top for wins and points in matches played among them.

They have not won the Eredivisie since 2008-09, when Louis van Gaal was head coach, but have finished in the top four in nine of the 14 seasons since. They were Europa Conference League semi-finalists last season, too, beaten by winners West Ham United in a tie that was in doubt well into added time at the end of the second leg.

This season, after seven Eredivisie games, AZ are unbeaten and second, having outscored opponents 20 goals to three. It is their best start to the season since 1980-81, and comes after the summer sales of several key players — central midfielder Tijjani Reijnders, left-back Milos Kerkez and centre-back Pantelis Chatzidiakos, who all spent time in AZ’s academy at some level.

Jong AZ, their reserve team, which is made up of under-21 players, play in the Dutch second tier, the Eerste Divisie. Ajax, Utrecht and PSV also have Jong sides in this division. Last season, AZ’s kids finished higher than the other three for the first time.

Their continued success in developing both teams and individuals — notoriously difficult things to do; typically one happens at the expense of the other — are underpinned by a uniquely run academy that uses:

Neuroscience technology in player identification and development Integration of physical and technical data, and Billy ‘Moneyball’ Beane’s involvement Banning tactics until under-16s level, with a focus on holistic development Biobanding and contemporary approaches to coaching Planned disruptions to develop creative, problem-solving players Establishing and maintaining a pathway to first-team football. One of the biggest challenges for academy practitioners is to identify and develop footballers. The game is constantly evolving tactically, but it has also become technically faster, tougher, and physically more intense over the past decade.

Youth players have undergone physical testing for years and processes such as biobanding (grouping players based on physical maturity rather than chronological age) are commonplace in academies.

Biobanding is something AZ use too, but their adoption of neuroscience for player identification and development is relatively unique.

AZ work with BrainsFirst, a company from Amsterdam, which uses game-based assessments on tablets to test the brain skills of players, from the ages of 12 up. Eric Castien, the founder, explains that twice a season thousands of youth players in elite professional football academies play the NeurOlympics: gamified neuroscientific tasks that challenge various parts of their brain.

Neuroscientists Ilja Sligte and Andries van der Leij developed these games in 2013, aiming to reveal the building block of a player’s game intelligence. Players have to retrieve, remember, filter and distinguish information, to switch tasks, to recognise patterns and control impulses.

Now with a database of more than 200 elite-level players, BrainsFirst, enable clubs to improve recruitment decisions. “We give them a data-informed estimate whether the brains are, or will be, able to meet the requirements of modern football,” Castien says.

By 16, the “predictive value of the scores is enough to make better decisions” on the future cognitive capabilities of a player. There are “already some visible differences (for outliers) at 12 and 13 years old, but not predictive enough. Outliers at that age are already promising but the brain is too immature to reject talents based on that,” he adds.

What the company does not do is make 100 per cent claims about the probability of a player being good enough at an older age, but they can “lower the risk” of recruitment mistakes and it is another way that players who mature later on can shine through.

Castien calls cognitive data a piece of the “multifactorial puzzle” of modern football. “Clubs want evidence on the pitch, stories like AZ, with their oldest youth teams,” he says. All of AZ’s Youth League-winning squad were assessed by BrainsFirst. Castien adds that being at a high level cognitively is “essential, crucial to play elite football today, because it is more demanding for the human brain than 10 years ago”.

AZ are one of 37 clubs, Castien says, that use BrainsFirst. He is keen to bust the myth that footballers are stupid, that while some may not be academic high-achievers they do boast a “specific intelligence”, in terms of brain skills like attention speed and information processing, that are comparable with the levels of air traffic controllers in Germany. A significant strength of the software is not just that it can help predict who is more likely to succeed, but how they might do that.

By assessing how players collect and process information, what their attention and anticipation levels are like and how they recognise patterns and then execute actions, recommendations can be made on the position they might play, or how best to tweak tactics to maximise strengths and limit weaknesses. For instance, players who are not able to process lots of information quickly are best kept out of central spaces, where they will come under more pressure and have to make more well-considered decisions faster.

The European Club Association’s 2022 report on academies identified that only eight per cent of clubs were testing the IQ of players. AZ go way beyond simplistic IQ testing, and their approach to adopting new ideas is industry-leading.

“Until the under-16s, tactics is a forbidden word in our club,” Marijn Beuker, AZ’s former sport development director, told The Training Ground Guru podcast.

AZ split their footballing principles based on age group. Between under-11 and under-13, they prioritise skill acquisition, particularly movement patterns — in other words, letting players learn to play. From under-14 through to under-16, Beuker speaks of “game intelligence”, where they begin to teach principles and patterns.

“In the under-17s upwards, you have your principles to win games,” Beuker says. “Tactics are important at the end of the academy journey, when you have to win matches, but they are sometimes the opposite of creativity. We would rather win championships with the first team.” Instead, their coaching focuses on implicit teaching.

Sessions and practices are designed so that players learn through doing rather than having the coach tell them. Putting tennis balls in the hands of defenders, to stop them grabbing the shirts of opponents, is one example, as is cutting off the corners of the pitch to make the full-backs play more advanced.

They develop problem-solvers. Central midfielder Teun Koopmeiners (then 21), winger Calvin Stengs (20), full-back Owen Wijndal (19) and No 9 Myron Boadu (18) were four of AZ’s six most-played players in the 2019-20 season. All four were academy graduates and left, in moves to Atalanta, Nice, Ajax and Monaco respectively, for a combined €56million (£48.6m, $58.6m).

“There is a pathway for all AZ youth players and they can see our track record over the years,” said Brandenburg in 2020.

Kerkez and Reijnders are examples of AZ’s recruitment in older academy age groups. Both were signed as teenagers and became key first-team players, then were sold to Bournemouth and AC Milan respectively this summer for more than €37million combined.

AZ staff have explicitly spoken of trying to have half their first-team squad made up of graduates from the club’s academy, while also aiming for a top-three league finish and being competitive at European level.

First-team head coach Pascal Jansen has been in charge since December 2020, the third longest-serving boss in the 18-team division behind Rotterdam side Excelsior’s Marinus Dijkhuizen and Rogier Meijer of Nijmegen’s NEC.

Jansen, who became the youngest ever Pro License coach at 35, was promoted from assistant head coach when Arne Slot was fired after secretly entering negotiations to join Feyenoord.

Over almost three years, he has cemented the academy-to-first-team pathway: this is AZ’s sixth consecutive season with a squad average age of under 25, Jansen has given 30 players their senior debuts while aged 22 or younger, in the Eredivisie or Conference League, including seven of that Youth League-winning squad.

Systematically, he plays the quintessential Dutch 4-3-3 and there is a top-down philosophy which runs from the first team into the academy.

“My ideas connect so well with AZ,” Jansen said in 2021. “When I close my eyes and see my team perform, it is about pressing, it is about being dominant, being disciplined but with room for creativity.”

It is no wonder so many academy players continue to move to AZ from across Europe.

Tournaments are won as a team but AZ have some exciting individuals.

Starting from the back, 19-year-old goalkeeper Rome Jayden Owusu-Oduro has all the makings of a modern No 1.

He kept five clean sheets in the Youth League last season, the most of any goalkeeper, and starred with reaction saves against Real Madrid and Barcelona, with neither side scoring past him. Owusu-Oduro, who was born in the Netherlands but holds Ghanaian citizenship, saved two penalties in their semi-final shootout win over Sporting, and has featured on the bench for the first team.

Mexx Meerdink, a tall No 9, was the talisman and captain.

His timing of runs and positioning in the box were beyond his years, netting a mix of poached finishes from rebounds, one-touch finishes from crosses and goals off through balls, too. Meerdink, now 20, netted the final two goals in the final against Hadjuk to finish joint-top scorer (nine) with Panathinaikos’ Bilal Mazhar. He was the first player since Barcelona’s Munir El-Haddadi in 2013-14 to finish top scorer and win the competition.

Left-winger Ernest Poku and right-winger Jayden Addai, both playing inverted, complemented Meerdink perfectly.

The pair were incisive and varied one-v-one, as capable of combining with one-twos as they were dribblers, often cutting inside and attacking defenders on the outside. Both have excellent ball-striking techniques. Poku, now 19, ended the 2022-23 tournament with 10 goal involvements (eight goals, two assists) and Addai, who only turned 18 this August, had seven (four goals, three assists).

AZ’s five goals in the final were shared between Meerdink, Addai and Poku.

AZ’s approach to coaching goes against convention.

Coaches work across age groups — for instance, the under-18s’ coach may assist with the under-12s. The thinking is that if they can understand the principles with one age group, particularly the younger ones, they are aware of how it fits into the broader picture.

It is a conscious effort to avoid confirmation bias — seeing what you want to see — as having more eyes on the same players means coaches can cross-reference opinions, which, when coupled with their technical/tactical/psychological analysis of a player, provides a richer understanding.

“Every training session should be surprising, so we try to change the circumstances to challenge our players,” said Brandenburg in 2020. “Changing up the surface is one way of doing that, because every surface requires a different technique. We also like to change the size of the ball.”

Academics have termed this ‘planned disruptions’, a method of training players to adapt under pressure and develop coping strategies. Beuker calls them “sh**ty situations, where they have to struggle and compete to show if they are willing to learn and to suffer.” At AZ’s training ground, which was built in 2016, there are grass, sand and asphalt surfaces.

They change formations too, all with the intention of developing creative, problem-solving players, who are able to take technical and tactical agency.

AZ’s tactical adaptability underpinned their success in the Youth League. Their knockout-phase wins against Barcelona and Real Madrid were defence-first performances, with clinical counter-attacking. They had 35 per cent possession in both games but only conceded two big chances, creating eight.

Away to Barcelona in the round of 16, they largely defended in a 4-4-1-1 shape, dropping No 9 Meerdink and No 10 Fedde de Jong close to Barca’s deepest midfielder (yellow dot). As Barcelona attacked in a 4-3-3, AZ’s central midfielders man-marked and the wingers stayed deep to press the home side’s full-backs.

But they mixed in plenty of high pressing, keeping that man-for-man system centrally, forcing Barcelona to go direct. It was not perfect — on a couple of occasions they were played through — but they consistently disrupted Barca’s build-up, and only conceded three shots (13 faced total) from outside the box.

In the final against Croatia’s Hajduk, AZ had more than 65 per cent possession, registered five big chances without conceding any, had more high turnovers (eight versus five) and won the shot count 16-5.

Centre-back Wouter Goes epitomises the player that AZ try to create — tactical, thoughtful but unique. Before that final in Geneva, Goes spoke about the game having “more pressure” but being a “totally different match” than the semi-final in the same Swiss city three days earlier: “Sporting pressed really high but Hadjuk will play deeper. We need to keep possession.” They switched to a back three against Hajduk’s 5-4-1, in part due to centre-back Finn Stam having been sent off against Sporting. They were without Meerdink for the first half, as he only flew in on the morning of the match after playing 70 minutes for AZ’s first team in the Eredivisie the day before. Central midfielder Lewis Schouten, a right footer, filled in at left centre-back and had the most touches (122) and successful passes (94, from 109 attempts). He completed 15 of his 24 long passes, with AZ trying to go over Hajduk’s compact block. One such pass found Poku in-behind, who was fouled for and then converted a penalty to open the scoring just before half-time.

The balances of power have, and are shifting in the Eredivisie.

Last season Feyenoord won the league, meaning the title did not go to Amsterdam for the first time since 2017-18 (albeit there were no champions in 2019-20 because of the pandemic-enforced voiding of the season), when PSV won it ahead of Ajax and third-placed AZ.

Ajax are a club in implosion, having made their worst start to a season since 1964 after once again selling multiple key players in the summer. Feyenoord have to juggle a Champions League group pitting them against Celtic, Atletico Madrid and Lazio with defending their title. With four second-place finishes in the past five seasons, PSV look genuine title contenders this time.

But never look past AZ. Not their past generations and especially not this one.


Blood, sweat and brains

Blood, sweat and brains

We analyze the success of the Dutch team that swept and won the Youth League

When Roko Brajkovic puts the ball just centimeters too far, Dave Kwakman is right there. With a well-aimed tackle, the six-man from AZ Alkmaar wins the ball. The ball comes to substitute Meex Meerdink via top scorer Ernest Poku. Alkmaar's number nine passes the ball superbly with his backheel, allowing Poku to have a one-on-one situation with the opposing goalkeeper. He aims at the short corner and hits the inside to make it 3-0. It is the top talent's second goal in the UEFA Youth League final between the A-youths of Alkmaar and Hajduk Split, which the Dutch will ultimately win 5-0. After victories against FC Barcelona, ​​Eintracht Frankfurt and Real Madrid, the underdog from North Holland pulled off a huge surprise in this year's Youth League season. Alkmaar's U19 is now the best team in Europe.

The way Poku's goal came is no surprise. Because that's exactly what AZ Alkmaar's game is designed for. To be faster, more alert and more intelligent than your opponent. The Dutch first division team creates the basis for this in its youth training center. In collaboration with the Amsterdam analysis company“ BrainsFirst”, the club subjects every potential young player to a test to determine their cognitive performance. A practice that is being used by more and more European clubs - and has brought AZ Alkmaar back on the road to success after difficult years.

The difference is in the mind.

A normal training session at Real Madrid had led to a big discovery. At least that's what Eric Castien, founder of BrainsFirst, writes on the company's website. In 2009, the Dutchman Castien, who was still working as a journalist at the time, observed the star ensemble around Cristiano Ronaldo. The style of play of the world footballer, who had just moved from Manchester United, opened Castien's eyes - he says. Ronaldo's ability to make faster and better decisions and anticipate situations led the Dutchman to a momentous realization. According to Castien, the difference between good players and world-class players lies not in technique or physicality, but in the brain. Together with two neuroscientists, Castien has since dedicated himself to studying the human thinking organ and its influence on individual performance - not just in sport.

“ In addition to physical and technical skills, footballers also have to be cognitive high-flyers,” explains Castien. The company founder specifically names three characteristics that promote a player's success. This is how he talks about responsiveness. In other words, the ability to make the best decision as quickly as possible under pressure. In addition, the speed with which already known processes can be carried out and the cognitive memory of an actor. The latter is crucial for the extent to which what has already been learned can be retrieved, applied and combined. The skills mentioned are specifically measured through several special games that use different parts of the brain. BrainsFirst then evaluates the data obtained and makes it available to the clubs. The skills tested are of course important, that's obvious. The company's statistics on players that have already been examined show how important this is: players who have test results in the top third have, on average, a seven times higher market value than players with results in the lower section, according to Castien. In addition to AZ Alkmaar and clubs from all over Europe, insurance companies and auditors are now also using BrainsFirst's services to analyze the performance of their workforce. But what role does the data collected actually play in a football club’s youth work?

Ten years ago the situation in Alkmaar was completely different. The league was in danger of permanently slipping into mediocrity and the club was bankrupt. AZ had tried for years to keep up with the big Dutch clubs PSV Eindhoven, Ajax and Feyenoord Rotterdam. This plan failed and brought the North Dutch people to the brink of bankruptcy. As a consequence, those responsible decided to realign the club, from which neglected youth work in particular should benefit. Since then, the so-called has been representative of the change of course​“ AZ Program”. Instead of competing with larger and more financially powerful clubs for top talent, the focus has now been on regional players who are trained in their own academy according to a clear philosophy. While Real Madrid's youth team is full of talent from all over Europe and South America, nine of the eleven starting players in Alkmaar's U19 grew up in the club's native region of North Holland. The Poku in question moved to AZ from his birthplace of Amsterdam, around 40 kilometers away. Madrid recently put six million euros on the table for the Brazilian winger Vinicius Tobias alone.“ With six million euros we could finance the operation of our performance center for a year and a half,” explains the head of the youth department at AZ, Paul Brandenburg, once again illustrating the stark differences between the two clubs.

Brandenburg is considered one of the fathers of the AZ program. The core of the philosophy is that which was coined in the Netherlands“ Total football”. Offensive, creative and fast football. To achieve this, Alkmaar needs players who can hold many positions and quickly find their way in unfamiliar situations. This is where the relevance of cognitive performance comes into play and BrainsFirst.​“ Before the boys enter the academy, we want to see what the brain looks like. This company also does the tests before air traffic controllers are hired,” said Brandenburg. BrainsFirst promises meaningful development prognoses from the age of 15. Results that play a major role in Alkmaar’s youth work. Brandenburg explains:​“ If someone does a good test, you have to give the player the time. We know what a player can do.” The success of this method is also demonstrated by the fact that many home-grown players from the youth academy make it into the first team and the training at Alkmaar is now regarded as one of the best in all of Europe.

With an average age of under 23 and numerous specially trained players, AZ Alkmaar's first team managed to reach the semi-finals of the Conference League and once again be a permanent guest in the fight for the top places in the Eredivisie. The reason for this lies in the successful youth work as well as the courage and the necessity to go in your own direction. Or as Paul Brandenburg puts it:​“ If we do the same thing as Ajax, we will be eaten.”

Geplaatst: 6 Nov, 2023

AZ Alkmaar and its revolution in talent acquisition: “The cognitive factor is crucial” – Marca

AZ Alkmaar and its revolution in talent acquisition: "The cognitive factor is crucial"

We analyze the success of the Dutch team that swept and won the Youth League

Some football fans may have been surprised by the success of AZ Alkamaar in the Youth League , after sweeping Barcelona (0-3), Real Madrid (0-4) and Hadjuk Split, in the final, (0-5) . But his attractive and effective football has an explanation and that victory has not been the result of chance.

To understand it, we contacted Eric Castien, founder of BrainsFirst, a company that works with some football clubs to evaluate the brain potential of young talents.

"We measure the basic components of game intelligence at the brain level. For example, how a player absorbs information, how quickly this information is processed, how decisions are made and how actions are controlled. We make football intelligence be visible and comparable. It is about estimating potential . This information provides clubs with crucial predictive performance data so they can make better talent decisions about who to hire in the academy and first team. It is mainly about identifying talents," he says.

AZ was clear about this when a few years ago it was immersed in some major economic problems , which forced it to think of other ways to be able to compete in the Netherlands with giants such as Ajax , Feyenoord and PSV , and also do so in Europe. "They had to be smarter than the competition in making decisions. The talent academy had to transform from a cost center to a source of income . They wanted to exchange opinions for facts. AZ was looking for objective data to better respond to this asks: 'What talent pool does it really make sense to go and continue investing in?'” explains Castien.

And boy did they do it. This investment is what has allowed him to produce a series of talents such as Ernest Poku (8 goals), Goes, Fedde De Jong and Meerdink, who was the top scorer in the Youth League with 9 goals . Some of them have already made the jump to the first team, which rubs its hands with all the talents under its charge. "Starting at 12 years old, tests are administered to boys and girls. Starting at 15.5 years old, the data has predictive value. If a player scores high at a young age, this is a reason to be optimistic about future potential."

At BrainsFirst (Eric Castien, in the image, is its founder) exhaustive work is done that requires time to see results: "We have collected data for nine years and carried out more than 10,000 tests. The data shows that the best players have "specific cognitive skills. That's partly natural aptitude and partly training plus environment. Our games reveal whether someone is cognitively good and whether this matches what top-class football requires of the brain."

So, the innovation they have made at AZ Alkmaar has given them an advantage to compete against the best. "The cognitive factor is a crucial addition to the four existing factors: technical, tactical, physical and mental. Clubs that take the cognitive factor into account in decisions make many more good decisions on the balance. Investing in players who do not have a minimal cognitive capacity, related to aspects relevant to football, is very risky.

What AZ has done marks the way for others. PSV, Feyenoord, Southampton, Club America and Real Sociedad also use this tool. "We have the largest database and have been monitoring for almost 10 years. We are unique in the world in this. We now work for more than 50 clubs in, for example, Eredivisie, Bundesliga, First Division, Ligue 1, Premier League , Liga MX, J-League and Jupiler Pro League . MLS is the next league in which we will be active soon," adds Eric, who is ambitious about the expansion of this model: "We hope that half of the top 200 clubs from Europe to register with us in the coming seasons".


What Makes An Elite Soccer Player’s Brain Different From The Rest Of Us – Forbes

What Makes An Elite Soccer Player’s Brain Different From The Rest Of Us - Forbes

It’s not every day that Real Madrid get thrashed 4-0.

But that’s what happened to their under-19 side in the quarterfinals of this year’s UEFA Youth League.

The side who beat them, and who also beat Barcelona 3-0 in the previous round and trounced Eintracht Frankfurt 5-0 in the round before, is Netherlands side AZ Alkmaar.

AZ don’t have the resources of Real Madrid, or even domestic rivals Ajax and PSV. Instead, they’ve harnessed the power of the brain.

Elite soccer players’ brains are wired differently from regular people. So differently in fact, that even if you have the physique, the ball control skills and the strength and speed of a professional soccer player, if your brain isn’t also on that level, you won’t make it as a pro.

AZ know this. Their scouting network tests potential youth players for their cognitive ability through tests run by Dutch company BrainsFirst. This allows them to select “technically, tactically, physically and mentally outstanding talents,” who also have the cognitive ability to play elite soccer.

BrainsFirst’s founder, Eric Castien, explains how elite soccer players’ brains are wired differently, not just from the average person, but also from exceptionally smart people such as surgeons, top bankers and flight controllers. The speed that soccer players’ brains process information significantly outperforms these groups.

Castien says there are three key traits for an elite soccer player’s brain: Responsiveness, which is the extent you can make quick decisions in an environment with lots of information; the speed at which you can do simple or routine actions; and the working memory overview, the amount of information you can memorize, retrieve, apply and combine at the same time.

In short, elite soccer players aren’t necessarily smarter than other people, but their brains, in certain aspects, operate much, much faster. They basically solve complex problems automatically, without consciously thinking about them.

As Castien puts it, elite soccer players not only need the right physical attributes and determination, but also “need to be outliers cognitively.”

Several clubs in the Netherlands, as well as others in Europe like Real Sociedad in Spain and Southampton in England, have been using BrainsFirst to test their current and potential youth players. Castien says that while the brain develops at different speeds in the early teenage years, by the age of around 15, it is stable enough for them to make reliable predictions about someone’s potential cognitive ability when they reach 23 or 24.

Through research over 2014-19, they found that youth players in the top third for cognitive scores when initially tested had an average market value that was around seven times higher than the youth players in the bottom third for cognitive scores.

When it comes to different positions on the pitch, soccer clubs generally want tall goalkeepers, fast, skillful wingers, strong defenders, and midfielders who can run all day.

Different positions also require different cognitive attributes.

For goalkeepers, Castien says anticipation and responsiveness are important, midfielders need a strong working memory overview, while wingers need mental flexibility and control automatism, the ability to do things on “autopilot.”

To play the type of soccer that the likes of Manchester City play though, where players switch positions at ease and play something similar to the Dutch “total football” style of soccer, players need a strong all-round cognitive profile and be able to process large amounts of information automatically.

This is the kind of profile that AZ have looked for in their youth players. By having players who are strong all-round cognitively, they are able to play a fluid style where players effortlessly switch positions. Real Madrid’s youth side contains players like Tobias Vinicius, who the Spanish club could end up spending more than $18 million to sign permanently. But AZ showed how having the best soccer brains can help their youth team not only compete with the likes of Barcelona and Real Madrid, but beat them comprehensively.


AZ Alkmaar use BrainsFirst test to identify best young talent and it has helped them win UEFA Youth League – Sky Sports

AZ Alkmaar use BrainsFirst test to identify best young talent and it has helped them win UEFA Youth League

AZ Alkmaar have one of Europe's most innovative and successful academies. Following their UEFA Youth League triumph, Adam Bate speaks to Eric Castien of BrainsFirst to find out more about the role that neuroscience is playing in the club's recruitment.

In April, AZ Alkmaar won the UEFA Youth League by scoring 19 goals and conceding only twice in the knockout stages. Their triumph underlines their reputation as one of Europe’s best academies. It is a tale of talent identification and development.

But there is more to their success than scouting and coaching. The process of establishing which players they invest time in is a decade in the making. At AZ, they have been studying the brains of players as young as 12 to better understand their potential. AZ’s academy started their cooperation with BrainsFirst in 2015.

"AZ look for players who are not only outliers physically, mentally, tactically and technically but also cognitively," Eric Castien tells Sky Sports. He is the founder of BrainsFirst, the organisation recruited by the Eredivisie club to test the brains of their youngsters.

"If you are at the elite level at 16, maybe even with the national team, but score poorly repeatedly on our tests, then AZ would most likely not hire you. It is about identifying future potential not primarily current performance as almost all clubs still do."

It took four years for Castien and the neuroscientists at BrainsFirst to demonstrate that they could identify the brain functions required to be an elite player. Having done so, they needed six more to prove they could use it to predict future performance. Now they can.

Castien himself is no scientist, just an affable Dutchman with a curiosity that led him down this path. A former journalist, his journey began in 2011 when writing a book about talent identification at Real Madrid and Barcelona. Talking to the coaches was the spark.

"Everyone inside those academies knew all about talent and both clubs agreed that evaluating that talent came down to the four factors - physical, mental, tactical and technical. The problem was that there was a fifth element that they could not identify.

Some of the coaches there called it magic. Others called it the black box. You either have it or you do not have it, but nobody knew what it was. Was it a third knee or an eleventh tooth? No, it was up here, inside the brain. That was the black box for them.

They were not stupid. Intuitively, they understood that there was something decisive that they could not grab. They were aware of it, but could not decode it and transform it into tangible, actionable data. That is what we have done with clubs like AZ Alkmaar."

The starting point was to speak to two neuroscientists at the University of Amsterdam. They scoffed at the notion of magic. The scientific explanation was clear. This was about brain function and not only was it not magic, but they were able to measure it.

Castien's role was to marry the two worlds. Neuroscience, meet football. "I wanted to make a bridge between the two ways of thinking to decode the magic and understand game intelligence." He visited the biggest clubs in the Netherlands to make his pitch.

"I explained to them that elite football was primarily not a physical activity but a brain activity. The muscles and the lungs are secondary. The brain is primary. You would call it magic. But you cannot measure magic and I can measure brain functions."

By 2016, their tests, now conducted in the form of games, were able to challenge different parts of the brain, looking at memory, anticipation, attention span and self-control. "There are about 1,500 data points now so everyone does it differently," says Castien. As the bosses at AZ explained to him, that was when the hard work started. Football clubs are not purely academic facilities. They want to win and make money. It was one thing to identify what made an elite player. Their aim was to predict it. Each AZ player had a test score, independent of the evaluations of the coaches. BrainsFirst told them which ones were in the green curve, those with greater cognitive potential. "We had to show that our group of approved players perform better over six years," says Castien.

Castien's role was to marry the two worlds. Neuroscience, meet football. "I wanted to make a bridge between the two ways of thinking to decode the magic and understand game intelligence." He visited the biggest clubs in the Netherlands to make his pitch.

"That is what we did. One study showed that the group cognitively performing in the best 33 per cent within their age group developed a market value six to seven times higher than the lowest-performing group. It shows you need to be investing in the intelligent players.

Everyone says that is logical. OK, are you telling me that you know that a 15-year-old player is intelligent enough to make it eight years later? You cannot. But we can. That is our function. We did not reinvent the brain. We just linked brain function to the pitch."

When Castien begins to talk about measuring "the pre-frontal cortex at the front of the head" of a 12-year-old boy, it is easy to feel uncomfortable. This feels like something out of Minority Report, children found guilty of the pre-crime of not being smart enough.

Castien accepts the point. "I agree as a human being. It is harsh. But is not about general intelligence. We are not interested. It is about what makes you intelligent and whether this fits the context of elite football. To me, making talent decisions based on opinions and subjective reasoning is more unfair." The tests are at least objective. As the bosses at AZ explained to him, that was when the hard work started. Football clubs are not purely academic facilities. They want to win and make money. It was one thing to identify what made an elite player. Their aim was to predict it.

Each AZ player had a test score, independent of the evaluations of the coaches. BrainsFirst told them which ones were in the green curve, those with greater cognitive potential. "We had to show that our group of approved players perform better over six years," says Castien.

Castien's role was to marry the two worlds. Neuroscience, meet football. "I wanted to make a bridge between the two ways of thinking to decode the magic and understand game intelligence." He visited the biggest clubs in the Netherlands to make his pitch.

"After 16, if you are not in the green curve, you will not be in the green curve at 22. That is not a very attractive idea for people because they like to believe they can make anyone better. They can. But elite football clubs require players to be an outlier.

"It is why we never say categorically that this player will not make it. What we do say is that the probability is higher or lower. If you are having to compensate for a poor brain performance on football-specific skills then it is a low probability that you will make it at the elite level.

"At AZ, they use a threshold and the talents in the academy have to perform cognitively well enough. If they are not, and the other indicators are not super strong enough to compensate for it, they will say that it is unlikely the investment will bring a return. "We are only giving the club this one piece of the puzzle. If this piece is not at a high level, then the investment is high risk. I know that sounds harsh but are you able to meet the requirements of the brain at Premier League level? Ninety-nine per cent cannot."

Castien should know. He has done the tests himself on over one hundred occasions. He uses his own example to illustrate how difficult it is to be an elite athlete regardless of the body. He is a school-smart man. But he does not have the brain of an elite football player.

"My capacity for collecting information is high. I can process a lot of it. But it takes time. That is not good because on the pitch it needs to be fast. My reaction time is good. Good enough for elite football, even. But I cannot switch my attention fast enough."

"I am always two or three steps behind and it is not something I can train. It is how my brain works. It worked for me at school and at university. There, if you have a few minutes to collect information it is no problem. On the pitch, you do not have a few minutes."

Castien wonders whether this might explain some of the differences even within elite football. "You will have seen it when a player moves from the Eredivisie to the Premier League, they say it is strange because the speed of their actions is too slow," he adds.

"The reaction is to get the physical trainer to make them more explosive, try to make their legs stronger. Maybe that is a good idea. But it is also a good idea to find out whether the brain is sending the messages quickly enough to tell the muscles what to do."

It is only likely to become more important. "Football today is becoming faster and more demanding. It is more complex. You do not have the classical winger any more. You have players swapping zones. That is more complex for the brain," Castien explains.

"If you have less space and less time, you must solve the problems faster. It is not that we are saying that football requires smarter players, football is saying that football requires smarter players. We help them to identify those who can meet the requirements."

In practice, it is highly likely that many of the best teams are already self-selecting. "Players such as Kevin De Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan at Manchester City are good examples. I think Pep Guardiola intuitively understands that he needs those players,"

"It is like at school. If you are teacher with 25 kids and five are highly gifted but you have to pay attention to those who are not, what happens is that the gifted kids become bored and frustrated. Maybe they start to underperform because they are not challenged.

"It is the same at football clubs. The trainer has to adapt the complexity and the speed of the training to the majority or even the cognitively weaker ones. That is not what you want because you want the training to be more demanding than the matches.

"As with the Navy Seals, the real-life situations should be less difficult than the situations you found yourselves put in during training. You need to train at a higher level than you need to perform but most of the time it is the other way around, unfortunately."

All of which leads us back to AZ, where their commitment to identifying that 'fifth element' is giving them an edge on the rest. Others will catch up eventually. For now, they hope to enjoy first-mover advantage because of their appetite to think differently.

"There is a big difference between clubs. I do not think it will be news to anyone that the bigger clubs are accustomed to the thinking that if they make a mistake, they have enough money to correct the error. The challenger clubs need to be smarter than them.

"Clubs like AZ are much more open because if they are just going to copy the stronger teams they know they will lose. They have to do it differently so we help them to see talent differently and identify these blind spots when it comes to the talent pool."

The might of Europe's super clubs puts a check on AZ's ambition. Money usually wins in the end. But scratch the surface and, on occasion, there will be a glimpse of where the best work is being done. In Geneva last month, football caught just such a glimpse.

AZ hammered Hajduk Split 5-0 in the final and it was no fluke. Prior to that they had already beaten Eintracht Frankfurt by the same score. In the last 16, Barcelona were beaten 3-0. In the quarter-final, it was Real Madrid on the receiving end of a 4-0 thrashing.

For Castien, the man who had been inspired by those Spanish giants to set about decoding the magic, it was a moment to reflect. "It was not just that they beat Barcelona and Real Madrid," he says. "They did it with every one of those youngsters tested by BrainsFirst."