How Benfica became a global figurehead in player development

The concept of aggregation by marginal gains was first championed by British cycling performance director Sir David Brailsford. In an interview with the BBC during the aftermath of the London 2012 Olympics, he remarked: “The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1 percent, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

It’s a comment that may well have gone under the radar had it not been for Team GB’s unequivocal success on home soil. With 12 medals secured – eight of them being gold – Brailsford’s team had truly hegemonised the cycling world, leaving other nations in their wake. The notion of making slight but effective improvements in numerous areas has since transcended two wheels and now holds its rightful place at the epicentre of general sporting development.

Benfica have been at the forefront of player development for many years. However, since the grand opening of their award-winning academy, the Caixa Futebol Campus in 2006, they have gone a step further and successfully blended technological advancements in sports science with innovative coaching techniques to help foster a truly exceptional environment for youngsters to flourish within.

Overlooking the Rio Tejo, the Caixa Campus is a world-renowned academy of excellence. Located in the region of Seixal, just south of Lisbon, the centre is currently home to 15 youth sides, the B-team and the first team squad. The complex spans 19 hectares and consists of nine grass pitches – one of which hosts the B-teams matches with a capacity of 2,720 – two artificial surfaces and a 360-degree indoor ‘football laboratory’ where players’ individual physical fitness components are put to the test. This state of the art facility also accommodates nearly 60 academy prospects who live too far from Portugal’s capital to make the daily commute and are consequently housed in a lavish on-site hotel.

The Águias (Eagles) are renowned for their near-nonpareil scouting network, with 172 scouts currently deployed across the globe. The improvement of the academy, though, has become apparent in the past five years with the production line of homegrown talent accelerating rapidly.

At the heart of the Campus is Benfica legend turned general academy manager Nuno Gomes. The ex-striker is proud of the ongoing project that has produced players of the calibre of Renato Sanches, Bernardo Silva, André Gomes and Gonçalo Guedes in recent times, however he believes this is just the start. Speaking to Wired magazine earlier this year he stated: “The programme here is working, but we want more.”

What’s unique about Benfica’s structure is its almost religious belief in cutting edge sports science. The Portuguese outfit ensures every decision taken regarding their academy starlets is based upon sound data analytics, with the subsequent results there for all to see.

Off the pitch, players’ sleep patterns are recorded, diets are logged and surveys about mental wellbeing are mandatory. On the pitch, GPS sensors and heart rate monitors are worn to track distances and speed, and upon completion of matches, scans are undertaken by each player to highlight any muscle fatigue. All of this data is then calibrated and methodically analysed in order to calculate tailor-made training regimes and diet plans for each player.

Tracking all these variables in the hope of marginal gains helps Gomes and his team meticulously study all aspects of the players’ lives, allowing the staff to liaise efficiently and purposively, from the first team manager to the sports psychologist to the in-house chef. It’s an interdependent environment where no stone is left unturned, and it’s working wonders.

When club president Luís Filipe Vieira spoke to TVI back in 2016, he confidently announced: “We are going to have a team made up 100 percent of players who came through the Seixal academy. That’s our long-term plan and I have no doubt we’ll get there.”

Although it’s hard to doubt that the academy is capable of making such lofty aims a reality, the economic circumstances that dictate this dream make it highly improbable.

With the club unable to match the vast financial clout of Europe’s elite, the Águias have adopted an approach of monetising many burgeoning homegrown stars in order to balance the books. Moreover, as noted by Portuguese football expert Tiago Estêvão, in an era evermore dominated by super agents, the likes of Jorge Mendes have been responsible for using the Caixa Campus as a springboard to reap client’s greater deals elsewhere, much to the detriment of Benfica.

The aforementioned Sanches is a prime example. Having only completed one season of senior Primeira Liga action, the academy graduate was courted by German giants Bayern Munich and, with Mendes coaxing the starlet behind the scenes, a deal of €35 million was quickly struck as Sanches joined Die Roten.

Bernardo Silva, another represented by Mendes, was plucked from the grasp of Benfica after just a single first team appearance and placed into the grateful arms of Monaco. That particular transfer was greeted with begrudged animosity by Benfiquistas who, as Portuguese football writer Marco Lopes points out, was regarded as ‘the most exquisite [academy] talent since a certain Rui Costa’.

This label of being a selling club is nothing new. Over the past seven years Benfica have parted company with no fewer than 12 crucial players for a staggering €376 million, and although the shift in mentality to nurture homegrown talent has been promising, with Benfica having made a habit of selling accomplished youth, it begs the question whether Vieira’s goal will ever be realised?

One man trying his hardest to fulfil his employer’s wishes is first team manager Rui Vitória. Demonstrating the club’s commitment to cohesion at all levels, the 47-year-old has taken time to observe copious academy and B-team sessions and has since blooded the best imported talents such as Victor Lindelöf and Ederson in the first XI.

Last year in an interview with A Bola, Vitória reaffirmed his unwavering belief in the academy: “I’m very alert to Benfica’s B-team and youth teams. Of course I can’t be sure that the players I believe will get to the first team in three years, will do so, but there’s a system in place and we have lots of alternatives. Benfica’s future is guaranteed.”

The relatively infant Caixa Campus recently marked its 10th anniversary since its construction, with worldwide recognition. After winning the prestigious title of Best Academy at the 2015 Globe Soccer Awards, general manager Gomes was beaming with adulation. “It is an award that fills us with pride, it is a sign that we are working well. There are very few academies that are better than ours in terms of their working conditions.”

On-field achievements have been prevalent, as demonstrated by two appearances in the first four UEFA Youth League finals, although Benfica lost both. Despite their only major award coming away from the field of play, the club’s continual progression to the latter stages of European youth competition only further accentuates its outstanding academy.

The conflict of interest between managing the eye-watering €300 million debt and ensuring their youth products see out their peak years in Benfica red remains a challenge, but as the first team claim a historic fourth consecutive league title with a combination of shrewd recruits and homegrown personnel, the positives are there for all to see.

Even if President Vieira’s plan of a solely homegrown first team never materialises, Benfica’s firebrand and avant-garde strategy towards progressive and innovative youth development that has won so many plaudits will surely continue to go from strength to strength – even if it is by the finest of margins. 

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