“A lot of Portuguese players go abroad for different reasons. We are a country of explorers. It dates back to old times, through land and sea, going out and trying to find new worlds. That is part of our DNA. When you move abroad, you have to be able to adapt.” Pedro Marquez knows all about working abroad having spent eight years as a first-team performance analyst at Manchester City, helping Roberto Mancini and Manuel Pellegrini land Premier League titles.
Now, though, he is back in Lisbon helping to continue an incredible production line of talent in his role as technical director of youth football at Benfica as he aims to continue the tradition of producing some of Europe’s best young players.
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Right now, the huge number of former Benfica academy stars at top clubs around the continent include Bernardo Silva, Ruben Dias, Ederson and Joao Cancelo at Marquez’s former club City as well as Victor Lindelof at Manchester United, Joao Felix at Atletico Madrid, Goncalo Guedes at Valencia, Danilo Pereira at Paris Saint-Germain and Renato Sanches, who is now impressing for Lille having previously spent time at Bayern Munich.
“I have a dream that Benfica can win the Champions League with four or five players from the academy,” technical youth co-ordinator Rodrigo Conceicao tells Ghanabet. “It is possible because if you look at the quality of the players we’ve produced. “For me, Benfica is the top. The other clubs don’t have the same level. When they grow up here they grow with Benfica in their hearts. One of the main factors is the passion that takes them to a high level.”
Youth football is a fundamental strategy when it comes to ensuring the long-term future of the two-time European and 36-time Portuguese champions. With football’s rich list increasingly being dominated by clubs from England, Spain, Germany, Italy, and France, the Aguias face a battle to remain competitive when it comes to continental competition and attracting the best players at home and from abroad.
According to the Soccerex Football Finance 100 for 2020, Benfica is the 64th biggest club in the world in terms of financial power. Stoke City, who narrowly avoided relegation to the third tier of English football last season, was one place above them in 63rd.
When the Portuguese giants missed out on reaching the Champions League group stages this season following a surprise defeat to the Greek side PAOK, they took the decision to allow center-back Dias to join City for €68m (£62m/$79m), though Nicolas Otamendi was sent in the opposite direction. It is not the first time they have cashed in on an impressive academy graduate, and it will not be the last time either.
“For us, the investment is part of the long-term vision and a strategic pillar for the club,” Marquez tells Ghanabet. “It’s been going for the last 10 or 15 years and is part of our sustainability. We work every day so that investment will pay off and add value to the players.
“We are committed to helping them reach their dreams of becoming footballers, but we know that also the academy is here to generate value for the club. “That value is playing minutes for the first-team because you don’t have to invest in another player of the same quality. “Ideally we work for them to play for the first-team at Estadio da Luz, but we know eventually some will go abroad.”
Pep Guardiola is clearly a fan of the work being done at Benfica, with a whole host of their former players have joined him during his four years at the Etihad Stadium. Known for his technical and tactical approach, Guardiola likes intelligent players that can cope with his own high demands, but also react to what is happening during a match.
And Lus Araujo, the head coach of Benfica’s Under-19 team, is not surprised that the former Barcelona and Bayern Munich boss has so many first-team players that learned their trade in the Portuguese capital. “One of the most important things to teach our players is to know the game, not just one way to play,” Araujo tells Ghanabet.
“We have to teach them how to make decisions and to see the game. It’s no good learning one format and there’s a change of coach or they change club and they don’t know what to do. “Bernardo, for example, is a very intelligent player while Ruben [Dias] is a leader and a coach inside the game, always talking with his team-mates and telling them what is happening.
“I think it’s one of the reasons Pep likes players from our academy because they know the game. They are spectacularly technical players. “Bernardo left Benfica having made just three appearances for the first-team, with it not until he joined Monaco on the eve of his 20th birthday that his career truly took off.
Now 26, the Portugal international has always regretted not having played more for his boyhood club and has vowed to return one day, though his recent row with coach Jorge Jesus may have made that dream a little more difficult to achieve.
Conceicao was always confident that the playmaker would be a success and says that players such as Bernardo and Atletico star Felix always had the talent and commitment to make it to the top, even when they reached an age group where they struggled to make an impact.
“We can see what other people don’t see,” says Conceicao, who has worked with players aged between the ages of six and 15 for the last 15 years, when asked about the secret of the academy’s ability to produce so many players.
“One of our successes is being able to predict who will be a success in adult football. “For example, Bernardo Silva was an amazing player with high performance from U9s to U13s, but his performance decreased between U14s and U16s.
“With data, we can choose the players that we need to wait for, like Bernardo or Felix, because they have other attributes like game knowledge, decision-making, and high technical level. “We need to give them a good environment to develop their skills because when they physically develop to be at the same level as the other players, they will be at the very top.”
Felix is now the club’s record sale having joined Atletico for €126 million (£113m/$142m) in the summer of 2019 with City, Barcelona, Real Madrid, Juventus, and Manchester United all having shown an interest in the forward. It was easy to see why due to his natural flair and skill, but Araujo says no player will make it to the top without commitment, which is instilled in the club’s youngsters at their state-of-the-art Benfica Campus.
“That is our culture from the 1960s,” he says. “When Benfica really grew up with the team around Eusebio and Mario Coluna, they were always fighting, they never gave up. They were very hard-working players and we teach them that a high-level player is always working.
“I don’t believe there is one player at a high level that didn’t work a lot to achieve that. No one is going to give it to you because you were born with natural talent.” Identifying that talent early is one of the key reasons for Benfica’s success. The club has more than 200 people watching youth games all over Portugal as well as five local hubs across the country that begin the youngster’s development before any potential move to the Benfica Campus in Lisbon.
The coaching staff have worked for a number of years to evolve their techniques, but believe that keeping the love of the game and not “overcoaching” any individuality out of a player’s game has always been important. “Sometimes you have to not damage natural talent,” Marquez says. “To take it care of it through the pathway and to help it emerge rather than to coach too much.”
“We bring out individual skills that players already have,” Araujo adds. “At eight-years-old, Dias was already a leader. We helped put his personality into his game.” The club has a clear pathway for players who move through the various age-group sides before going onto represent Benfica’s ‘B’ team in Liga Pro, the second tier of Portuguese football. “Player development comes with a lot of proud moments over the years they work with us,” Marquez adds.
“Their first game with the Benfica shirt when they are young, playing for the ‘B’ team in a professional league, getting into the first-team squad, their first Champions League game or first goal at Estadio da Luz or when they get to the national team. It’s fantastic to see that.”
It’s not just Benfica and Europe’s other top clubs that are benefitting from their production line, either, with the Portugal national team now possessing a strong side that is no longer just reliant on the individual brilliance of Cristiano Ronaldo. They are the current holders of the Nations League and European Championship and will be among the favorites when the delayed Euro 2020 is held next summer.
“I work for Benfica so my job is to develop players for the club,” Araujo concludes. “But when I see Benfica players for Portugal and winning the European championships with an 18-year-old [Sanches] who just a year before was playing in our youth championship, it’s another win.
“I am Portuguese so I like to see my country doing well and when it’s with a player that we helped to develop, it’s a very happy thing.”