How Barcelona And Ajax Influenced Women's Academy Vision

In the first of a new series of columns from Everton Women Academy Manager Tommy Walsh, he discusses how the Club's youth philosophy was developed and the key principles behind the Blues' style of play at age-group level...

If people watch our Academy teams, all the way up from Under-12s to Under-20s, they can identify what an Everton side is.

I’ve been Academy manager at Everton Women for six years and establishing that defined way of playing is the achievement I’m most proud of.

The process of shaping our style of play began when I started my UEFA Youth Licence course. Part of that programme involved in-depth research into the culture of your club and being able to show why you would choose a certain type of philosophy.

I started looking very closely at the women’s game the very top end. I noticed it was very transitional. No team truly had the level of dominance you would see in the men’s game.

For me, that seemed to be the key gap in the market.

Many clubs and even international youth teams in this country are about playing forward, playing quickly and playing the most positive pass – and that’s all good. I just thought, ‘If you constantly play forward and you’re not set up to have a structure of attack, then the ball’s going to keep coming back’.

You’re then in a basketball-type of game. 

It was about looking at the trends of the women’s game and the best models of development that have stood the test of time in the men’s and women’s game – then marrying them together.

The obvious one to look at was the Dutch system, particularly at Ajax, and then how the Cruyff model swept through Barcelona.

As I mentioned, we’ve seen the top end of the women’s game has a lot of transition – so what we wanted was to develop an in-possession model. The main reason for that, of course, is to keep the ball for longer. Also, if we keep it we are going to be more dominant in the transition when we lose it, as we’ll have more energy.

Tommy Walsh
I’ve been Academy manager at Everton Women for six years and establishing that defined way of playing is the achievement I’m most proud of.

We also recognised the need to get female players to play the ball 15 or 20 yards rather than 30 or 40 yards as, physiologically, it’s more difficult for women than men to cover the ground. That’s not to be disrespectful, that’s just a fact. What women can do fantastically well is play the ball over 15 and 20 yards really quickly – with real intensity – and it’s real quality to watch.

Playing that shorter possession game means there is less risk in losing the ball and, if you’re surrounding the ball over a short distance and you do lose it, you have more chance to win it back quickly because there are always two or three players around the ball.

Our philosophy naturally evolved into that – and that linked back to the Dutch model and Barcelona.

I was adamant with the players and the Club: We are not doing this because Barcelona do it – here is the evidence and the justification as to why we’re doing it. It’s relevant to develop the next generation are top-class female players.

We knew our Academy programme was gathering pace when we were bringing in new players, and they struggled to get on to the level of the players we had from Under-12s to Under-14s. That was when we realised, ‘Something is happening here. We’re developing players in a really different way’.

It would also be evident in that if we lost a player –- it could be because the travel was too long and they had another club closer to where they were based – they would be getting straight into the team at other clubs.

On the flipside, players would be coming to us and we were on the fence, thinking, ‘I’m not sure they can execute the style we want’.

Fundamentally, we operate that way because we want to develop 11v11 experts. That’s the key.

A lot of people say, ‘We want to develop individuals’. We do, too, but we want to do that within the context of the team. If we can do that, they have more chance of getting careers in the game, rather than a player that can do one thing.

The more flexible they are and the more they understand the game from every aspect – we call it game intelligence – the more chance they’ve got. That was the basis of how we came to establish our philosophy.

It will continue evolving, because you can never stand still, but we’re delighted with how we’ve made progress and the standard of players we’re producing.

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