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".