Inside the Nike Academy

Since its inception in 2009, the storied Nike Academy has elevated young footballers from the depths of obscurity. It all started when Nike quite literally took a chance. In 2010, what was originally known as The Chance, trials were held all across the globe in an effort to unearth the next global superstars.

Now, players use the Nike Football app to register for one of its Most Wanted events, in which thousands of aspiring young footballers flock to trial locations across the world, all for the opportunity to impress their scouts and get an invite to the academy’s annual Global Showcase. Only a few are selected from that event, hosted at St. George’s Park, to live out their dreams of playing for the academy.

At its core, the academy strives to find young talent, wherever it is, and give those players an opportunity to flourish in a professional setup. The current squad has players from Japan, England and everywhere in between. They live and breathe football every day. For many, it’s their first time ever playing in a professional system.

The goal of the staff is to develop players into full-time professional footballers. Jon Goodman, the academy’s manager, takes tremendous pride in their commitment to player development.

“[We] turn over a lot of players very very quickly, which is fundamentally the success of the program,” Goodman said. This season alone, players have gone on trial at clubs all over Europe, with 63 total players signing contracts since its establishment – four in just the last five months.

With a revolving door of players going out on trial at elite clubs, the roster is constantly in flux. “A year ago we played at Wembley Stadium against Barcelona. Great occasion, but only one player is left from that squad,” said Goodman.

So how does the academy ensure that the team is prepared? One of its key tools is video analysis. The staff gave us an inside look at the innovations being made, with exclusive insight into video review, and the strides they’re taking to improve the way they communicate and educate

Fielding a squad of 11 players can be a challenge, but it’s how the team lines up game by game that can lead to struggles on the pitch. Often times, the formation in which the academy plays might be one the players aren’t familiar with. “It requires a very proactive approach to your coaching [and] very flexible players,” Goodman added.

But no matter the matchup, the fundamentals of the game are simple. It’s 11 versus 11, each and every game. “Communication, understanding of dropping, squeezing, narrowing, pressing, whatever – they run throughout football,” Goodman said.

The squad’s versatility and approach to developing technically proficient players is what allows them to shuffle their team sheet around, match after match.

“It doesn’t matter what language you speak. It’s football and you can watch it.” - Matt Murray, Asst. First Team Coach

Performance analyst Aaron Calvin works to uncover key themes and areas in which the squad can improve. That’s what allows them to adapt quickly and teach their squad the fundamental concepts necessary to succeed on the pitch.

“A few of [the boys] asked for guidance as to who plays a back three at the elite side of the game. So, we’ve got a few games of Italy in the Euros playing a back three. Coventry City play a back three in the same formation we play at the minute, so we’ve put a few videos of them on [Hudl] just to give them an idea,” said Calvin.

“We always really reflect on the strengths of each system. So using this shape to actually evaluate learning,” said Goodman. “How well can the center halves communicate? Understand when to go press or when to just sit and hold in a defensive three.

It’s easy to see why the staff put an inherent emphasis on video analysis within their multinational squad. “Being able to draw on the footage just gets over the language barrier,” said Calvin. “We’ve got a Japanese boy who came in this year, spoke no English whatsoever. To be able to draw on the footage and just have it banked on his phone or on his iPad gets around the language barrier completely. He’s managed to improve tactically much faster than a Russian boy we had last year who also spoke very little English because of that feature.”

It’s round-the-clock learning for the squad, and engagement is vitally important. It’s a stark contrast to the way things were done in the past. “Their learning almost stopped when they left St. George’s Park and went back to the hotel. It continues however long they want to now,” said Calvin.

Times have changed, and access is everything to the staff. They want to meet the squad where they are, anywhere, anytime.

“When I was a player, watching games back wasn’t really accessible like this,” said Murray. “Sometimes the analysts would maybe give you some clips, but all the lads buy into this, because they’re all so keen to learn. [Now] Hudl has come in and it’s taken it on to another level… if you make it very easy for them. Look, we’re all young and we’re busy doing all different things. So the easier it is, and the most time-saving and efficient it is, then that’s what you want. Especially young footballers, that’s what they want.”

Not only do they encourage thoughtful debate in their pre-match meetings, but they encourage open dialogue between specific groups of the squad and the coaches that work directly with them. Goodman elaborated, “I’m working with the defenders at the moment, Matt is working with the attackers, and Aaron with the midfielders. Then, what we’ll do as well, my defenders will feedback to me via email or sit down and just discuss how they felt their performance was.”

But that feedback doesn’t end with the immediate post-match analysis. Using video analysis requires constant dedication to improving week to week. “[You] can say, ‘Look there’s your clips from two months ago. It’s really easy to find and pull up, and here [you] are now. So look how much you’ve improved in your kicking, taking crosses, ball receiving skills, your finishing with your left foot, all of those things.’ It’s there and it’s a visual aid that’s really helpful for the lads,” said Murray.

Ultimately, the strong games program is what entices players from all over the globe to consider Nike as a next step in their professional careers. Annually lining up against the likes of Inter, Barcelona, Spartak Moscow, etc.. presents the club with some unique challenges in preparing for matches.

“This year we’ve had a lot less time out on the pitch due to our games program, so we’ve had to do a lot of our learning off the pitch, and I’m not sure we’d have been able to do it as well as we have without Hudl,” Calvin said.

“The trip [to Moscow] was a good footballing experience where we didn’t have a lot of time to train. We trained Thursday, trained Friday, played Saturday, recovered Sunday, played Monday,” said Goodman. “So during recovery sessions, you can’t get back out on the pitch and discuss and demonstrate playing out from the back or midfield or attacking options. So the turnaround on the analysis was key.”

“The ease and the efficiency of it is very very good for me, and everywhere you go has Wi-Fi, so you can log straight in, whether you’re in Russia watching the game, whether you’re over here. So, yeah I love it. I really really do. I think Hudl is brilliant.” said Murray.

Every time they play there’s another chance of a trial. Another chance that somebody could be watching.”

That’s why they’re at the Nike Academy. They feel like they give them either more training than they’ve ever had, better training than they’ve had, and better facilities than they’ve had in the past- which might have hindered their ability to get to where they want to be. “We offer them that and hopefully get them a pro contract,” said Murray.  

“A massive, massive part of that is having a strong games program, but also getting scouts to the game, and being able to follow up with footage of the boys, their stats, physical data. Being able to send that all out quickly with Hudl streamlines that process,” said Calvin.

The players’ ability to access video of their matches goes far beyond improvement on the pitch. At the end of the day, they’re in a shop window, and anything they can do to catch a scout’s eye gives them a chance.

Just this season the staff put an increased emphasis on the players taking charge of their own highlight creation, which is a step up from what they’ve done in the past, where Calvin was responsible for most of it. “It means that they have to watch the game back, and also it gives them a better feel when we feedback [to them] what we’ve seen,” added Calvin.

There’s no doubt the staff has come to fully understand and appreciate the power of analysis. “The key thing I’ve learned from our experience using Hudl, and analysis at all, has been [that] you’ve got to create a ‘we.’ We’re doing this together, and we’re learning together,” said Goodman.

This mentality, “we” not “me,” has allowed the program to flourish. It’s buy-in from everyone that allows these players to get to where they want to be.

For more information on the Nike Academy, check out their Facebook and Twitter accounts.