As featured in The Guardian:

“Every time the German team loses, the people say, “we lack creativity” – Schalke’ 04’s Technical Director pauses to rub his head for a moment before following up with an explosion of “FUCKING BORING! – how can the quality of years of hard work and training depend on one result?”

I’m at ‘Knappenschmiede’, Schalke 04’s academy complex, and the serial breeding ground of super-talent including the likes of Manuel Neuer, Benedikt Höwedes, İlkay Gündoğan, Mesut Özil, Max Meyer, Julian Draxler and Leroy Sané. Based in Gelsenkirchen – a former hub of coal production and oil refining, before it was bombed in Allied air raids during World War II – the area has been hit with one of the highest unemployment rates in Germany for the last three decades. Now with little over 260,000 inhabitants, the North Rhine-Westphalia based city relies on the success of its football club to bring hope to the community.

Peter Knäbel is passionately explaining what makes this club and youth system so special “After the second World War, a whole mixture of cultures and backgrounds arrived to work in the region’s coal mines, such as Polish, Italian and Turkish people. We’re now reaping the benefits of that as the children of hard-working parents with contrasting instincts and mentalities come here and we have a fantastic melting pot.”

“We’re such a fortunate generation to have lived in a period of freedom for more than 70 years now – this wasn’t the case on two occasions – because of us both times. Now, how can we talk about the stereotypical ‘German mentality’ when the player born just 200 metres away is called Ahmed Kutucu?”

Outside on the pitch, under-9 sessions are underway. Every pair of feet has a ball at them for the opening 30 minutes, before being progressed into a large possession-based game with a goal in each corner for a little over 10 minutes. Following this the youngsters are beckoned into a 20-metre square and ordered to keep the ball moving in groups of four. Instructions of “Two touch!” are followed by “Now stay on it and dribble” as players are pushed to constantly challenge themselves and react to the commands.

“We don’t want coaches to give too much tactical instruction to the kids under the age of 14. We talk about ‘timing’ here and want the kids to think “When?” and “What?” so 4-4-2 and 3-5-2 don’t matter until you’re 14.” Knäbel insists “The kids must learn to understand the games themselves. We let them play and, trust me when I say that, the result is always a part of our education. If an under-9 coach says that winning doesn’t matter then just look into the eyes of the kids. They’re upset when they lose, but the coach should never, ever be more upset than the kids. The reality is this is sport and we play to win, and we want to develop winners. You can develop a winner, and to do this we want kids to know when the decisive moments are and to be successful in moments of pressure; whether that’s knowing what to do in defence of attack.”

For the remainder of the 90-minute training session the fledglings move from exercise to exercise with each station varying in size, intensity and physical demands as the games are opposed, then unopposed and then back to opposed. There is a real fun element on each pitch from the under-9s through to the under-13 as coaches constantly test players with conflicting demands and no single exercise lasts longer than 20 minutes.

“We educate our coaches on whether they need to give advice or an objective to players. To communicate something is not the same as understanding it, but there are different routes to arrive at the same objective. We need both sessions and coaches to be flexible but with clear principles; remember we’ve had the likes of Joël Matip and also Leroy Sané come through this system. You couldn’t find two more differing people or players.”

Knäbel proceeds, “Coaches are the key to everything; if you have one good coach then you have 18 good players. We study the coaches as both people and professionals before we assign them to a group. Look at Barcelona, Ajax and the top academies around the world, they have the same consistent messages and philosophies right from under-9 through to under-19. That’s what we do here.”We’re watching on as the under-17 and under-19 teams are now being put through their paces below the misty skies tainted by the power station close by. Sessions run like clockwork and even rest periods are timed to the millisecond as players work in 3v1 rondos before reacting to the fitness coach’s whistle. They must then do repeated-sprint-work before returning to the rondos, which are now amped-up into more intense 4v2s.

Coaches stand over the possession games, glaring with intensity and not needing to utter a word as their presence alone screams authoritative messages. Knäbel murmurs “This is just the same as what the young kids were doing, but without the running; no child comes here to exercise. They’re always on the ball, working on technique and decision making when they’re physically fatigued as that’s when decisive moments occur.”

As the rondos and sprints turn into games, the voices of the coaches are now piercing the air as they bark tactical guidance, correcting body shapes and defensive presses before falling into silence for minutes at a time then intervening again. Once more, players are added in and taken out of sessions, and pitch-sizes are regularly altered – both increasing and decreasing the intensity of play as coaches pine for flexible players who can readjust and find solutions to the fluctuating scenarios.As the sessions wrap up, under-17 coach Frank Fahrenhorst discusses the importance placed on personal relationships between players and coaches at Schalke “As coaches, we are responsible for teaching the players about responsibilities and discipline. This is our duty and it requires a specific supporting programme so that the boys can develop as people and learn independence, both on and off the pitch.”

Knäbel assists the thoughts of Fahrenhorst as he explains the ‘duel system’ that the club have assembled with the Gesamtschule Berger Feld school which players will be enrolled in as they train at Knappenschmiede. “Kutucu played for the first team last night and he’ll graduate in March. We place a huge importance on education and developing good people as well as good players here and if the programme is running correctly, you get both. Coaches need to have interest in kids and their wellbeing, so we have regular contact with parents and schools, you can’t just concentrate on the pitch.”

“The game has become an industry and I shouldn’t complain as it has given me this job, but new football makes it difficult to understand the world. My brother works at an amateur club in the 13th tier of German Football, with only 18 kids in the youth system and just one pitch for everyone. We need to prepare our kids at Schalke to go into the real world as they’ll probably end up playing in my brother’s league as only 0.001% can go on to play for Manchester City.”

By Alex Clapham