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Ben King- Lead YDP Coach at Walsall FC

Ben King is current Lead Youth Development Phase Coach at Walsall FC. We sat down with him to discuss his career so far and his plans for the future. Ben gives some great advice about getting into professional football.

PA UK: Tell us about your background and what has led you to this point....

BK: I've always been around football coaching to some degree, my father is a football coach who used to coach our home town team and ran the mini soccer centre. He then went on to work for Watford in the academy and the community, so from the age of 14 I was going along with him to go and help out. So it was great to be in that environment already, learning from him and the other coaches in the academy. Although I can't remember the players as I was only there once a week max, one of the players that my dad coached at U10s and U11s was Jadon Sancho.

I did my FA Level 1 and 2 as soon as I could at college and played in their college programme (my coach was Des Buckingham, former New Zealand U23s Head Coach - Another great coach to learn from!) and started working for Watford FC in the community and volunteering in the academy.

Over 6/7 years I tried to gain experience in a load of different environments, ranging from working in the USA, in NJ for UK Elite Soccer (lots of coaching time and experience working in a different country), to working as Disability Development Officer and Academy U11s Coach at Coventry City FC.

Finally got my first full time academy role at Shrewsbury Town FC, at the same time I was finishing the UEFA A licence. I held the role of Lead Foundation Phase Coach, leading the U7s - U11s, building the programme from the ground up. Another part of the role was being the U18s Technical Coach, using analysis and 1 to 1 coaching to develop the players. This was a great experience, leading to taking/assisting the U23s in a couple of fixtures and the U18s in a number of games, including the FA Youth Cup.

This leads me to when I am now, Lead Youth Development Phase Coach at Walsall FC...

PA UK: How did working for Walsall come about?

BK: I applied for the Lead Youth Development Phase Role Vacancy, got invited down for an interview at the club and was successful. Which sounds straight forward but over the last 14 years, I've probably had interviews from only 10% of the roles I've applied for and been offered the role probably 1 in 5 of those interviews, if that.

PA UK: Best moment in football so far?

BK: Theres a few moments that I enjoyed for different reasons. From a coaching point of view, the first would be taking the U23s at Shrewsbury Town FC with Callum McKenzie against Notts County. There was a number of changes within the staffing at the academy at that time and there was a limited squad for the U23s, so we had to take quite a few U16s and U18s to this fixture. When we saw the team sheet and saw that Notts County were fielding a team that included a lot of first team players, we knew we were going to be up against it! It was a great challenge as a coach to try and manage that situation, trying to get as much tactical detail to help the players get through this game. It was also that it was myself, Callum and the physio there for us, whilst Notts County had all their staff, including Alan Smith. It was a shaky first 10 minutes, which we went 2-0 down and were a little concerned, but in the end we lost 2-1, which was a bit of an achievement in its self. John McAtee scored for us that day, he went on to play for Shrewsbury and now Scunthorpe United. Bumped into him when I assisted the Walsall U23s against Scunthorpe U23s, he was returning from injury. Thats a nice part of it as well, seeing players you've previously coached making it in the game (as a player or coach!).

Another from an experience and learning point of view would be the opportunity I had to deliver a presentation and individual session at Brentford in 2019. I delivered a presentation on Ali Coote, based on an individual development plan for him and an 1 to 1 session. The analysis itself was focused on a handful of games, then split into video analysis and data analysis. Trying to come up with ways to use data to target set and to weight certain data points to the individual player/position, so that you can have, for example, an 'attacking contribution' that you can assess the player against. Then delivering the presentation to Rasmus Ankersen, Thomas Frank and the rest of the first team staff. We then went out to the pitch and I delivered an individual session with Ali, talking with him, working technically with him etc. Finally we went back inside for a long Q+A session. Great experience that drives me more.

PA UK: Best player that you have worked with?

BK: Although I've worked with some great players, I feel that the impact you have on their career is more important than saying 'I worked with so and so for 1 session'. So most of the players are still quite young, although some have played League 1 and League 2 football. For this reason I can't really say many names due to their age. One player would be Alfie Bates, currently in his second year as a pro at Walsall. He played a lot of minutes for a first year pro last year and has done really well. He has a very resilient mindset, something that is vital to succeed in the completive business of football. Its also something we try to push at Walsall, that hard working and grounded mentality.

PA UK: What’s the ultimate goal for you in your career and why?

BK: I'm not 100% sure yet as you never know what opportunities will come up and what the path might look like. I generally think one step at a time, I think that approach is better. I'm pretty driven and motivated internally so I don't think I really need to have a ultimate goal. I think if I ever achieved it if I did, I'm pretty sure I would have another goal and still want to progress anyway!

PA UK: How do you use analysis in your coaching and managing?

BK: I use a lot of data and video analysis to try and progress my knowledge of the game, including the tactical elements and player recruitment points of view. Its one of the reasons why I've been learning R for the last 6 months and continuing to use software like SportsCode, Wyscout etc. So watching numerous games look at things like:

  • How they set up with the players they have.

  • What they do when attacking and defending across the defensive, middle and final third.

  • Why they make certain movements, what does it do to the opposition players (one of the biggest things that is missed when I see tactical reports, a lot of descriptive accounts of what happened in the game but not why it happened, that's where you learn the most).

  • Patterns of play.

  • How they defend and why they defend that way.

  • The benefits and drawbacks of playing that way.

  • What does this team look like when playing against a different shape/team.

If its our games that are filmed, I'll code them myself and present back to the players or individuals on what we did well and what we need to work on, based on the academy syllabus or individual learning plans. These presentations will often feature role-model analysis, where I'll show professional teams that perform this topic well. Its a good way to show what you are looking for as well as what it looks like done well (plus seeing it with and against world class players).

PA UK: From an analysis point of view, are you more data or video heavy in your work and why are you more heavy on that area?

BK: In my work I'm a lot more video heavy. I do really like the data side and would expect a lot more academies to be more data heavy in the future (some clubs already are, like Arsenal and Leicester, they use a lot of data in their player recruitment and development), but ultimately time is a resource and when I am the one trying to do most things, I have to think and act as effectively as possible. I think this is one of the hardest things when I am the one doing the analysis, spending 2-3 hours of coding, clipping, etc for a 15 minute presentation, that's 2-3 hours of administration duties or coaching time that I lose. So that balance of my time and what the players need is tough. However, I do want to do more research around player actions and weighted metrics to see how you could assess player development effectively. This probably links in to my own development work away from my role (and especially in this Covid period), as I do try to learn as much as I can about the data side.

PA UK: How, if ever, do you use data to affect performance?

BK: Within academy football, especially at category 3 level, most of the data collected would be physical data. A lot of GRS and testing data, that ultimately does have an impact on physical development and injury prevention (and the chicken and the egg battle between player development and injury prevention, what's more important).

As I mentioned above, I would like to do some research data in development football. Maybe using one age group and recording all player events plus having weighted metrics for particular positions based on what we value could be a useful way to assess player performance. Always the battle of performance vs potential, but it could be useful combined with the subjective video analysis and player reports. It may not work but it is definitely an avenue to explore.

PA UK: Do you think EFL clubs and youth systems utilise analytics to its potential?

BK: Some clubs do and some clubs don't. For a lot of clubs, most of their actions are based on tradition. Don't get me wrong, tradition can be a great tool for player development and having a club culture, but if it limits new ideas and progressive thinking, then you end up having failure/success more by accident than innovation. This innovation doesn't have to be from analytics, it can be new coaching ideas or business strategies, but if I was in charge of a club and watching Liverpool winning the Premier League and Brentford reaching the playoff finals (and hopefully getting promoted to the Premier League) on the their respective net spends, I would be looking at how they have done that and how we could replicate that. These clubs, and some others, have had that innovation, now the question is will clubs look to follow suit or stick with what they have always done.

To some degree, its the same for youth systems, some clubs do, some clubs don't. Overall, I feel that this is an area that will require more development and understanding before becoming more widespread and effective. However, as mentioned, Leicester have an great youth analytics department, Jack Coles who is their Academy Recruitment Analyst (someone who I met years ago at a Saturday morning community coaching session) has been doing some really interesting work with them in terms of using data and video for recruitment at youth level. Arsenal did a presentation at 'Tactical Insights 2020' which included how they were using metrics for their playing philosophy and how they assess players.

PA UK: What do you think is next for the analysis industry?

BK: In the ideal world, things like tracking data for all games, metrics that can effectively put values on every action in the game (plus the implications of this, such as players being valued on their actual performance value) and open source video for all games would all be excellent, but will be either unlikely to happen or happen for a while.

I like to think that something that will start to change and become more common will be coach/analyst based roles (or potentially coaches being expected to be able to use analysis software such as SportsCode, Wyscout, Coach Paint etc). Especially from an individual point of view, they build a relationship with the player, almost act as a psychologist, but then work with them individually on the pitch and support their development with video and data analysis. Its someone who works between the players and the head coach with a technical coaching/analysis background. Some clubs have 'individual development coach' roles within the higher ends of the academy, but to what level of analysis and psychology they use I don't know.

PA UK: What tool has the biggest impact on your job?

BK: PMA (Performance Management Application). Its online software that all academies have to use to evidence what they are doing. It can take a lot of time up for documenting session plans, player reviews, match reports etc. It can be used really well and can be used as a hub for the players with all their performance reviews, data and videos. It has a lot of potential but still requires work to reach this potential. Hence why most clubs use things like Hudl to supplement this.

PA UK: What advice would you give someone that wants a job in the industry?

BK: Understand that although the footballing world looks incredibly glamorous and the highlights that can be truly amazing, behind all that is the 12 hour days, working 7 days a week, the cost of courses to get qualified, the amount of unpaid/low paid hours when first starting out, the rejection from numerous clubs/companies when applying for roles, not attending nights out/birthdays/weddings/funerals because of work, etc.

My advice would be that you need to go in and be prepared to work hard, taking every opportunity you can and do everything you can to be better than the 100 people that want the job you want or the job you have. Want to learn and keep an open mind, don't just copy Pep or Jose. Don't be put off by the paragraph above, be excited by the challenge and the rewards. Be resilient and be innovative.

If you are interested in working in football or know more about what the life of an analyst involves, take a look at our Introduction to Analysis Course here!


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