While Italian football club Internazionale acquired new owners last week, there were also profound changes going on at city rival AC Milan.
The club that has won the Italian league 18 times and the European Champions League seven times is rethinking its youth structure’s organization - in future, Milan officials hope to tap in to the power of the brain.
For cerebral help, they have turned to a couple of Belgians - former Standard Liege coach Jose Riga and pioneering youth coach Michel Bruyninckx - to help influence the way the club develops its young players.
Milan has long had a reputation as a club that leaves nothing to chance in the pursuit of excellence. This after all is the team with its very own science establishment - the MilanLab - which it describes as a “high tech interdisciplinary scientific research center” to provide “the best possible management of individual well being and health” for its players.
That attention to detail scuppered the transfer of French left-back Aly Cissokho, who is now at Liverpool, from Porto to AC Milan in 2009 over a dental problem.
Belgium's youth policy has developed a new generation of players now excelling in leagues all over Europe, which may have played a part in Milan's interest in Riga and Bruyninckx.
“The fact our national team selects players that have been trained with our concept and got to the highest European level had some influence,” said Bruyninckx. “Dries Mertens plays for Napoli, Steve Defour for Porto, Omar El Khadouri at Torino and many others I had in my academy are promising pro players.”
Bruyninckx has long argued that while football has largely been dominated by developments in sports science that have helped improve players’ athleticism, the brain has been overlooked in the way teams and individuals are coached.
He recently gave a two-hour presentation of his ideas to a group of Dutch football legends - Leo Beenhakker, Dennis Bergkamp, Ronald de Boer and Wim Kieft - and describes their feedback as “one big joy.”
Riga and Bruyninckx, who have recently returned to Europe from Qatar where they were working at the Gulf country’s Aspire Academy, were invited to Milan last August for a 10-day training camp working with the club’s Under-17, U-16 and U-15 squads.
“We will assist the coaches and explain our ideas step-by-step to guarantee AC Milan can anticipate the development of football related to what the future game needs are,” Bruyninckx told CNN.
“I think everybody begins to understand that the football game at the highest level is no longer based on athletic potential and ability but that the brain ability and potential has got an enormous influence. Faster moving and decision making can only be achieved through brain anticipation processes.”
MilanLab staff member Domenico Gualtieri echoes Bruyninckx’s philosophy. "Our job is not just to get the fastest most athletic players on the pitch," Gualtieri told the Milan website, "we also want to give the players the instruments to take care of problems themselves while on the pitch,”
The training drills Bruyninckx uses start off simply but grow in complexity to foster concentration and touch. This idea of "overload" ensures that the players are more actively involved during an exercise even when they are not on the ball. If they are not concentrating the move breaks down.
The pre-eminence of the team over the individual is key for Bruyninckx - "we have to do it together" is one of his mantras - and in the past when we have met, he showed a video of players performing various training routines, joking that what they are is doing is football's equivalent of social media networking.
“It's striking that the future game is most of all based on team performance,” said Bruyninckx.
“Team creativity can only be achieved if players have a huge mutual solidarity and they put their individual search for success aside. The player's individual speed has been replaced by a team's high-speed performance.
“Look how at Neymar is struggling to get into the Barca patterns. Give him time and his talent will be even more impressive.”
Traditionally, for many clubs the science of youth development has been a bit of a hit and miss affair - many are called, few are chosen.
Prior to revamping its youth structure, Milan looked at the organization of clubs like Ajax and Barcelona, who have developed the knack of bringing players from the youth squads to the first team.
“I think many top clubs are understanding that going to the highest level requires a balanced long-term vision and going back to more homegrown players with a clear club label,” Bruyninckx continued.
“Science is unraveling more and more the secrets to deliver high-performance players. Mentally-balanced players that stay together for many years and have the grit for many hours of deliberate practice and play will show again how our social network can have an influence on football development.
“Aren't the team coherence and format of Barca and Bayern Munich the best examples?”
Riga and Bruyninckx will work under AC Milan's methodology coordinator Aldo Dolcetti, who also emphasized this was a long-term project for the Serie A club.
“Eleven teams and one club,” Dolcetti told the Milan website. “We’ve been working since June on delivering the targets that have been set for the next few years. The aim is to get players from the youth sector to the first team, ready to play at the San Siro."
Filippo Galli, head of Milan’s youth setup, added: "We wanted everyone to help in the construction of the Milan model in terms of uniformity of playing concepts and behavior shared by all players and staff.
“Chief executive Adriano Galliani was behind the idea of the methodology of a Milan model which will stay with the club for years, regardless of the people involved in making it happen.”
The club has traditionally spent big on star players, funded by billionaire owner Silvio Berlusconi, but its new approach has been in part forced by tougher economic times and new financial fair play rules introduced by European football's ruling body.
"The current economic situation combined with new UEFA regulations has forced Europe's big clubs to invest heavily in youth development," AC Milan's head of youth scouting Mauro Bianchessi told Reuters in May.
According to the CIES (International Center for Sports Studies) Football Observatory's 2013 Demographic Study, Italy has the lowest percentage of players who spent three years at the club they are at now between the ages of 15 and 21.
The partnership between the Belgian duo and Milan runs only until June 2014, as Riga and Bruyninckx want to showcase their approach to other clubs and federations.
“In the coming months I'll concentrate most of all on AC Milan, but I also want to show more and more how ‘Brain Centered Learning’ can have an influence on school performance,” said Bruyninckx.
“My country has decided to give me the opportunity to present my ideas to the educational world. The better a child can learn the better his or her future will be.
“We all have an individual desire to show our skills, but then we first need to find out what a child is looking for, based on his or her personal interest. Excluding mutual competition and stereotyping is according to me the foundation of a better world.”
The Belgian coaches are not the only ones interested in understanding more about how athletes’ brains work - major pharmaceutical companies are now moving into this area.
Recently GlaxoSmithKline opened the GSK Human Performance Lab to better understand how the body and brain function, and it plans to work in partnership with professional athletes and teams as well as sports' national governing bodies.