From a well-rounded education to protecting players’ mental wellbeing, Crystal Palace’s Academy is fully aware of the responsibility it has to its aspiring crop of talented youngsters across all age groups outside of becoming footballers.
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This is why Head of Academy Performance Analysis and Under-18 Analyst, Dougie Wright, begins our chat with: “Everyone has their role in the development of these players.”
No one understands that better than Dougie, who was offered his first steps in football analytics by Academy Director Gary Issott after coming to the end of his scholarship with the Eagles - a club he joined at Under-13s level.
“At the end of my scholarship, I didn’t go on to play but I got offered a job within the club as Under-18s analyst plus part-time Under-14s coach,” Dougie details. “I was in the year below Ryan Inniss, and the same group as Hiram Boateng.
“When my time as a footballer within the club came to an end, similar to Ghass Sow, who is now Under-9s Head Coach, we were offered work within the Academy. It is something Gary is keen to do, to help out our transition afterwards. There are lots of former players dotted about the club with roles, so there’s a great pathway there.”
Dougie’s pathway has not only been ‘great’ but also one he has quickly trodden, with various promotions now seeing the one-time Academy player overseeing performance analysis across Under-9s to Under-23s.
“Nine-to-12s we focus a lot more on individual analysis and try to help the players grow technically through video review,” he explains. “We record all the games and set them individual tasks to go back through and pull-out certain clips of them performing techniques and movements.
“However, when you move on to the YDP [Youth Development Phase] we follow our club syllabus of six situations. Every week, we will focus on one of the following situations: Understanding how and when to play out from the back - Controlling and creating in the middle third - Creating and finishing in the final third - Press our opponents high if and when appropriate - Retreat organised, compact and ready to repress in the middle third - Be compact, controlled and calculating in our defensive third.
“We will review games and put together reports on the players between 13 and 16, which will give us statistics on the players against our own set key performance indicators. This gives us a numerical way of monitoring the players’ performances.”
These profiles help Dougie and his team liaise with the coaching staff about certain traits in individuals or behaviours on the pitch that can be used positively or need to be corrected. However, the players themselves aren’t exposed to every minor statistic pulled on them. It’s for a good reason.
“I think the players can get a bit bogged down in statistics at times,” Dougie says. “For example, they might be thinking: ‘Great, my pass completion is 90%’ however they might have only made safe, backwards passes which haven’t benefited the team or fit the ethos regarding our style of play. We leave it to the coaches’ discretion on when to use individual statistics with the players.
“We want to use the data at our disposal to support ideas. If a manager believes that a certain player is perhaps being dispossessed too often, we can look into the number of turnovers in a game, or where the player tends to lose the ball, and see if the manager’s theory is correct.
“I see us more as a coaching aide, to help the coaches’ feedback to the players. Because it is tough in-game to see the whole picture. Post-match, especially with the younger players, it is a great way of getting messages to them.”
Dougie combines his Head of Performance Analysis with being an analyst for the Under-18 side; a group of players he has known since Under-15 level.
“We are in every day with the players, having plenty of meetings,” Dougie details the difference between the two roles. “We will have post-match meetings with the players where we review team performances, in terms of how the 90 minutes played out against our Academy’s six situations philosophy.
“We will pull individual players for meetings to go over bits we might have noticed. Let’s take Fionn Mooney as an example, we might speak to him about the positions he keeps getting in to and how we want him to take advantage of that in terms of goals, assists or key passes.
“We film all the training sessions and then we will put together a review at the end of every day, so that we can reinforce any of the pointers the coaches were looking to get across in that session.
“As the week progresses we will start to focus the players on the opposition they will be facing on Saturday. We won’t change the way in which we play, but we will look at how the way in which we play can be used to affect the opposition and their approach.
“After every game the players who played will have to have put together a playlist of their moments from the game, so that Paddy (McCarthy) and (Darren) Powelly can review with them. They will be asked to select five positive clips plus clips highlighting areas of improvement after every game - the coaches will give feedback to every player that has played.”
Having every aspect of their football recorded, scrutinised and then discussed is something that the players welcome. There is a clear understanding that, for them to succeed, this level of finetuning techniques and marginal gains is what is required to follow in the recent footsteps of Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Sam Woods and Tyrick Mitchell.
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“There was a point this year where the lads put together a presentation themselves and presented it to the coaches to go over some bits,” Dougie starts to explain just how receptive to football analytics the current crop of Under-18s are.
“We did our pre-season at Bisham Abbey Sports Centre, and it got towards the end of the week after a couple of games and the defenders and midfielders got together to discuss things they wanted to speak to Paddy and Powelly about.
“They are really engaged and have a willingness to learn, develop and succeed as a group.”
And as Under-15 Floodlit Cup winners, succeed they have done. But for Dougie the reason why is not to do with ability and is something that performance analysis data cannot coach: “There are some really good players in there, of course, but as well as that, as a unit, they are pushing each other on all the time. It is really fortunate to have that, and I think that’s why they have been so successful.”
And to think, all this has been happening before Category 1 Academy status was awarded.