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Wednesday, July 24, 2024

Inside PSV’s academy: Goldilocks pitches, brain training and a pathway to success

Eindhoven: Europe’s city of innovation. It was named the smartest region in the world in 2011 and is the technological heart of the Netherlands.

Innovation, research and development are in the DNA of the city’s premier football club, Philips Sport Vereniging (the latter is the Dutch for ‘association’), more commonly known to fans worldwide as PSV Eindhoven.

PSV were founded in 1913 for employees of the Philips company, which went on to develop items as varied as lightbulbs, electric razors and CDs.

Over a century later, PSV are among football’s leading player developers.

Data from the CIES Football Observatory published in January 2024 has PSV 12th in the world and second in the Netherlands (behind Ajax) for revenues generated in the past decade by players who spent at least three seasons at the club aged 15 to 21.

Trim the sample size to the past five years and they are eighth, above Lyon, Tottenham Hotspur, Borussia Dortmund and Porto.

Their graduates list includes (deep breath) Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Memphis Depay, Ibrahim Afellay, Jeroen Zoet, Arnaut Danjuma, Jordan Teze, Steven Bergwijn and Donyell Malen. Recent poster boys have been Cody Gakpo and Noni Madueke, sold to Liverpool and Chelsea in January last year for around £70million ($89m at the current exchange rate) combined, and Johan Bakayoko, now a PSV first-team regular.

The Athletic spent two days inside the academy, with access to all areas. Here are the headlines:

  • A hyper-focus on individual development — “filling the backpack”
  • Implementing new types of pitches to try to reduce injuries
  • The implications of under-21s playing in an adult league
  • Use of action-type profiling to assess player personalities
  • Unified playing principles across age groups
  • Biomechanical research into goalkeepers’ set position.

PSV sold academy graduates Madueke, left, and Gakpo for huge profits (Bart Stoutjesdijk/ANP via Getty Images)

Eindhoven is 125km (77 miles) south of Amsterdam, near the border with Belgium. Arrive by train and the city’s BrainPort smart district greets you. BrainPort, PSV’s front-of-shirt sponsor, is a self-described “ecosystem” of more than 5,000 technology companies working collaboratively, and something of a concrete jungle.

Just a few kilometres north, PSV’s training ground could not be more different. The campus at De Herdgang is within Philips de Jongh park and has the kind of tranquillity associated with Clairefontaine, the home of French football, or Coverciano, its Italian equivalent. Trees rise above the floodlights, while the trains that rumble past provide pleasant white noise.

The men’s first team, the academy and the women’s teams all train here, the men’s first team to one side and the academy and women’s teams to the other. The two buildings are almost identical inside: gym, sports hall, relaxation room, dining area and analysis suite.


Inside one of PSV’s sports halls (Liam Tharme/The Athletic)

Outside, there are eight pitches, including the show pitch, which is saved for the under-18s and Jong PSV (under-21s) matches.

Three pitches next to each other resemble a sort of footballing Goldilocks scenario.

The first, an older-style 3G, is incredibly hard underfoot. The second is much softer, a slicker passing surface that you sink into when running on it, but it reduces load and injuries, and players enjoy training on it the most.

The third is somewhere between the previous two — even with their pitches, PSV are trying to innovate.


The PSV ‘show pitch’ (Liam Tharme/The Athletic)

Under-21s football in the Netherlands is unlike most of Europe. PSV, Ajax, AZ Alkmaar and Utrecht all field teams in the Eerste Divisie — the second tier of the Dutch game — where they play against other clubs’ senior sides. This is Jong (‘young’) PSV’s 11th season at that level.

There is no risk of relegation, with the third tier being semi-professional, but Jong PSV regularly face teams trying to win at all costs, and in front of much bigger crowds than typical academy games — excluding the four Jong teams, the average home attendance in the Eerste Divisie this season is higher than 7,000.

The youngsters consistently come up against physically superior teams and have to maximise their technical quality to compensate.  That becomes clear watching Jong PSV play Den Bosch on a cold, snowy January night.

PSV lead the 20-team division in terms of possession share but have only outscored five teams and their defence is the worst in the league. Against a 3-5-2 high press, PSV kick long because Den Bosch leave a three-v-three on halfway — an attacking principle when opponents play a high defensive line.


Jong PSV, in the red shirts, face Den Bosch’s first team (Liam Tharme/The Athletic)

Den Bosch score first, counter-attacking and beating a mistimed offside trap, but PSV soon take control. Their equaliser early in the second half comes following a high turnover and 13 minutes later, they go ahead after a back-to-front move finished by No 9 Jesper Uneken.

When Den Bosch switched to a 4-2-4, PSV struggled physically. Their high line was caught out by direct balls. Efforts to play keep-ball in the opposition half led to counter-attacks, as their ‘rest defence’ — the positions defenders take up when the team have possession, ready to counter-press — is loose. A late onslaught from Den Bosch is rewarded with a headed equaliser from a corner. The game finishes 2-2.

Seeing out games when leading has been an issue at home this season. This was the fifth time, after games against Jong Ajax, ADO Den Haag, FC Eindhoven and Maastricht, that Jong PSV were ahead after 75 minutes yet failed to win, losing three of them. They have also conceded the division’s most goals during the final 15 minutes of matches (16).

The club’s staff have an explanation: their focus on individuals rather than groups at older ages means they can often end up with uncomplimentary technical/tactical pairings.

Under-19s coach Jack Brazil explains that in their wide triangles — a full-back, No 8 and a winger — they want “one being a runner, who attacks the depth in behind the opposition’s back four, one a creator and one who is more of a steady rest-defence player”.

Brazil continues: “Sometimes we have a lot of runners, sometimes you have too many creators, and we don’t have the depth. We have to find that balance.”

Having players who are not completely physically mature (and facing opponents who are) means Jong PSV suffer from fatigue sooner, and physicality can be a deciding factor late in games.

Psychology may also contribute. The club use action type profiling, a personality test questionnaire closely related to the popular Myers-Briggs assessment. It is not a perfect science and is viewed as a useful tool rather than gospel, but the current Jong group are judged as primarily introverted, which is neither inherently good nor bad, but extroverted personalities can be more desirable when trying to see out wins.


“Spaces and overloads” is a phrase repeated by Joop Oosterveld, head of coaching between under-11 and under-18. Attacking play is based on principles, not patterns. Examples include…

  • Wanting a ‘plus-one’ in the build-up (having one more player around the ball than the opponents)
  • Players in pockets between vertical/horizontal opposition lines
  • “Attacking the operational space”, also known as runs in-behind
  • At least four players attacking the penalty area — that explains itself.

These principles run through the age groups. It explains how PSV Under-18s won their league last season while using 32 players, with some stepping up to older age groups and the better under-17s drafted in.

PSV fielded a different line-up in all six of this season’s games in the UEFA Youth League (the under-19 level’s Champions League equivalent). They finished third in a group also containing Sevilla, Arsenal and Lens, matching the senior teams’ draw, but learned a lot.

“The key thing was that PSV and Arsenal had the best individuals, and probably the best way of playing in terms of attractiveness,” says Brazil.

“But in terms of winning, Lens and Sevilla were so far ahead of us. They played real adult football and this was a real learning curve — how do we create those environments? And how do we manage it next year? Is it appropriate for us as the under-18 staff to take the Youth League? Or is it better for the Jong PSV staff to take the Youth League because they work with them every day?”

Tim Wolf, PSV’s first-team assistant manager, started at the club working with the under-11s. He was then assistant to Ruud van Nistelrooy when he coached the under-18s and under-19s, before they stepped up together to handle the first team. He has remained there under Peter Bosz, who replaced Van Nistelrooy last summer.

Under-18s and under-19s head coach Vincent Heilmann was on PSV’s books between under-nines and under-19s, but three anterior cruciate ligament injuries curtailed his playing career.

He tells The Athletic that having unified principles that run through age groups is “the key for individual development”.

Heilmann continues: “If you’re moving a lot of the players (between the youth teams), the identity, how you want to play, and how you want to solve things, it all has to be the same. There are small details during a game — if we play against five at the back or four, it’s a little bit different — but the identity has to be the same.”


PSV Under-18s training – coach Heilmann is on the far right in the black jacket (Liam Tharme/The Athletic)

The numbers don’t lie: of the players that make it to PSV Under-18s, 70 per cent go on to have a professional career and 40 per cent reach the first team.

As one of the Netherlands’ ‘big three’ clubs (alongside Ajax and Feyenoord), the standards for graduates here are higher than elsewhere in the country. “Outstanding ability” is not enough, players need adaptability too.


PSV’s academy goals are explained (Liam Tharme/The Athletic)

Gakpo, who arrived as an under-12 and was PSV’s second-most expensive sale when he joined Liverpool last January, is held up as an example of balancing elite technique with technical and tactical versatility. He debuted for PSV as a left-winger, his primary position in academy days, but is used by Liverpool as a No 9, a No 8 and on the wing.

Colin Bergmans, the skills coach, has developed the ‘Skillbox’. It is the comprehensive syllabus for individual technical development, focused on “filling the backpack”, containing more than 40 attacking and defending skills and techniques — including overhead kicks.

From under-nines to under-12s, he sends players weekly “homeworks”, examples of technical skills they can do on their own, all related to their latest training focus. These come with “benchmarks”, clips of top-level players performing the same skills. For example, when focused on build-up, the homework could be clips of different long-range passes for centre-backs, using various parts of the foot.

Twice a week, Bergmans spends 30 minutes coaching each age group, a mix of unopposed practices and drills where players have to attack with balanced numbers, numerical advantages and/or disadvantages — one-v-ones, into three-v-twos, for instance.

They train four times a week, plus matches, with a high volume of small group work. De Herdgang is one of four centres across the southern Netherlands, allowing young players to train at one close to home. There are 50 to 60 players per age group. Each has a different mentor (a coach or player) every season, plus their development plan. There is a balance of refining their “outstanding ability” and improving “focus points”, in line with PSV’s principles.

Players are mixed across ages, sometimes split in training based on position, biological age (how physically mature they are, known as ‘bio-banding’), or even which is their dominant foot. Sessions often work in carousel approaches, where each coach sets up a station and players spend equal time at each one, moving as a group.

For instance, with the under-13s and under-14s, there are four stations (plus the goalkeepers training separately). Two start with ball manipulation, with players dribbling and changing direction. The other two focus on passing patterns, with players following their pass. One group has multiple patterns simultaneously to add a bit of chaos while remaining unopposed. Those practices then develop into one-v-ones/two-v-twos, and rondos.


Under-13s and under-14s training in one-v-ones (Liam Tharme/The Athletic)

Before reaching the under-18s level, there is little focus on settled teams. Players are constantly rotated and shifted across the younger age groups. A fantastic example is Jong PSV goalkeeper Niek Schiks. He joined the club as an under-nine and was an outfielder until under-12s, when staff felt his profile was better suited to playing in goal.


The youngsters’ training continues off the pitch. PSV have equally refined cognitive and physical programmes. They use the same ‘neurolympics’ test as AZ, which was designed by BrainsFirst. It reveals how well players collect, process and act on information, and predicts cognitive outliers — an essential characteristic in an increasingly fast and psychologically demanding game.

There is gamified cognitive training, with a joystick that players have to move in the direction of an arrow that pops up on a screen, but, depending on the colour, they have to change the direction of the answer. This is scaled up by adding in a ball, making players pass in the direction of the arrow (regardless of the colour).

Physical testing is not standardised in the Netherlands, so PSV’s battery of physical tests — anthropometric tests, 30 metres (just under 100ft) sprint, change of direction, static long jump, hand-eye coordination test — is self-administered twice a season (anthropometric tests are monthly).

Their years of carrying out these tests mean first-team benchmarks are well known. The required level is four seconds for the 30m sprint, with the first 10m completed in under 1.9 seconds. The hand-eye coordination test, involving throwing a tennis ball at a wall (and catching it) with one hand while bouncing a basketball with the other, has correlations to better footballing performance.

PSV have pioneered biomechanical research into the goalkeeper’s set position, looking at the preferred stance compared to standing slightly crouched at 75 per cent of leg length. The finding? Quicker reactions but shorter reach, as it eliminates the correction step.

One potential criticism of the academy is that not many of its goalkeepers have graduated — Zoet, now 33, was the most recent to play for the first team. He made 260 appearances and became a full Netherlands international before joining Italian club Spezia in September 2020.

Developing physically rounded players, meaning training beyond football-specific movements, is essential, particularly pre-growth spurt. At younger ages, this is taught primarily through mini-games and other sports. One example is the ‘smash’ technique in volleyball being the same motor pattern for attacking a cross with a header. They play hockey and basketball too, and once a month, spend 90 minutes at a local trampoline park.


PSV accept they are a selling club — primarily to Europe’s top-five leagues.

They were also the launchpad for Romario and Ronaldo in the 1990s after their moves from Brazil. Van Nistelrooy and Jaap Stam came through at other academies in the Netherlands, then were signed from PSV by Manchester United. Arjen Robben joined PSV at 18 from fellow Dutch club Groningen and was bought by Chelsea two years later. Georginio Wijnaldum and Kevin Strootman are similar more recent examples.

PSV call it their “international player pathway”, and it’s considered a badge of honour.

They took pride in Madueke leaving Tottenham Hotspur to join them as a 16-year-old in 2018, a move the player described as a “no-brainer”. He reached their first team in two years, scored the first two goals in their 2021 Johan Cruyff Shield (the Dutch equivalent of the Community Shield) win over Ajax and joined Chelsea for £28.5m 12 months ago. Similarly, Everton’s highly rated defender Jarrad Branthwaite spent last season on loan at PSV, and called it “the best thing I could have done”.

PSV’s transfer income has been above their expenditure in five of the past seven seasons. Top talent does not stick around long in their first team, so there is always room for the next graduate.

Dutch football has been guided but sometimes burdened by a national commitment to 4-3-3 and high-possession, total football. There can be a hyperfocus on control — as a result, the wide players — spontaneous and inventive — become the match-winners. A list of PSV’s 10 biggest sales features five wingers and two players (Gakpo and Depay) who can play across the forward line. It feels inevitable that Bakayoko will be on that list soon.

PSV’s target is three first-team debuts per season for academy players. Their rate is better than double that: 44 first-team debuts, male and female, for homegrown youngsters since 2017-18.

The names of those players are displayed proudly on the wall of a corridor near the changing rooms.


PSV’s graduate wall (Liam Tharme/The Athletic)

In the current team, beyond golden boy Bakayoko, backup winger Yorbe Vertessen, box-crashing No 8 Ismael Saibari and starting right-back Teze all rose through their youth ranks. PSV equalled an Eredivisie record by winning their first 17 league games of this season, scoring at least twice in all of them, before a 1-1 draw with Utrecht last weekend. Consequentially, they are well on their way to their first title since 2017-18, 10 points clear of second-placed Feyenoord.

Arsenal and Feyenoord (in the KNVB Cup on Wednesday) are the only teams to beat them in any competition this season, and PSV have qualified for the Champions League’s knockout phase for the first time since 2015-16. The under-19s going out of the Youth League means those players can support the seniors’ title charge, too.


The elephant in the room: why open your doors like this and share your secrets? Especially during a time of success.

“We’ve always recognised that we have a lot of good intellectual property, that we have a lot of good ideas, but then they also can be improved,” says Brazil. “It’s not just about developing others, it’s about us developing ourselves. The staff have to present and explain their ideas really clearly in a second language (English) — I’ve done it the other way, in Dutch, and it’s nerve-racking.”

It is part of a broader “internationalisation” strategy that has seen, since 2022, PSV partner with Austin FC (United States), Chivas (Mexico), Cruzeiro (Brazil) and Jeonbuk Motors (South Korea). These are arrangements focused on sharing knowledge and expertise, not the formation of multi-club groups for stockpiling and gatekeeping talent.

Johan Cruyff, Dutch football’s biggest icon, once said, “Don’t look at what you don’t have, look at what you can create.”

PSV are the embodiment of that concept.


To be involved in upcoming PSV ‘interest days’, visit their website www.psvcoachingacademy.com 

(Top photos: Liam Tharme/The Athletic; design: John Bradford)



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