Native of Avinyó, a province of Barcelona, Albert Capellas’ coaching journey has taken him from FC Barcelona’s famed La Masia to clubs such as Vitesse, Brøndby IF and Borussia Dortmund.
Now the Head Coach of Denmark’s Under-21 National team, which took the continent by storm with their enticing approach to the game flavoured by Capellas’ methodologies in his Positional game, the Catalan coach sat down to speak to Adrián Blanco for MarcadorInt.
The interview is translated to English below:
How have all these months of the pandemic been for you?
The pandemic caught me in Barcelona, which is where I’m based. Normally I travel between Barcelona and Denmark, but these months have been different: lots of meetings at Zoom, lots of games watched by video, lots of conferences… and very little travelling. The clubs didn’t allow outsiders into their bubbles and it has been difficult. However, as we had done very well in the qualifiers, we had a very defined National team, and this made our work much easier; we were very happy with the scouting we had already done at the time and we only had to follow up with the selected players to define all the details.
Why Denmark U21? What took you there?
I spent two years at Brøndby, and there I met a number of people who are now in the Federation. When Niels Frederiksen went to Brøndby and left the national team, who, by the way, have just won the league in Denmark, they were looking for a coach with a profile oriented towards positional play, with a style of play that would press high up to then recover the ball quickly… and as they already knew me, and my way of thinking and working, they asked me if I would be interested in leading this project. Besides this, I’m now involved in another project, Cruyff Football, an online platform for coaches, and the position [as U21 coach] allowed me to combine everything from Barcelona.
Denmark has been working very well for a long time and good proof of this is the levels of their U-21 team and also the senior team being at this European Championship
There are very good generations coming through. The Under-21s had a great European Championship and these players deserved to go further. But when we look down the line, we see that there are still some very good players coming through. The next U-21 generation is going to be very good again, and that’s to the credit of the Federation, which has very clear ideas, because the scouting they do fits perfectly with their idea of how their football is played, which is fundamental, and also of the clubs, who are investing in grassroots football. They invest effort, money, time and knowledge, but above all they give young players the opportunity to play in the Superliga at the age of 18, 19, 20 or 21. And that gives you a competitive advantage.
It’s true that the Danish league is not the Spanish league or the Premier League, but the competition does help the younger players to get into the rhythm of the professional game very early on, and this is another key to the success of football in Denmark. The clubs are well aware that they are part of a small country and are obliged to sell their talent, so they dare to put young players in the Superliga.
Scouts from all over Europe come here and they are also part of this process that benefits the national team. So you find players who are in the Danish U-21s playing in England, the Netherlands or Germany, which are much more competitive leagues, but who have got there so young because they have already played two years in the Danish league before. And that helps.
What excites you most about your work?
Above all, the environment in which I work: the people, the players, the idea of the game that we are developing within the Federation… We are working on a very clear methodology for all the national teams, completely aligned with the first team, and I really like the project as a whole. The relationship with the clubs is also very good and the treatment within the Federation is extremely positive, but I wouldn’t know how to choose just one thing. There is a very good harmony and it all fits in with my personal values, my idea of the game and the moment in my life where I am at the moment.
Thierry Henry once admitted in an interview that no one ever asks the coach how they’re doing. Does anyone ask you as a coach?
This is one of the things I like most about Denmark: the way they work. I understand Henry’s words perfectly and I can identify with them; at the end of the day nobody asks the coach how he’s doing and that’s true. But one of the advantages I have found here is that there is a lot of group work and a lot of attention is paid to the well-being of all the staff. We do sessions from different points of view, and by working this way, by creating the right atmosphere, there are many opportunities for someone to ask you how you are or how you are doing. That group work makes it much easier for there to be a more human relationship between all parties, including players or managers. There are different job ranks, of course, but when people talk here everybody has the same level of opinion, everybody listens, regardless of their rank in the organisation, and that gives you a closeness that facilitates those relationships.
What is the life of an Under-21 coach like, and how do you prepare for an Under-21 European Championship (in the middle of a pandemic)?
I always say that football is very easy, but it is very difficult to make it easy. First of all, we tried to keep a very clear line of play from day one and we decided that we wouldn’t change depending on results. We spent time defining how we wanted to play and what profile of player we would look for in each of the positions, and this was our guide. We were very clear that we weren’t going to change. We had a very good qualification phase and we used all this preparation phase to develop our system of play. This way, when we got to the European Championship, all our players would be very clear about how we were going to play so that the adaptation period would be as quick as possible. We tried to keep the maximum number of players until the end, with the exception of the odd change that is normal in these processes, and then we tried to develop a method of internal communication: a vocabulary that the players would recognise in order to unite the whole team on the pitch. For example, if we want to win the ball back after a turnover, I shout ‘Five seconds rule’ and they automatically know what I’m talking about. Or saying ‘Klein’, which is a Dutch word meaning to make oneself small – I discovered this one whilst working with Peter Bosz at Vitesse – it brings the team together in a specific area of the pitch. This makes it easier for us and leads us to be better prepared for every situation because the guys know what everything means.
How would you define positional play?
Positional Play is based on three pillars, the three P’s: position, possession and pressure. Position does not only refer to the space we occupy on the pitch, but the way we occupy that space: being well outlined, scanning everything around us before receiving, and so on. It’s important to have a good position on the pitch and a good position of your body within that area, depending on the ball and where you are. A good position on the pitch facilitates good possession because there are more passing options, more triangles, more diagonals, and it’s much easier to play with the free man or the third man. But possession always has a reason: either to generate superiorities or to find the right moment to accelerate. Sometimes that reason is giving 20 passes because the game is getting disorganized and we want to regain positions, breathe, and get back into the rhythm of the game, and when we have it, pam, we accelerate again. That’s why it’s always the most complicated.
It is useless to pass the ball to just to pass it. We want to move it from one side to the other so that the opposition loses concentration and as soon as spaces open, put a pass between the lines that allows us to break down opponents. And the algorithms say that if we dominate in this statistic [that of finding penetrative passes between the lines between opponents], you greatly increase the chances of winning a match. There is also Big Data behind this.
The last P refers to pressing. As soon as we lose the ball we want to get it back as soon as possible. Why? Because the moment you lose it, chaos is generated; the opponent isn’t organized, they don’t have width, and they’re usually more focused on recovering possession, therefore it’s the best time to steal it if you press well. If you recover the ball close to the opponent’s goal, with all that chaos, you have a lot of possibilities to counter-attack with danger, and the opposing team have so much to do in order to surprise you and reach your area again. Our ‘5 second rule’ is combined with defensive vigilance because it prevents us from running too far back. I always say, ‘If you don’t like running, make sure you run very aggressive for a few seconds forward & it’ll save you and the whole team from sprinting back many times.’
And how do you work on positional play in a national team without having as many training sessions every day as in a club?
The more training you have, the easier it is, of course, but in the end, it depends on the players you have. And when the players are good, it’s much easier. That’s why it’s so important to select the right players for the idea you have, because it speeds up the adaptation process a lot. The main secret is scouting. The second secret: the players having very clear ideas, that they don’t hesitate. You have to explain very well to the players why. What benefits they get if they do it this way? If the player understands it, it makes sense and increases his commitment.
We develop three very important values to help them in this whole process: honesty – that is, that we can look each other in the eye and recognise that we are aligned; commitment – making them understand that alone we are nobody, but together we can be everything; and then the courage to want the ball, because we have to be daring in everything we do and I prefer to miss a pass because someone wants the ball and not because someone is hiding. When we finish the matches, we have to recognise those three values: honesty, commitment and courage, and this helps you to implement a great idea of the game. Then in training we play the typical, more specific positional games, because in those exercises everything is involved: position on the pitch, ball position and pressing. And finally, helping them to grow through positive reinforcement with a lot of videos and talks.
In reality, there are very few teams in the world that have a pure Positional Play.
Nobody plays a pure Positional Play. The players determine the type of game you can play. If you have very good one-on-one wingers, you will play a positional game with open wingers, trying to isolate them so that they have space to get forward. Or maybe you have players who are very good at one-two passes, that is, touching the ball and running in-behind. So, it’s the player profile that determines how you have to play. Pure positional play, what is it, 80% possession? 60%? What I understand is that if you want to press high, you can’t do it many times during a game because it’s a lot of wear and tear; so you need longer periods of possession and to have control because it’s the ball that runs. The ball is the one that orders you, but you have to bear in mind that the ball never gets tired; I’ve never seen a ball sweat. But by moving it, you force the opposing team to run. And that’s when they get physically and mentally tired, because they have to close down spaces, chase, reposition themselves, and so on.
Possession alone gives you a 50-52% chance of winning a game. But if you are able to filter passes between the lines, this statistic rises to a 60-odd per cent chance. And if you are able to connect these passes behind the back line, it goes up to 80-something percent. These are concepts that are all linked. We understand that to play like this you need at least 60 per cent possession. From here, we could say that we are in the ‘comfort zone’ for the Position Play to reach its maximum expression. Here, the player is fresher and, if they are, they can make better decisions or take more risks. Then there are games where the opponent drops off a lot and you can get up to 80% possession, but you can also find teams that come out to press you and hurt you, and this makes it much more difficult, but also more entertaining for the spectator. And we must not forget this: football is entertainment.
Football is a game. And you have to show people a good time. We don’t play the Position Game out of romanticism, but because we understand that we are closer to putting on a good show and winning, which is what it’s all about. For us it is also about the how. I don’t agree with the phrase ‘we have to win no matter what’. What do you mean, no matter what? You’re throwing it down to chance, to a 50/50 chance. Wouldn’t it be better to have a plan to increase those chances? We understand that with all these game ideas we are closer to victory and to putting on a good show.
How does your team detect where to hurt opponents, and do you also believe in the ‘un-defendable’ spaces that Pep Guardiola talks about?
In the end there is always a way to defend them. It’s all about organisation. All teams have structures that repeat themselves, either because of the coach’s playing patterns or because of the natural talent of the players themselves, and we try to find out what they are and where they occur. From there, we show our players what happens and what we are going to find before a game. I do a lot of meetings where I present the problem to them and we try to find a solution together.
It’s increasingly difficult to receive the ball with time and space.
Of course, but if you always play in the same way, you say ‘hey, they’re going to press us with two forwards, how do we create a numerical superiority with three?’ Well, we can do it with the goalkeeper, moving the full-backs up high, or dropping one of the midfielders to one side to move the full-back up so that the winger can go inside. But in the end, as they are concepts that we repeat, they themselves, on the pitch, decide.
The players themselves are able to detect where is the problem, and find the space and the solution. I first explain to them what they are going to find, but then on the pitch I give them responsibility during the game. And when you work on this match by match, and the players get these messages, and it’s much easier for them to solve the problems themselves during the games.
In the same vein, how important it is for the centre-backs to drive forward with the ball?
We like that if the central defender has the opportunity to drive forward, he should do so, because this allows us to generate numerical superiority in midfield. And they already know, depending on who comes out to press from the opposition, which of our players is the one who has to open up the passing line to turn the 5 v 4 situation into a 2 v 1. And we also know that if the opposition close down the pass to the wing, then the pass is to go inside and we have to go from inside-out, and if they close down the inside, we have to go outside-in. They themselves learn to visualise how the opponent jumps and presses us.
Why is the dribbler becoming rarer in the game?
In today’s football we play less and less with wingers. The full-backs attack a lot, but they don’t have the same ability in the one-on-one situations and maybe it’s easier for them to play the ball back or do a one-two pass. But in many games, when we attack a lot and the full-backs are very high up, I’ve said: ‘I don’t want the full-backs there’, and I’ve taken subbed them off and brought two more wingers on. I love players who can unbalance opponents in one-on-one situations. In our last U-21 European Championship match against Germany, which we drew 2-2, look at our wingers: they gave us a lot.
However, you have to put the wingers in a situation where they can be successful. One of the problems is that they come deep a lot and are hardly ever in one-on-one situations, but rather in a two-on-one or even a three-on-one situation. But if the wingers are high and wide, then that one-on-one does appear and that’s where they can do damage. The key is to explain to that player who is very good in the one-on-one that they have to do other things first so that they can have that situation. The pitch has to be made open, either by the wingers or the full-backs, and they have to perceive what the game demands of us. Sometimes they see it and sometimes we help them from the side.
There are many wingers who find it difficult to wait in open spaces because they want to participate in the game more, but often, the closer you are to the opposition’s goal, the further away you are from scoring a goal. And this is the same. In the box you have to arrive there to score a goal, not just to be there to be there; and it’s exactly the opposite when defending: you have to be there and not arrive there. They are small details. There are players who always arrive too early and you have to make them see that they have to be calm and hold on a bit.
Though, at this European Championship, we have also seen your Denmark U-21s defend very well in a lower-block for long periods.
That is the great success of this team. It’s not that we want to defend low, but when you play France you have to do it that way because the opponent force you to. And France took few risks because they only played between centre-backs and full-backs without daring to pass between the lines. They didn’t record a single shot from inside the box against us. Against Germany, however, we knew they would take more risks, because they had already seen the game against France, and we knew they wouldn’t be satisfied doing what they did. But we showed our faces, we had a lot more of the ball than we did against France, we played better, and I was delighted with that despite the defeat. The way we lost. The game was more attractive for the spectators. We know how to defend deeply when we have to, and press up high when we have to. We have a way of communicating that helps us and the style of play allows us to adapt very quickly to our opponents with little change.
Do you think the differences in pace that you see in many matches in European football are due to a physical consequence or more of a consequence of the play?
In football there is always a decision to be made: make the run the ball or make the player run. That’s where it all starts. A more physical football or a more tactical-technical football. I always prefer the former, to make the ball run. For that I go for players with a high technical level, who think quickly, who know how to make decisions, who know how to play as a team… I like this line of players better. But in modern football a lot of importance is given to physicality, and even more so now with Big Data. I prefer to use that information to convince the players. I will never say that we lost because we ran half a kilometre less than when we won; I look for answers elsewhere.
Football is complex, it’s subjective, it’s not linear. That’s all well and good, but were we well positioned? How many easy passes did we miss? When we had to hold the ball, did we do it or did we play it too quickly? Was the vigilance done well? Football is much more complex than just running. Running the ball technically and tactically always beats the physical aspect, but, on the other hand, it takes a lot of knowledge and experience to do it well. And not many coaches have this to do it, and so they resort to much more physical profiles because they feel more confident. All systems are respectable.
What I like is that the coach has a clear idea of the game, whether it is from the Position Play or through a counter-attack. There are also coaches who feel comfortable in very open games and provoke this. If this is what you are looking for, chapeau. What I really enjoy about the game is when a coach has a clear idea of how to play and manages to transmit it on the pitch, even though it may not coincide with my own. At the time I really enjoyed the dream team of Johan Cruyff at FC Barcelona, Arrigo Sacchi’s Milan, for example, or the teams of Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp, Peter Bosz or Roger Schmidt, all of them being so different from each other. They are coaches who give personality to their teams and that’s what I like. As Johan Cruyff said: the most difficult thing is to play easy. And it’s true.
A lot of times we worry about how we develop players and teach them to do more and more difficult things and moves, and that for me is talent and inspiration. You just have to create the right environment for them to develop the art that they have. But for me, as a coach, the most important thing is to raise the lowest level of the player as high as possible. And how is this achieved? With concentration, with anticipation, with decision making… If you do the easy things very well, everything is much easier to achieve and much quicker. Everything else is a consequence, because in the end players will be more likely to find themselves in certain areas to do more spectacular things where they can impose their inspiration. We coaches help teams to get the ball close to the box. And from there you depend on the individual talent of the player.
Who is Johan Cruyff for Albert Capellas?
Johan Cruyff is the origin of modern football; he is the one who showed us the way. Cruyff changed FC Barcelona by implementing that winning mentality. I lived next to Camp Nou when Johan Cruyff was at FC Barcelona. I saw a lot of games at that time and everything that was implemented in grassroots football, when the teams played 1-3-4-3 or 1-4-3-3, I saw Xavi [Hernández] playing as a midfielder when he was in the Infantil… I spent the whole day watching all the training sessions. At that time I wasn’t working at Barça, but I experienced it and it had an impact on me. I learnt the value of listening to the sound of the ball: you don’t need to watch a training session to know if it’s going well or not. Listening to it, you don’t even need to see it. I saw some incredible positional games with Guardiola, Koeman, Stoichkov, Laudrup, Romario… It was a spectacle. I learned excellence. And I learnt to be very brave by being decisive.
To believe in an idea and not to deviate. I learned that football was entertainment and had to be a spectacle. Cruyff was 100% attacking football. Pep Guardiola is 100% offensive, but also 100% defensive. His teams are very well organised defensively. I suppose that because of his international experience, whether in Italy or Germany, I see a lot of things in Guardiola’s teams that didn’t come from knowledge from inside FC Barcelona. And that has also happened to me, who lived through Cruyff’s era, but afterwards, travelling, with all the experiences I’ve had, you get the points right, you grow as a coach and the teams acquire your own personality.
What was more important to Cruyff, the pass or the finding of space?
Positioning. We all know that FC Barcelona’s system is based on good control and a good pass. And Johan Cruyff used to say: ‘If you play with three touches, you play badly; if you play with two touches, you play well; if you play with one touch, you play fantastic’. And that tells you everything. Cruyff talked about creating angles between players, i.e. diagonal passes, creating triangles that are not scalene but irregular, and so on. It’s not just one thing, it’s the whole that leads to excellence.
What influence has Peter Bosz had on you?
There have been many people who have had a great influence on me. Alexanco, for example, Quique Costas, Johan Cruyff, Jordi Cruyff, Guardiola… and Peter Bosz has been one of them, of course. When I was with him at Vitesse, we used to stay together in the afternoons to combine the Dutch system of play with that of FC Barcelona. In this way, we would put together all the good things from his way of looking at football with all the good things I brought and try to see how we could improve the model to create our own. We spent entire afternoons watching videos, drawing, arguing… We didn’t always agree, but we were confident that we were creating something that would help us grow as coaches while understanding the game better. I am very grateful to Peter Bosz for all that time and I know he is very fond of me too because it was a very special time. But I am very grateful to all the people who have been part of my journey; I have learned from all of them. I’m like a sponge and I always try to take the good things that people can bring.
When you’ve been in a national team for so long, do you miss the day-to-day life at the club?
Yes, of course I do. You miss more games, more competition, more contact with the players and the staff… But, on the other hand, as I always try to look for the positive things, it also allows you to see football in a more relaxed way, and, in this way, you also grow as a coach. In the end it’s how you want to see it, but you have to enjoy football, you don’t have to suffer it. In this sense, I try to look for what I can take away from every experience that helps me to grow and what I can contribute so that the people around me can also grow. It’s about the people around me, players or staff members, saying one day: ‘It was worth it’.