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17th Feb 2017

Former Liverpool U-23 manager tells SportsJOE why he left his comfort zone to coach in Brazil

The former Liverpool and Chelsea youth coach has joined Sao Paulo.

Tony Barrett

If the January transfer window was once again notable only because of how unremarkable it was, there was one eye-catching move, a deal that no one had seen coming and which also went against type.

It did not involve a player, though; instead it was the decision of an English coach to join Sao Paulo in Brazil that caught football by surprise.

Michael Beale might not be a household name but by accepting a challenge that took himself out of his comfort zone, he has shown the kind of self-belief and desire to test himself that could yet allow him to become one.

There was no need for Beale to leave his position as manager of Liverpool’s under-23s team when opportunity knocked. The emergence of a promising crop of youngsters at the club’s Academy ensured that the stock of those who had been involved in the development of the likes of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Ben Woodburn and Ovie Ejaria was particularly high, especially as their efforts had been recognised and highlighted by Jurgen Klopp. If anything, logic suggested that this was the time for Beale to stay where he was.

An approach from Rogerio Ceni, the Sao Paulo manager and club legend, changed everything, though. On offer was a role not as a junior member of the backroom staff at the Brazilian club, he would be Ceni’s assistant and having enjoyed a meeting of minds with the former goalkeeper at an FA coaching course a year earlier, Beale knew that this was a chance that he had to take, if not one that he had been waiting for. Out of the blue, the limited band of English coaches who are working abroad had another member.

Rogerio Ceni played more than 1,000 games for Sao Paulo before taking over as manager (Photo by Friedemann Vogel/Getty Images)

“I needed to make this move for a number of reasons,” Beale explains.

“Firstly, the job at Liverpool was a fantastic one but the day-to-day coaching was becoming easy and I didn’t feel that I was being challenged enough in that role. I needed more to push my development forward. Secondly, it has always been my aim to learn a second language and to spend time working outside of England in a different culture and understanding players and how they see the game.

“I have obviously worked with a number of foreign players in the past but this is unique as it is South America and just one type of player rather than a mixed squad of different nationalities as would be the case in the Premier League. So, the language, the culture, working in a foreign country, moving to a first team environment and working for one of the biggest clubs in this part of the world are all challenges that excite me and therefore, will push me to develop further. I am only 36 and believe that this experience will only improve me.

“I think as a nation we are not as obsessed with languages as we probably should be and that stifles us not just in football but in every business. I think this holds back both our players and our coaches from going abroad and learning. I believe that the football being played in the English leagues is unique and not like the rest of the world. we have a game that is completely different and almost played in fast forward compared to the other leagues and countries. That means we are good at coaching this one style and I wanted to broaden my own horizons and develop myself. I’m a very curious coach in that respect.”

Curious probably doesn’t do Beale’s decision justice. Not only would he have to move to a city almost 6,000 miles away from his adopted home on Merseyside, he would initially have to make the move without his wife and two children. He was also not fluent in Portuguese, although 18 hours of language classes per week prior to his departure for Brazil undoubtedly helped on that front. Sao Paulo helped by providing a translator but the lessons have continued and this weekend Beale’s family will join up with him. Already, he is getting the sense of personal development that he had been hoping for.

Professionally, he could not have got off to a better start. In his first game last Sunday, Sao Paulo enjoyed a resounding 5-2 victory over Ponte Preta which was followed with a 3-1 win away to Santos three days later. At this stage, his biggest challenge has been to cope with the notorious traffic in his new hometown, although there has also been an element of missing Liverpool. “I miss it as a city and a football club,” he admits. “It had a huge impact on my life when I moved to the North West, firstly the people and then the club. So I miss the players and the staff very much but I am always watching the young players and supporting them in their careers.”

Having coached previously at Chelsea where he worked with, among others, Dominic Solanke and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Beale has looked at the Academy set-up at his new club, one which he considers to be among the world’s best, and contrasted the strengths and weaknesses in youth development in the country he left behind and the one where he now resides. While he does not see a huge gulf in raw talent, he does believe the combination of the way that talent is nurtured and greater opportunities that exist for young players to make the step up to first team level gives those in Brazil a better chance of fulfilling their potential.  

Ruben Loftus-Cheek is one of the players who worked with Beale at Chelsea (Photo by Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

“There are no major differences to training,” Beale insists. “The training that we plan and conduct here is very similar to what I did at Liverpool. The big difference is learning about the culture and how the players interact. A key aspect for me is to get inside the mind of the Brazilian players and to understand their vision of football.

“The invention, skill and combination play is fantastic to see on a daily basis and is a very natural thing for the players. They have a huge passion for the game and the winning mentality both in training and game is huge. For that reason, we like to always keep them in competitive situations as it’s clear that this is an aspect of the game that they love. 

“The best young players that I worked with at Chelsea and Liverpool are at the same level as the young Brazilian players, but the opportunity for young Brazilian players to play in the first team and continue to grow is far bigger. The overall technical standard is also much higher and each player, especially the younger ones, are very comfortable receiving the ball, twisting and turning away from pressure and outplaying their opponents one v one.

“In England, my belief is that we are too collective in our thinking at a younger age and this focus on teams has a huge detrimental effect on individual develop and mastery of the ball. From what I have experienced so far, the Brazilian players are outstanding technically and this makes the game so much easier. in my honest opinion, the tactical understanding could improve. But I would always take the top quality technicians firstly, and then develop the tactical part and positioning on the field.

In an attempt to increase the flow of homegrown talent, the Premier League introduced the Elite Player Performance Plan (EFPP) in 2012 with an under-23s league being brought in three years later. While Beale regards those developments as positive steps in the right direction, he remains concerned that the ability of the top clubs to sign foreign youngsters will restrict their impact. He also believes a resistance to focus on the individual is another negative factor which needs to be addressed.

“I think we have great investment in the professional academies and I believe that coaching has improved and that the games programme for academies is now more varied as it offers greater opportunity to travel and play the best teams in Europe,” he says. “These aspects are to be applauded.

“However, the Premier League is now the world’s league and therefore is dominated by business decisions over development of players. The owners of the clubs would like a local boy to come through but don’t need it; that is a key thing in England and is almost unique compared to the rest of the world. This is a huge danger to the development and progress of young English players. 

“In Germany, you can see a big outbreak of young players in a vibrant league. I think the Germans would never sell the dreams of their own players for that of players from overseas. Likewise in Holland, where young players are naturally moved to the senior team, something that is also evident in clubs in France such as Monaco. Spain speaks for itself. 

“I honestly believe that we have some excellent young players in England that are struggling to make the breakthrough and are then caught up with a schedule that is not fit for purpose. The U-23 league is now improved in regards to weekly fixtures rather than the sporadic fixtures of years gone by but it is still a youth league with the biggest clubs fielding teams with the average age of 19 years.

“That means it’s not always a perfect fit for the players’ next step in their development and this leads to frustration and a feeling of not progressing. If you combine this schedule and the effects on a young boy’s mentality and then you add money, it can be a toxic mix. Some clubs, and I believe that Liverpool, Spurs and Southampton lead the way in this respect, are doing a fantastic job at managing this situation. But, this is a problem that won’t go away and I haven’t met a person who has a solution to this problem. 

Ovie Ejaria made his full Liverpool debut this season after spending two years with the club’s academy (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)

“I’ve been very fortunate to work at two outstanding clubs in Chelsea for ten years and then Liverpool for five years. Both are very different in their approach to youth development but both are excellent. I’m talking from a position of having worked with probably the top 10-20% of players in England and in general, I believe that few coaches really understand and live the life of a youth developer to the full. 

“In this, I’m returning to my thoughts on individual player’s development over the development of teams. This runs from under-9 through to senior first team football where I feel it can be a little bit impersonal and too much information and coach education has been about the team and tactics.

“When you view the best players in the world, we are all in awe of their technical ability and their decision making at top speed and under pressure. Most of my work at Liverpool was dedicated to improving each player’s understanding of their Identity as a football player. I liked to call this their football personality.

“Then we would discuss how to develop this every single day, then how this would fit into the group or team. But, the individual always come first and therefore, the time spent one to one with players and building a relationship is key to everything I believe in.”

In that respect, Beale found a kindred spirit in Klopp, who has shown a willingness not only to give opportunities to young players, he has also taken a hands on role in overseeing their personal development. “I think he is unique in this area and has a big faith in working with young, hungry players who show a humility and work ethic,” Beale says.

“I have not discussed this with him, but I think he likes the underdog mentality and I think he likes to work with people who are honest and pure in their ambition to be top footballers over the material things such as money, cars and so on. He would be a top youth coach!

“I was genuinely thankful for both his patience and belief in the young players at Liverpool. As academy staff, we were working very hard and for him to show belief in the players and give them minutes in the first team was outstanding. This has created a reaction inside the academy and a motivation to the next batch of young players. 

“I had a small bet with a colleague at Liverpool that Trent Alexander would play in the first team and that has happened under Jurgen. It was in my first week at the club and he was an under-14 playing as a central defender. He just stood out for me both technically and in his movement mechanics. I didn’t expect his development to be so quick, but I quickly understood that Liverpool is different to other clubs as it has a real desire both from the fans and people within the club to develop a homegrown player.

“In watching all the teams, Trent was the one I felt at that time would develop. Also, in my first under-16s team were players such as Jordan Rossiter, Ryan Kent, Harry Wilson, Sheyi Ojo, Jerome Sinclair and Cameron Brannagan who was a year older but dropped down to play in my team as he was so small). I was very lucky with this group and believed that all of them would make a first team appearance and arrive at Melwood in the future. 

Trent Alexander has eight first-team appearances to his name this season (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images for Tottenham Hotspur FC)

“From that point, you can never tell as its down to opportunity and the kind of moment that the first team is in if and when that opportunity arises. Likewise, I had Woodburn for a short while and I’ve known Ejaria since he was 6 years old and both of them have so much talent. I also believe there are many more to follow including the likes of Rhian Brewster.

“They all have a burning desire to learn. They are obviously different in the make-up of their personalities and families but in their mentality towards learning and competing in order to improve their own identity there are clear similarities. These players have also been given confidence and clear feedback from the coaching staff at the Academy in Kirkby and then very importantly by the first team coaches and the manager of the club. 

“This is very powerful and continues to give these boys belief that they can break through and also that the club wants to help them to reach their full potential. The work of the academy staff led by Alex Inglethorpe and then the bridge to Jurgen Klopp that is managed by Pepijn Lijnders means it is a very well run operation. This is very much a collective effort based purely on what is in the best interests of each boy.”

It remains to be seen how many of the youngsters who worked under Beale will go on to establish themselves fully at Anfield but as far as the 36-year-old is concerned, the mere fact that the opportunity to do so exists bolsters his own confidence that scholars can become seasoned professionals. Having played a part in their career paths, he is now also focusing on his own with his ambition being to become a manager one day, albeit ideally after he has picked up further experience abroad.   

“We have just played our first home match in front of 52,000 supporters and won 5-2, the thrill of winning at first team level is incredible,” he adds. “But I remain fascinated by individual development and with how making each player become more comfortable within themselves can make a team so much stronger. 

“What I would like one day is an opportunity to be a manager and to implement my own style of individual development in a senior team set-up. I am a young coach and the plan is to explore a bit more outside of England before returning home. I am ready to be a manager for sure, but I want to try to find an opportunity at the very top and just like the young English players, that is a difficult task at home.”

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