AEK FC Academy is A-Okay

Arthur Diles/AEK FC Academy (Sydney)

One of the most pertinent issues in Australian football is talented identification. As Australia’s national curriculum continues to develop, the need for improved coaching only becomes more paramount.

In February 2011, the Athens-based AEK FC established an academy in Australia run by Leo Karis and Arthur Diles to connect and implement the club’s methodology into a new market.

Tasso Stasinopoulos, AEK’s Head of Youth Development, has spent the past two weeks assessing the effectiveness of the academy by working with youth players in each program and providing technical and tactical advice to coaches in Sydney and Melbourne.

Stasinopoulos also watched with keen interest, numerous State league teams play across most age groups to gain an insight into the quality of Australian football.

“There is an emphasis on physicality. I could see a lack of technical and tactical insight. However, there are a number of talented footballers with a lot of potential. Unfortunately, I feel they have been held back by a lack of quality coaching,” said Stasinopoulos.

“In Athens our Under 10s and 11s train three times a week and play at least one competitive match on the weekend for ten and a half months of the year. By the time they reach the Under 20s, they’re training five times a week having spent 10 years working with our coaches under the same methodology.”

Stasinopoulos believes more training is required not just on the pitch but off it in order for Australia to become a stronger nation in producing young talent. This may be through video sessions, providing specific feedback or theory to balance the practical sessions on the pitch in a more holistic approach to coaching.

AEK adopts a 4-2-3-1 system. When asked about Australia’s 4-3-3, Stasinopoulos emphasised the need for players with a “football brain” in order for it to work.

“Playing the 4-3-3 would be my preference but the midfielders need to possess specific characteristics. This is hard to find. For example, the holding midfielder needs to be highly skilled and tactically minded in his decision-making. If he isn’t, the whole system collapses.”

“The 4-2-3-1 utilises two holding midfielders to control the play. We train the way we play, connecting the lines from defence to the midfield and the midfield to our attack. It’s a puzzle starting from the back. Every player must know their role in training in order to step on the pitch in a competitive match.”

“Every player must know the basics of his position religiously. Four or five key characteristics of the role must be second nature. From there, we then allow for individual expression. Anything further comes down to how good the player is.”

“At AEK, we are known for developing the youngest players in each league. We will not hold them back because of their age. In fact, we encourage them to challenge themselves. AEK has 10 Under 17 Greek Internationals playing in our Under 20s. The average age of our first team is just 23 years.”

AEK’s most recent prodigy is Sokratis Papastathopoulos or “Papa” as he is known. He was the youngest-ever player to captain AEK at just 19 years of age. Papa has played in Serie A for Genoa and AC Milan. After returning to Genoa, he was loaned out to Bundesliga side, Werder Bremen where he has now secured a permanent deal. Papa has filled the void left by Per Mertesacker who moved to the Premier League to solidify Arsenal’s defence.

Since 2004, 35 players have come through AEK’s youth academy and gone on to sign professional contracts in Greece. This has been achieved amidst an economic crisis and increased competition from Athens’ other clubs.

Stasinopoulos was thoroughly impressed by Australia’s sporting facilities and way of life.

“I like the facilities you have here very much. It will be one of the key points I will highlight to the General Manager back home. The academy is doing very well. AEK’s facilities are nowhere near the quality you have here in Australia.”

“We are looking at signing Australian players in the future. We established ourselves here to increase our talent pool in the market. Most of our coaches speak English in Greece. So, we hope to have a positive experience with Australian talent as we grow the academy. We can offer a good stepping-stone into Europe.”

“It is good timing. Australian football is growing, from what I have been told, and we are here at the right time. We want to provide Australia with the best-trained coaches we can, use their facilities and offer this at the lowest price possible to be competitive; to give the kids a chance to learn. You have a great country.”

“If Australia can work more professionally at youth league level, there will be more opportunities to produce players. This is obvious.”

Stasinopoulos reiterated the point that the best coaches in the Netherlands, England, Spain and Germany are coaching at academy level. The mentality in Europe, unlike Australia, is bottom-up not top-down.

If he had to leave one message to Australian football, he stated quite clearly: improve the quality of your coaches. They will then train more effectively and nurture the talent already evident in the Australian game.

Translated by Arthur Diles.


One Response to AEK FC Academy is A-Okay

  1. Sean says:

    Great article !

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