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.”