Aces Youth Soccer Acadamy: Tiki-taka, Nick Faldo and Elneny

“Elneny how did you miss that!?” one of my teammates asked. To be fair I had no clue. I was played through on goal and with no keeper in nets I missed the target completely. But overall, my first training session with Aces Youth Soccer Academy was a positive experience.

“Stop the car here,” I told my mother. “There is a police blockade, I’ll walk it from here.” The morning session was just about to start and I didn’t want to run the risk of being delayed. I had been in contact with the people of AYSA for a few months and had visited their clubhouse, but today was going to be interactive: I was going to participate in the morning session. It was an opportunity to experience first hand, the education stars like Khama Billiat and Knowledge Musona benefited from.

The police gave me a “we know you told her to turn around” look, I shrugged and crossed Harare Drive, entering the Standard Charted Bank Sports Club. Immediately I recognized the administrator Bernard Kirimi who welcomed me with a big smile. The next step was to join one of the teams, technical manager Backlyfield Chivenga had no issue accommodating me with the under-21s. “No problem! If it gets too hot you can take a break.”

I’m naturally a trier but the fact that I had been sidelined with an inflamed heel for 10 months, meant that I had to tread lightly. The first drill had us stand face to face passing to each other through and along cones, alternating feet. “This isn’t too bad,” I thought to myself.

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One of the boys

 

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Control & pass … wash, rinse, repeat

It got more sophisticated. One drill had a player standing in a little square with four players on each side about 10 meters away. The player in the middle had to receive a pass and return it back before the ball entered the square, repeating the sequence in every direction.

Marc Duvillard the co-founder of AYSA was observing this training sequence and was particularly interested when it was my turn in the square. “Well done. No not there, the other way! Yes keep going!” were a selection of things he told me in French. “It’s not easy for you!” he chuckled. “Yes but I always try to attempt and finish,” I replied.

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Training under Swiss scrutiny

It was around 10 a.m. and the sun was hitting us hard, so the water breaks were very welcome. I also started feeling a throbbing pain in my left metatarsal, something that I had picked up three weeks ago. Ignoring the discomfort I soldiered on to the next sequence. Chivenga wanted us to juggle the ball and alternate between our feet and thighs. I had never practiced with the latter and was all over the place.

“Don’t try too much,” said trainee coach Francis Jeyman “Start with two and then try three.” The former Black Aces player was an observant and calming presence around the training ground, his friendly approach reinforced my concentration when I lapsed.
My teammates on the day were always having a laugh with me and at my expense. They nicknamed themselves after famous players and decided quickly on a name for me: Mohamed Elneny. The Egyptian’s locks were probably the reason. I also had a comical exchange with one of them who had dyed his hair brown: “Hey where are you from?” he asked. Your Shona accent is shit!” “I’m from here and I can hear your accent when you speak English, it is also shit!” I retorted. Banter.

The goalkeepers had been training separately from us but would join us later in the 11v11s we were about to play. “We are going to start with two touch and no keepers,” said Chivenga. “You can only score at the goalmouth, no Nick Faldo shots. We are not playing golf here.”

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Solo keepers

“Elneny you play gun.” My teammates told me. As a natural defender it was always going to be tough playing as the striker but I accepted. Then THAT MISS happened. In my defense, there was someone closing me down but it was still poor. The next shot I took hit the post: Remember, there were no keepers and it was two touch.

We moved on to one touch and then multiple touch with keepers. It was at this moment that the training load got to me: My pressing was less enthusiastic, heavy touches and a metatarsal ready to explode. The other lads were all good. Still running, passing, shooting and dribbling at 100% energy levels.

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THAT MISS
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Prowling the goalmouth
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Knackered

As we were warming down bootless, it felt like the high intensity stuff was over but Chivenga had a nasty surprise in store for us. It didn’t really shock me, he likes to keep his players on their toes and will randomly say things like “everyone chase me,” the poor souls who finish last would have to dance a jig in front of an unsympathetic crowd. But his latest trick came with a twist.

“Get up this is the shoe race!” he barked. I bolted up and quickly picked up my boots. “Stop! Those with their own pair move there, someone else’s pair move here and with nothing stay right here.”

He came to our group: “So you are the honest guys? In football it doesn’t always pay to be honest.” Our mouths dropped open. “ Do you score in your own goal or someone else’s? Go join the guys with nothing.”

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Honest punishment

We were put through push-ups, sit-ups and burpees. the number of sets depended on the amount of shoes the “dishonest” guys had collected. I can still see the smirks on their faces. After our punishment the training session was over and I headed straight for the water bottles, chugging down one and then another.

With a refreshed perspective I interrogated Chivenga on the ‘madness’ he had put us through. Boasting a coaching career spanning 17 years in basketball, karate and now football, AYSA’s technical manager loves to incorporate ideas from other sports to stimulate his players.

“I use a lot of passing drills from basketball, especially anything concerning delivery from the wings,” he says. “The idea in both sports is the same. The only difference is that you’re using your hands in one and feet in the other. My experience in karate also helps with fitness exercises I put the boys through.”

Chivenga likes to come up with his own ideas “but do you have a role model when it comes to coaching?” I asked. He doesn’t hesitate to answer: “Pep. I really liked his work with the Barcelona academy. He never blames his players for losing games, he prefers to take the criticism. But expects his players to correct themselves.

“A manager who shouts at his players during the match, shows that the work hasn’t been done properly in training. I don’t speak much during games, if my players see that their pressing is not working, after the second attempt they will sit back. Individually and collectively they know what they need to do to correct errors.”

Our conversation shifted to the gap between grassroots and professional football in the country and a few interesting points came out: “The clubs in the Premier League don’t share the same philosophies as their academies. It’s only about winning. One of our little wingers would struggle in this system as they would just launch the ball to the striker. For someone accustomed to playing on the ground it’s a struggle.”

While the kick and run style might not suit them it doesn’t mean that the AYSA players can’t compete physically with the professionals. “ We sent our players for speed tests, one of our boys clocked 15.6 seconds while the best time from a Premier League player was 21.6.” A result of the academies great work.

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Technical manager Backlyfield Chivenga setting a new record

Chivenga then ushered me to the lunch table where Danai Kirimi the matron at the clubhouse was handing out plates. “She takes care of the boys,” he said. “And you!” she laughed. The food was rice, chicken and cut up veggies a decent meal after a tough session.

I was very happy with my experience at AYSA. An honorable mention to head coach Ekkie who took the pictures you see. One article does not do justice to the work the folks of AYSA are contributing to Zimbabwean football. Please look out for more articles on this top academy.

 

Thomas Lemar: Baie-Mahault’s crevette

Crevettes are pretty popular in Guadeloupe. Whether served in a stew or with dumplings, these little critters really hit the spot. In 2008, when a Caen youth coach visited the island, it wasn’t to sample crevettes but an exciting talent who was just as small but stood out from the crowd: Thomas Lemar.

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Crevettes in a coconut milk stew served with dumplings (Photo credit: UnePlumedanslaCuisine.com)

Baie-Mahault is the collision point where two islands meet to form Guadeloupe. An area with rich soil and bays right out of a postcard, this is where the young Lemar was born. Enrolled by his father into local club Solidarité Scolaire at 7, it didn’t take long for the introverted and diminutive tyro to attract attention.

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Sky view of Baie-Mahault

A whirlwind of guile and ball-sticking technique fast tracked Lemar into older age groups. Frank Louis the regional technical advisor of football, would use the Baie-Mahault native as a “guinea-pig” to prove to youth coaches in training, that ball control could be mastered at a young age.

It’s easy for a talent and his entourage to get carried away, fast-tracking a career before it even starts could prove fatal. Luckily the Lemars had Louis who became a close friend. His experience with the French Football Federation taught him that prospects need time to develop before making the professional leap.

The setup at Solidarité Scolaire also grounded Lemar. Founded in 1917 by a group of teachers, the club expects all of its players to excel in the classroom first then the pitch. If you don’t graft you don’t play.

French clubs were starting to circle, Normandy club Caen were the first to make their move in the form of youth coach Philipe Tranchant who had made the 7000km journey just to see Lemar. Impressed with how the 13-year-old maneuvered opponents and the irregular Guadeloupean pitches, the left-footer was put on Tranchant’s wish list.

It didn’t help that Louis told Tranchant that Lemar “Is the best player Guadeloupe has ever had,” in all their categories. A lofty thing to say, considering that France’s most capped player Lilian Thuram and Marius Trésor all hailed from the island. Having seen and heard enough, Tranchant took the then 15-year-old to Normandy.

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Lemar & N’Golo Kanté were teammates in Normandy (Photo credit: CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP/Getty Images)

The first steps in the hexagon weren’t easy for the Guadeloupean, winter, home sickness and headaches would have been an easy excuse to down tools, but the love for the game took him from the reserves to the first team. Soon French crowds got to see the islanders cultured left foot in action.

Lemar was never really a starter at Caen, instead a move to As Monaco would prove to be his real breakthrough. Deployed behind the striker in his formative years, Monaco coach Leonardo Jardim uses him on the left-wing of a young vibrant squad. His 14 goals and 17 assists contributed to their title triumph last season.

Champions de France 🏆🏆🎉🎊 merci à tous pour vos messages ⚪️🔴 @asmonaco

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Now a French international, it seems the best of Lemar is yet to come. It remains to be seen if Louis’ claim of Guadeloupe’s greatest will hold in the future, suffice to say, Baie-Mahault’s crevette is in a rich stew that will delight many mouths.

The Per-fect appointment

A young prospect is signing on as a scholar at Arsenal. Pen in hand and grinning. Next to him, the 6’6” academy manager is also grinning, pleased with the first signing of his career. That man is Per Mertesacker and this scene will happen later in 2018.

#Repost @p_mertesacker ・・・ Dear fans and friends, clear decisions were always very important to me. I felt like that after World Cup 2014 and I take such a decision now again. From autumn 2018 onwards I will be heading up the Arsenal Academy as the “Head of Academy”. Which means at the same time that the upcoming season will be my last one as a player. I am delighted about this future challenge and job at the club who means so much to me. Pattensen, Hannover, Bremen, Arsenal London – these places and clubs formed me and made me the player and person I am today. It is important to me to pass on these experiences and values to young players in the future. But for the next months my clear focus is to give everything as a player for the club. I am looking forward to the things lying ahead of us, short- mid- and longterm. #COYG Yours Per /// Liebe Fans und Freunde,  klare Entscheidungen waren mir immer sehr wichtig. Das war 2014 nach dem WM Titel der Fall, so ist es auch jetzt. Ab Herbst 2018 werde ich die Leitung der Nachwuchsabteilung bei Arsenal als "Head of Academy“ übernehmen. Dies beinhaltet auch, dass ich jetzt in meine letzte Saison als Spieler gehe. Ich freue mich enorm über die neue Aufgabe bei dem Verein, dem ich viel zu verdanken habe und der mir sehr an’s Herz gewachsen ist. Pattensen, Hannover, Bremen, London – diese Stationen haben mich geprägt. Mir ist es ein großes Anliegen, diese Erfahrungen zu teilen. Für die kommenden Monate liegt mein Fokus aber ganz klar auf meiner Aufgabe als Spieler. Ich werde alles für den Verein auf dem Platz einbringen. Ich spüre große Vorfreude auf alles, was kurz- und mittelfristig auf mich wartet. #COYG Euer Per

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The announcement came two days after the high profile signing of Alexandre Lacazette and was met with as much enthusiasm by fans. It may seem odd to appoint someone who has yet to finish a distinguished playing career with zero knowledge of running an academy, however, looking back at the BFG’s (Big Friendly/F***ing German) passage in North London, the case in favor of the titanesque defender is strengthened.

Signed during the infamous trolley dash of summer 2011, Mertesacker was brought in to stabilize a team that had sold influential components in Cesc Fabregas and Samir Nasri. Donning the formers number 4 shirt, the BFG made his debut in a home game against Swansea.

Arsenal hadn’t started the season well, a single point from three games which included an 8-2 deflowering at Old Trafford formed the backdrop of a nervous afternoon at the Emirates. The sight of Mertesacker getting out jumped by Danny Graham didn’t auger well for proceedings. Like the team, he wasn’t convincing but squeaked out a 1-0 win. People were right to identify the German’s head as his strong point, but it was the interior not the exterior.

 

A meticulous reader of the game, Mertesacker combines excellent positioning and interceptions to outsmart his opponent. His economic use of the ball sees him average above 90% pass completion rates, making him the modern defender’s primer. A nasty ankle twist at Sunderland ended his first season three months early, but it did not stop him from having a solid second season.

They say opposites attract, in the case of Laurent Koscielny and Mertesacker this rings true. The Frenchman is a high risk proactive marker of the ball. The Germans measured approach serves as his colleagues safety net thus allowing him to be even rasher! Not only did he establish himself in central defense, he also captained the side in a FA Cup tie at Brighton and headed in his first goal against Tottenham Hotspur, a sure way to endear yourself to the red half of North London.

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Ying and Yang (Photo credit: Shaun Botterill/Getty Images Europe)

It also became apparent that the BFG (Not the explicit version!) was just that, always putting himself at the service of others on and off the pitch, such is his standing in the dressing room, he is charged with collecting fines. The thought of Alexis Sanchez storming out of training and the BFG shouting “That’ll be 1000 pounds mate!” is a hilarious possibility!

 

Mertesacker can also be tough when the situation requires it, the sight of him giving Mesut Ozil a verbal dressing down for not acknowledging the traveling fans after a loss at Manchester City, made him the exception to the popular idea that: modern footballers just care about the money.

Perhaps it was all of this that was going through Arsene Wenger’s mind when he appointed the World Cup winner as club captain in 2016. Sadly he missed most of the season with a knee injury and due to competition for places he only made two appearances: In the last league match against Everton and the FA Cup final.

Suffice to say his contribution was more than what the majority had delivered in a lackluster season for the club. A fifth placed finish was a new low for a club equipped to win the league, but held back by a questionable mentality and complacent board. The cup final with Chelsea was a chance to salvage some pride, a 2-1 win did just that.

Everyone was in agreement that Mertesacker was superb with some calling his performance one of the greatest in the competitions history. His in match mentoring of young partner Rob Holding and their good cop/bad cop routine on Diego Costa will live long in the memory.

In a years time, after his training kit has been swapped for a tracksuit with “PM” emblazoned on the chest, the task awaiting the German is huge: Poor results, questionable recruitment and defensive ineptitude blight most youth teams especially the under-23s. But just like Mertesacker the player you expect Mertesacker the manager to make sensible decisions with a high success rate.

 

 

Kylian Mbappé: The world is yours

The away section at the Etihad erupted into cheers. The individual responsible for their joy had latched onto a long ball and slammed an unstoppable shot into the roof of the net. His first goal in the Champions League. At 18 years and two months, he became the second youngest French goalscorer behind Karim Benzema in the competition. Take a bow Kylian Mbappé.

On his first start in the Champions League, the young dynamo dovetailed brilliantly with strike partner Radamel Falcao and tormented the Manchester City defense with a combination of pace and fearless dribbling. It was a remarkable performance considering his tender age and has effectively put him on the world stage. The fact that Monaco lost the game 5-3 mattered not, the top goalscorers in Europe had offered their interpretation of attacking football: progressive, incisive passes and clinical finishing.

The English press were full of praise for the Ligue 1 side and most of it was aimed at Mbappé. However, those across the English channel and followers of Ligue 1 have had the player in their consciousness for a while.

Kylian Mbappé Lottin grew up in Bondy, part of the northeastern suburbs of Paris. Mbappé’s education started at AS Bondy where his father Wilfried  coached. He impressed enough to earn a place at the prestigious football academy Clairefontaine, an institution where William Gallas, Louis Saha, Blaise Matuidi, Thierry Henry etc all cut their teeth.

During his apprenticeship, the Bondy native had most of the French clubs on his case. Finally it was AS Monaco who won the race for his signature. The principality club are shrewd operators in youth football. Locally they never had a huge talent pool to pick from, instead they scout the six corners of the hexagon and recruit players from the age of 14 who have already received the fundamental education.

The fact that Monaco gives these youth a chance to challenge for a first team place is also a strong selling point. The likes of Lilian Thuram, Emmanuel Petit, Thierry Henry and Anthony Martial have all benefited from this approach.

Mbappé debuted for the seniors against Caen on 2 December, 1998. At 16 years and 347 days he broke Thierry Henry’s record (17 and 14 days) as the youngest “monégasque” to feature in the league. Two months later the record of youngest goalscorer was also taken from Henry (17 years and eight months) by the same culprit ( 17 years two months) against Troyes.

The sale of Anthony Martial to Manchester United had opened a door for Mbappé which he has gone through running, especially this season. 12 goals in all competitions so far is a decent return, but it’s  the options that he offers to his coach Leonardo Jardim. He can play on the wings, centrally or partner with another striker. His versatility and style has earned him the tag of “new Thierry Henry” though that may be premature considering his predecessors illustrious career.

The young man needs to develop further before talks of going abroad to play at a Real Madrid are evoked. He hasn’t really experienced a major setback in his career yet e.g dip in form, long-term injury or abrupt change of coach and tactics. These are all issues Thierry Henry has encountered and surpassed. Then there is the small matter of Henry playing for the national team and winning the World Cup and Euros.

Though, selection for the senior national team feels like a when rather than an if, looking at the starring role he played at last years U19 Euro triumph with five goals. His father Wilfried who also works as his agent has proven that he can also make sensible decisions for his son by choosing Monaco instead of Real Madrid, even though the Spanish giants and in particular, club ambassador at the time Zinedine Zidane, pulled all the tricks to recruit him.

Whatever direction the Mbappé story takes, like Tony Montana, he is at a point where the world is his, even Nike have endorsed him. It’s now up to the lad to keep that success permanent.