Coaching talents to win UEFA Youth League titles

This season's UEFA Youth League finals kick off in Nyon on Friday. Speaking to the UEFA coaching publication The Technician, Chelsea FC’s development manager Adi Viveash remembers the English club's triumphs in the 2015 and 2016 tournaments, and explains his role in developing talented youngsters.

Chelsea FC development manager Adi Viveash raises the UEFA Youth League trophy
Chelsea FC development manager Adi Viveash raises the UEFA Youth League trophy ©Getty Images

As Chelsea FC’s development manager, Adi Viveash is the man responsible for the group of Under-23 players one step away from Antonio Conte’s first team. Here, in the latest edition of UEFA's coaching publication, The Technician, he reflects on the challenges his young players face and explains his role in nurturing their talents. He begins, though, by remembering his Chelsea youngsters’ triumphs in the 2015 and 2016 UEFA Youth League tournaments …

How beneficial has the UEFA Youth League been for your players?
I think in terms of how much you can gain from a tournament like that. If you’re looking at Chelsea as a model then the players have to be adept at playing international teams, coming up against different styles, different cultures and different systems, and the feel of the matches, I think, was a high level of learning experience for our boys. The biggest testament is what you do with the knowledge, and the fact that so many of those players have now kicked on into the senior game all around Europe, certainly from the first year we won it, shows that they’ve learned that skill set that they probably didn’t have beforehand and added it to their armoury. You come up against players that you don’t come up against week in, week out in your domestic league and it’s a different kind of challenge. That’s what you want – you want them to experience different challenges at a young age.

How does it feel to see a player like Andreas Christensen go on and play on a bigger stage as he has done in the UEFA Champions League with VfL Borussia Mönchengladbach?
When you work with players of that level and you put a lot of your own knowledge into them, to see them perform at the highest level makes you extremely proud. I think Andreas, within five months of playing in the Youth League final against Shakhtar and winning it, was marking Sergio Agüero against Manchester City in the competition proper, and that’s the biggest gauge. There are boys around the first-team set-up now, in Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Dominic Solanke, who’ve played for Chelsea in the main competition as well. It gives you immense pride and makes you feel in some small part that you’ve helped them along their journey to success.

Chelsea celebrate winning the 2015/16 UEFA Youth League
Chelsea celebrate winning the 2015/16 UEFA Youth League©Getty Images

How important was it to see your players actually win the competition?
It’s the equivalent of winning the Champions League for young players, so it’s a major tournament to win. We know how much hard work went into both campaigns and we know how difficult it was to achieve success in both. The players knew that as well. They really targeted those tournaments, as we did as an academy, as [competitions] we wanted to do well in. We felt we had a really strong group of players in both tournaments – the first year was slightly different to the second in that we had a lot of more individually talented players whereas the second group was probably more of a team. But both had tremendous abilities and characters within the sides. Apart from players progressing into the first team, there is nothing better than winning tournaments, especially on the international stage, and we beat some outstanding teams along the way. A lot of the players who played over the two years are made in Chelsea, especially last year’s [squad] and probably six of the first year’s group. So it means a lot – they’ve worked together for several years to get to this stage, and winning is a tremendous form of development. If you’re going to play for a top club then you have to know what winning means and certainly the UEFA Youth League is a major tournament to win. 

How long have you been in the Chelsea youth set-up now?
I’ve been here nine years and seen a lot of development in the players and obviously myself. I worked with the Under-12s when I first came here and since then I’ve had different roles, including coaching the Under-16s and three years as Under-18s lead coach. This is my third season coaching the oldest academy age group, renamed the development squad this season, and I also coached the Under-19 team in both of the UEFA Youth League triumphs as part of the role.

Looking at your academy, are different coaches suited to different age groups? How do you decide who coaches a particular age group?
That’s a decision made by the head of youth development. There are two coaches per age group and it depends on what skill sets you have got and how successful you are in all facets of the job – not just the tournaments, but your day-to-day work and planning. Obviously if you are deemed as being good enough and capable, then you move through the age groups. In my time it’s obviously been relatively successful and I take that as being that you have the required skill sets that they want at the highest levels in the academy. That’s the level I am at now, but you do it by doing a good job on a daily basis and showing the requirements needed to work at a club as big as this in bringing players through into the first-team squad.

How does training differ across the different age groups at Chelsea?
Up to Under-11 they are playing nine-a-side or seven-a-side, so it is different. In the Under-12s they step up to 11-a-side and generally the level of information you can give to the players and they can take on board is slightly different. You’re working a lot on the core technique required to be moving through those stages. Generally there’s not a lot of movement with players up and down age groups at that age. It is a lot more about working on positional movements, etc. because they are still going through their growth stages.

Moving further on, with the programme at Chelsea, from Under-13 now they come in one day [a week] on a day release from school so they train here and do their schooling here. You are getting more of that into them at a younger age than when I started. Under-16s have a full-time programme with full-time school, so they train every day. You’re running them like a youth team. And with the Under-18s you’re working the players like you would do in a first-team environment. They train every day, they do double training sessions, in the morning and afternoon; they do gym, and they do individual programmes. They keep developing the areas of their game where they need to work. They do football education and programmes outside of here, and some of them do A-levels.

Chelsea's successful 2015/16 UEFA Youth League team
Chelsea's successful 2015/16 UEFA Youth League team©Getty Images

The main difference from the Under-18s to the Under-23s is that the Under-18s play regularly on a Saturday – so they work Monday to Friday and play Saturday. With our age group we can play Friday, Saturday, Sunday or Monday, so you have to have different programmes and be a bit more inventive with your day-to-day work. And because you’re the nearest [group] to the first team you have to be as close as you can to the real game. Those are the challenges and you need to acquire those skill sets as a coach through the years to be able to work at that level. That is what’s happened with me. I’ve been able to acquire those skill sets as well as being an ex-player with a 20-year career that helps you understand dressing rooms and situations that arise and dealing with certain players. 

Can you talk about sports science and how it helps you in your planning?
We work with a GPS system so every training session we do is monitored. Players will wear the heart-rate belts and it plays quite a big part in our planning. We produce a daily report and go through that every day before we do our planning for the next day. We can look at certain areas with players – we target them, either through fatigue where we have to ease off and give them a rest, or see where we need to step on the gas with certain players. We also use it in all our matches so we can compare against our first-team players, as well as previous years’ players at this age group and also our opposition.

It’s a big part of our programme, it aids the players, and they’re interested in it. They are all learning. We have two conditioners here with this age group who present to the players regularly and have discussions and look at them, and give them feedback on what they’re looking at when they look at the data. It’s important for them to understand their bodies and what it is when it feels like they are pushing their bodies to the max.

At what age specifically do your youngsters start using the GPS devices?
At Under-13 and Under-14, they’d have trialled it. They’d have used it sometimes when they train in the evenings and had a look at it. With Under-15s, this year they’ve used it in certain games. With Under-16s, Under-18s and Under-23s you are looking at the data every day.

Looking at non-football factors like schoolwork, diet and sleep, what steps do you take to ensure the boys’ well-being?
They get checked in terms of that. There will be checks in the morning where the physios are speaking to players and if we’re aware of anything or see anything then we make sure we stay on top of that. With how hard we work every day it’s pretty easy to see if somebody is having a difficult time or they’re a bit run down. But generally there’s the data and just general communication with the players. We have a very good, open relationship with the players here. It’s a two-way thing. Any time anybody spots anything, there are strategic plans in place to give the necessary individual the help they need if they are suffering from anything – be it illness, injury, or something personal off the pitch. There’s a very good structure here and a couple of staff members who work in that department full-time. 

You mentioned the players’ schooling before. Can you elaborate on this?
Teachers come here from a school in a town nearby, Epsom, and teach players on a group or individual basis from Under-13 upwards. We also have a relationship with the school next door, Parkside School in Cobham, whereby the Under-16 boys go in there for part of their academic day on certain days of the week. So there is a big academic programme going on within the academy.

Fikayo Tomori (right) scores for Chelsea in the 2015/16 UEFA Youth League final against Paris Saint-Germain
Fikayo Tomori (right) scores for Chelsea in the 2015/16 UEFA Youth League final against Paris Saint-Germain©Getty Images

Is it hard to keep them focused on their school work when they have dreams of becoming professional footballers?
I see driven players, but the academic results for them are very important here. The top ranks at the academy are certainly looking at those exam results very stringently, and they make sure the boys get all the necessary support from the coaches and staff to make sure they get the best results they can. There is a lot more emphasis nowadays anyway in society in general on trying to achieve because football is a precarious industry and the fall-out is big as well, so you have to make sure that you are doing as well as you can to have a back-up plan. 

We hear people say that young players have it easy compared to when you were coming through. But how do the challenges they face today compare with 20 or 30 years ago?
Social media means they haven’t just got one coach like we had, or one assistant manager analysing their performances – they’ve got whatever followers they’ve got on Twitter making comments on their games. Here, every game is filmed and most games are shown live so they have a worldwide audience critiquing everything they do. There were obviously the pitfalls with finances in our day, though not to the extent there are now. The outside influences away from the game are still a big pitfall and falling into the trap of everything that is out there. But now they face a big mental challenge because of the exposure, and it means you are all around the world. There is nowhere they can hide. You can’t hide, you don’t get a minute’s piece as a young player now. Some bring it on themselves but with others it’s nothing to do with themselves.

The attention is massive and dealing with all that and knowing how to handle that stage of your youth development is a big problem for some young players and they need a lot of help in those areas. I think the biggest challenge for football in the next decade is the influences outside – the support teams that are built around these top talents now and how much they start to take over, and does it become something like in American sport where the American football quarter-back is a major, major person. Look at Tom Brady, the rigmarole around him is just enormous, but they are able to handle that. But as a young person they have a lot of people within their off-field camp, not just agents but support staff and you have to be careful they’re getting the right information all of the time. That is a big challenge to them as young players.

What particular qualities are you looking for in a young player at Chelsea? What does a 16-year-old need to ensure he is kept on?
By the time you are 16 here now you’ve been here eight years, so the people making the decisions are forming a picture. You’re looking for personality and for different traits in different positions. There are the usual things – have they got a change of pace? Are they a powerful player? Are they a technical player? And that is nothing to do with size. They don’t have to be six foot four; they can be five foot four. But is there explosiveness? Are they able to take a tackle? Can they make a tackle? Can they see a pass? Do they show bravery under intense pressure? What are they like defensively? How are they off the pitch? Do they take on tactical information? It is many things. Are they good around the group? What’s their personality? What’s their home life like? We do a lot on [this] so we know a lot from a young age but it’s those characteristics that we are looking for.

Also, is there growth in them? Not in size, but as a player. Is there still more in them and what are the bits you’re going to have to iron out? Obviously they’re young, and to enable them to play at the highest level, have they got that desire to go the extra step? Most of the top players around the world are mavericks, I’d say. There’s a little bit of a difference with them – a different kind of steely determination. It’s different in each player but if you see that different quality it’s worth working with every day to try to help them with the other bits that don’t come so naturally as the God-given talent.

At what age do they start training with Chelsea?
Now they have a training group at Under-7s in our development centres around London, so kids will go in from the age of six. Coaches will work with the Under-7s and identify the players who they think have the skill sets required to move up. Then they come into Chelsea at Under-8s and then we whittle that down to a group that will start in the programme at Under-9s, and that’s three evenings a week training and then a game on a Sunday. 

When do they begin playing competitive football?
You don’t play competitive leagues here until Under-18s but they play in a lot of tournaments. They travel abroad to play in tournaments from Under-9 onwards and now from Under-12 they play Premier League cups too against teams from other academies in England. At Under-16 it is friendlies apart from when they play the Premier League tournament.

How important are loan spells elsewhere for your young players at Chelsea?
It’s vital for players to go and experience the senior game. If they’re good enough they should be out as early as they can if that is the pathway and it looks now that playing in the Premier League regularly is getting a bit older. You’re looking at 21, 22 in some cases. You have to be playing in the senior game to understand what it means – three points. It sounds silly, as easy as that, but it is [learning] what it takes to be in a winning dressing room or a losing one in competitive matches, and the difference in playing against physical men, 14 or 15 years older than you, and senior players. Also can you stamp your authority on a club that you go to? Can it appear that you are not a loan player, that you look like one of their players but better, if you like?

Chelsea celebrate a UEFA Youth League goal
Chelsea celebrate a UEFA Youth League goal©Getty Images

Do you work closely with Antonio Conte and his first-team coaching staff in providing updates on players in the academy?
Yeah, obviously the manager has been at quite a few of our games, and we train with them on occasions where we are playing 11 v 11 training matches with some of their players. He keeps an eye on the next group of players coming through and takes a keen interest in the players out on loan like Andreas Christensen and Tammy Abraham, Kasey Palmer, Charlie Colkett. There are many out on loan and a couple he has in his own squad. So he takes a keen interest in what’s happening with them as well as the younger ones in my group. He wants to know about them and has seen a few of them in his pre-season programme this year. He’ll be finding out all the key attributes they’ve got and he has a general interest in what we’re trying to do and asks very interesting questions about the work and we ask the same back about his. 

How difficult is it to manage young players’ expectations and disappointments?
That is a key part of the job. For me you need experience to be able to do that properly. You have to have an understanding yourself. If you’ve been in the situations they’ve been in, then you can understand what they are going through. It is being able to know which players you can use, a different skill set that you have … being able to cross-challenge, if you like. Sometimes players just come in and have a chat with you because they just need an arm around the shoulder and need to feel the support; other times they probably need to be told things that they don’t want to hear.

Managing expectations at this level is one of the hardest things because they are some of the best young players in the world, and then at times they find their progress blocked by world-class senior players, and that can be difficult to understand. But again, I feel that is one of the areas I am particularly strong in because of the years in the game that I’ve had and the situations I’ve been through personally. The more life experiences you have, the more you are able to be very honest and open with players and that’s how I deal with it – I deal with it by being the same with each one: always put the players first and deal with each case individually and just be very honest with them. I don’t tell them things they want to hear; I tell them things they need to hear. Sometimes that is something that helps, other times it makes them go away and think, and other times they may directly say they have a different view on it – and there’s nothing wrong with that. I tell them we’ve each got our opinion. It’s very important that they’ve got freedom of speech and here we do allow them … we like a two-way, open relationship. They are able to communicate with us strongly and that’s built up over the years of trust that you have got with the players.

Chelsea youth graduates
Since Adi Viveash became Chelsea development squad manager at the beginning of the 2014/15 season, the following academy players have made their debuts in the senior team:
Dominic Solanke – Striker – (Chelsea first-team squad)
Andreas Christensen – Defender – (currently on loan at Borussia Mönchengladbach)
Ruben Loftus-Cheek – Midfielder - (Chelsea first-team squad)
Isaiah Brown – Winger – (currently on loan at Huddersfield Town)
Jake Clarke-Salter – Defender – (currently on loan at Bristol Rovers)
Fikayo Tomori – Defender – (currently on loan at Brighton & Hove Albion)
Tammy Abraham – Striker – (currently on loan at Bristol City)
Ola Aina – Defender - (Chelsea first-team squad)