Darren Arnott: Coaching in Spain, under 23 football and working with Marcelo Bielsa!

Whilst football is on hold, the coaches and others members of staff are still hard at work. Bielsa has set his coaches a number of tasks to complete whilst they wait until football is back and despite not being out on the grass, their schedules are just as full. As everyone is aware, the first team and under 23’s work closely together and this is the same with regards to the coaching staff. Darren Arnott who joined the club in 2018 shortly after Marcelo Bielsa as a coach working with the under 23’s and first team. I spoke Darren via twitter direct messages to find out how he got into coaching, his experiences so far and what its like to be working with a coach like Marcelo Bielsa. 

Why did you decide to become a coach?

DA “My main driver for wanting to coach was, of course, my love for football. However, there is no greater feeling than seeing the people and players that you work with develop. To be able to support someone in their development is one thing but what football affords you is the opportunity to build really strong relationships with the people that you work with and to have that connection whilst finding success, on whatever level that may be, is a really special feeling. 

Coaching is something I have been doing since the age of 16. I’ve always loved the game and after studying a degree in Coaching with Sport and Exercise Science I moved abroad to allow me to get some serious practical experience. It was during this period that I realised I wanted this to be my career and from there, things really took off. Having spent 5 years coaching in the United States I achieved my coaching qualifications through the USSF and NSCAA and also began my journey as a Coach Educator too.

When I returned to England I achieved my coaching licenses through the FA whilst continuing my development and my love for the game, tactics and coaching. I also began to coach and become qualified in Futsal, which is a fantastic sport in its own right but also has a lot of concepts that cross-over to football. I continued my pathway in Coach Education, working for the FA, but had to suspend this due to my move to Spain – which of course was a completely different type of footballing education.”

What does a week look like as a coach at Leeds United?

DA “Most of our weeks are built around the games programme for the U23s along with the First Team training and match day schedule. Our primary objective as a group is to support the Manager and the First Team in whatever way possible. Ensuring that the players are prepared and able to train and play for the Manager is key and we have a staff who do a fantastic job of ensuring the players are ready whenever called upon.

Our fixtures are generally played between Friday to Monday so the week will always begin with a post-match analysis. We will analyse and review the match we have just played and will deliver this back to the players in a multitude of ways, ranging from group video analysis to individual meetings or catered training sessions. We will then turn our focus to our next opponent where there is a significant amount of in-depth analysis that takes place from the entire staff. This is something that has been introduced by the Manager and it is no secret that a high level of analysis constitutes part of his methodology, so it’s important that we are able to replicate that at the U23s level. That in itself has been a fascinating learning experience and has shown just how much attention to detail goes into the methodology of the Manager. Of course, match days are important for us to prepare for, but more importantly, our focus is on developing the capabilities of each individual player within our care and this is something we work hard to achieve consistently across each week.

Time is invested every single day into individual player development. This could be from specifically designed sessions for a player, or group of players, right through to individual player analysis. It is important that we aid the players in their growth and that we constantly check and challenge them, but it is also very important that we develop them to be able to perform within the game model of the Manager. It can be quite tricky trying to balance preparing for a game, supporting the First Team and also ensuring each player is given top-quality care throughout the week, but as a staff I think we do a great job of achieving those targets and it’s a challenge we love to face.“

What are the differences between working with First Team players and Academy players?

DA “First and foremost, you have to remember that you’re dealing with people before players. You have to recognise and acknowledge the human factor. We have some outstanding people in the building and everybody comes into the training ground wanting to improve and wanting to enjoy what they are doing and if you remember that then I don’t think you can go far wrong. It’s important to get to know about each player that you work with on an individual level.

From a coaching point of view, I would say that it is the job of an Academy to prepare players to be able to play at the highest level and give each player a big enough ‘toolbox’ (techniques/skills/decision-making capabilities) to cope with any challenge that is thrown at them. As a consequence, you want to see players who have ranging skill-sets, who are intelligent and technically excellent. To achieve this the players will need to be constantly challenged in high-level decision-making exercises and training environments. There is a lot of onus placed upon the players to aid in developing their own decision-making and leadership skills and right the way through the age-groups within the Academy we have extremely skilled staff who possess the ability to use a variety of techniques and methods to improve the players as they move along their footballing pathway.

It’s really about giving the players in the Academy as many experiences as possible and guiding them through their development to ensure that they come out with the ability to play in any system, or any style, and that they are physically and mentally robust enough to cope with the demands of the modern footballing world – and the world as a whole.In terms of working with First Team players, a lot of the above still applies. Every player wants to develop and improve, but the difference is that you are now working with players who are in a high-performance environment. Everything is geared towards winning the next game. These players have come through the bulk of their developmental process and now have a very rich ‘toolbox’ with the ability to perform in a multitude of ways. This doesn’t mean that their development is no longer important. In fact, something that the Manager has proven wherever he has been in the world is that you can continue to improve the players you work with, no matter their age, level or current capabilities. 

For First Team players the important thing to remember is that they must perform how the Manager expects them to, in line with the beliefs, style and system that is being imposed upon them. Due to that there are much clearer guidelines in training and expected outcomes, so understanding the philosophy inside out is very important as that allows you to deliver the same messages consistently.

There’s an old saying that goes ‘they don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care’ and this couldn’t be truer. It’s important to be yourself and show your personality whilst also maintaining a high level of professionalism. The way our group is integrated into the First Team set up means that we must deliver in the same way to ensure that there is a smooth transition for the players moving up, as well as there being the correct environment for any players who come down to train or play with us. Ultimately, everyone is there to improve, be competitive and make the most of their time at the training ground and if you remember this then you can adapt with relative ease to whoever it is you are working with.“

How have the experiences abroad changed or helped your coaching?

DA “Without a doubt, my experiences in America and Spain have made me a better coach. I spent 5 years coaching in the United States and that was a fantastic period for me as it really allowed me to find out what type of coach I wanted to be, what my strengths were and in what areas I would need to develop – either naturally or with a focus placed upon them. I arrived in America off the back of my degree and I was able to have a real hands-on approach. I worked out that at one point I was coaching on the grass upwards of 40 hours a week, which was an incredible test and taught me a lot about myself as well as how to plan, prepare, deliver and review training sessions. That’s a real challenge to your ability to keep training fresh and the motivation high, but I absolutely loved it. Being on the grass is where I want to be. I worked in both the male and female games and worked with a plethora of people and players ranging from sons of millionaires to players with coming from nothing living in inner-city areas. That taught me a lot more than just coaching. Despite the competitive level, the main coaching focus was on development. In Spain, however, that was not the case. The expectations were high and there was a lot of pressure on us to succeed – and quickly.

Joining a First Team expected to compete for promotion brought with it a completely different set of challenges. As did coaching in Spanish. I learned a lot about myself as well as Spanish football philosophies and methodologies. I really enjoy the tactical side of the game and I finally felt like I was having challenging discussions and debates – the ideas weren’t too far from my own, but they were thought out in much greater detail that it really opened my eyes.These experiences helped me to learn a lot about leadership and management as well the importance of language, culture and most importantly communication in both a verbal and non-verbal capacity. As a whole, my experiences have been priceless as they have shaped both my thinking on the game and also my approach to how I believe it should be delivered. I’m still deciphering some of my learning now and I don’t think that will ever stop, to be honest.”

What is it like working with Bielsa, have you managed to learn a lot from him?

DA “Working for the Manager has been a dream come true. I was just returning from my stint in Spain when it was announced that he would be taking over at the club and I honestly couldn’t believe it. I started paying great attention to his work around 2009 when he was coaching the Chilean National Team. I studied the team, the style of play and remember writing a few pieces of work about it all in the build-up to the 2010 World Cup. So to move forward a decade and be given this opportunity was just unbelievable. 

Every day is a learning experience. It’s difficult to describe just how much detail there is in the work that we do and in the past two years I think I’ve watched more games of football than in my entire life! I’ve certainly learned a lot about management and leadership over the past two seasons and it’s really made me reflect on my own thinking and ideas. I find it really interesting learning about new ways to do things and methodologies that challenge my own way of thinking, so even now I’m still pulling together all of the things I have been exposed to and trying to make sense of it all, but to answer your question – yes, I’ve learned a lot.”

What are your future ambitions?

DA “My ambitions for the future are to continue to learn and develop as much as possible. I’ve always been process orientated and I want to increase my capabilities both on and off the field. A goal I’ve always had is to coach for the National Team – which I’d like to achieve before the end of my career. However, I would love to stay at this club for a long time, leading the development of our Academy players for the First Team and their respective National Teams. To be part of the club achieving Category 1 status and a return to the Premier League would be fantastic and I’d like to continue to help however I can to drive us back to where we all believe we should be – in a strong position in the league and with a vibrant, healthy academy producing top young talent.”

A big thanks to Darren for taking time out of his busy schedule and for providing an insight in both his coaching career as well as how Bielsa and the rest of the club operate behind close doors. Darren can be found on twitter @coacharnott. 

Written Thomas Wilson  

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