After coming through the famed Manchester United youth system Michael Appleton plied his trade as a player at Preston North End and West Bromwich Albion before injury forced him to retire from the game in his prime aged 26. The end of his playing career was the beginning of his coaching career, having started off with the West Bromwich Albion Academy, Michael is now the clubs first team coach and widely regarded as one of the England’s brightest young coaches.
After a long and succesful season with the West Brom first team, Keep the Ball caught up with Appleton to talk about player development, coaching philosophies and the role of a first team coach.
Keep the ball: What are the most important qualities and traits you look for in young players?
Michael Appleton: Attitude is massively important, I look for players with a playing personality – players that are prepared to take the game by the scruff of the neck. Speed and athleticism is also important at an early age, I believe technique and skill can be coached and improved but it`s a massive advantage if the player is athletic.
KTB: What age do you think is the most important in a player`s development?
MA: The earliest years are the most important – the early you can work with a player the better. Around 11 years of age is important as that’s when young players start to transition into 11 aside games. The years of puberty (13-14) are also vital as players go through a lot of changes during this time.
KTB: A what age do you think young players should be exposed to tactical work?
MA: You start to look at the tactical side of things when young payers start playing 11 aside, you will introduce a basic understanding at this age. At the ages of 14-15 you start look a bit more in depth at the tactical side – dealing with different situations during the match, dealing with the opposition and also your own teams ability to gain an advantage.
KTB: Do you believe the English Academy system is producing enough quality players?
MA: Probably not – having worked with the West Brom academy for a few years I was able to see a lot of academy teams play and what I would see was a lot of “clone” players. A lot of the teams play the same way and produce very similar types of player, I don`t see enough exciting players. Thats not to say I havn`t seen some good players in the academy system but in general the are very similar – I don`t see many Rooney`s, people say Rooney is a one in a million player but then I look at Barcelona and they have recently produced 7 or 8 players of his quality.
KTB: You came through the Manchester United Youth system. What ideas and philosophies from your time there as a player have you carried into coaching?
MA: At United we were taught to be winners at a very early age, we had a “never say die” attitude instilled into us and we were taught to never know when we were beaten! Discipline was also very important at United, we were more disciplined than any other club – players can have all the ability in the world but in today`s game they need discipline to go with the ability. We also learnt to always train as we play.
KTB: What do you consider your playing philosophy to be?
MA: In possession – to be very expansive, to be able to get players into areas of the field where they can hurt the opposition and to have lots of overloads around the pitch – I like skilful, exciting and brave players. Out of possession – make the pitch small for the opposition. For me there are 2 ways of regaining possession 1. Look to win the ball back straight away, Barca do this very well, teams get tired when they are defending if you can win the ball back as soon as they get possession it can be deflating. 2. Dropping deep and reorganising behind the ball.
KTB: Do you have a preferred playing formation? Do you believe certain formations suit certain playing styles?
MA: When I went to Denmark as a young coach I aed some of the coaches there what formation they used? they looked at me like I`d murdered somebody!! they said ” we don`t have a formation, we have a playing style!” that always stuck with me. You only really set up in a formation when the keeper of the centre back has the ball, the rest of the game there is lots of overloading and rotation going on – having a style of play is more important than an actual formation.
KTB: On an average day what does your role as first team coach at West Bromwich Albion involve?
MA: I arrive at the training ground an hour before the players at about 9am – it is important to get there early, during this winter we have often had to change the surface we train on due to the weather on the morning of training, by getting there early you can deal with things like this. I will have done the planning for my session the night before, the weeks training plan is organised earlier in the season but the actual detail of the days session will be organised the day before. We train 10.30 -12-12.30. The players and staff then have lunch together. Often 2-3 times a week, players that are not involved in the first team will stay behind in the afternoon for an extra session. I will then do my planning for the following days session and leave the training ground around 5 or 6 pm.
KTB: How do you view the relationship between mangers and coaches at professional clubs? Do you believe managers should have more involvement in the day to day coaching sessions at clubs?
MA: I think it varies from manager to manager. Personally I think it is important for the manager to be involved in the training sessions. The players will often respond better to sessions if they hear the gaffers voice, it switches them on. I see myself having an active involvement in the coaching when I move into management but having said that some managers have been very succesful just concentrating on the man-mangement side of things.