Patrick Van Leeuwen didn’t come from a footballing family. In a home of three boys, he was the only one who chose the beautiful game as his way of life. His path began like many Dutch kids who chose football, he joined an amateur club, was fortunate to be talented enough and joined Sparta Rotterdam at the age of 16. He played there for eight years, advanced to the senior side and played for the first team, but during his growing up, began picking up injury after injury and understood he must start thinking about the day after football. So at the age of only 21, he had an A license to coach football which he received at the Sports Academy in Holland. The injuries led him to leave Sparta after 8 years and go down to the second division where he played for two more years before retiring at the young age of 27.
When he ended his playing career, one of his friends who was working at Feynoord, invited him to join him and start his coaching career. For a decade he had coached at the lucrative Dutch club, moved on between the various age groups until the Head of the Academy he had worked for, was appointed at Shakhtar Donetsk. He joined him and after 18 months, replaced him as the Head of the academy of the Ukrainian club which recently purchased Manor Solomon for EUR 6m. At the end of a 7-year-period he made a career change in favour of a Sports Director at Kairat Almaty of Kazakhstan, but the foundations for his arrival at Maccabi Tel Aviv were created in Ukraine.
During his time in Ukraine, Jordi Cruyff joined Metalurh Donetsk as the duo used to meet 3-4 times a week, to talk about football and life. Jordi connected with Patrick instantly and kept good and close contact with him even when he moved to Malta, Cyprus and later on Israel. In 2015, Mitch Goldhar and Jack Angelides approached Cruyff and asked him for recommendations on candidates to manage the Youth Department, The first name presented to them was Van Leeuwen. Several months later, Maccabi Tel Aviv decided to go for the move and replace Nir Levin with a foreign professional and the CEO at the time, Martin Bain, invited Van Leeuwen for an impression.
He visited Israel earlier on several occasions. He even watched the Tel Aviv derby alongside Jordi Cruyff, and when Maccabi’s Sports Director was asked at the time who is the guest, he said it is a friend of his from Kairat who is working as a Sports Director there. No one imagined that within a certain period of time, and after the impression following Bain’s invite, the revolution at the Yellow Youth Department will take place and in June 2016 he was appointed as Maccabi’s Performance Director. His contract was recently extended till 2020. He will complete four full years at the club, at least, and will try during his term to embed his ideas. Some of which were not so easily accepted at first, but Van Leeuwen is certain: “Maccabi’s Youth Department would repay Mitch Goldhar’s massive investment in it”.
How difficult was it to convince you to come to Israel?
“To be honest it wasn’t that hard. I was in Israel on several occasions as part of my contact with Jordi. I watched a derby here, I was invited over once by Bain to give my opinion on the Youth Department. I saw Maccabi Tel Aviv before signing my contract here. I knew where I was coming to”.
How do you define your journey in Israeli football o far?
“I know that when you are invited to go somewhere, this invitation comes with clear instructions. I knew in advance that what is my role and what I am expected to do. We agreed in advance not only my contract, but the way in which I am going to work. The club agreed with me and the first steps were very swift. I wanted to make an immediate change, with a clear plan, something which hasn’t been done in Israeli before, and from the experience I gained in recent years of building academies. It wasn’t easy to embed the plan, and it wasn’t easy to convince more than 50% of the people that something needs to be changed, we were facing difficulties with some of the people who were working for the academy but OK, it happens everywhere, certainly when all those people think they know better than you, but now we are at a place where after three years we have a system. Everyone knows what to do. Everyone knows what are our demands on and off the pitch. We are trying to strengthen every year. To add new things to our training program, or new things outside our training plan for our coaches and our players”.
One of the things you changed quickly was the discipline. Is this a decision you came with “from home”. Why?
“well, from my conversations with Jordi about Israeli football, many issues dealt with discipline of players and teams. This is basic in my opinion. A football player must have discipline, this is where it all begins. The coach as well. Surely if you want to work at a professional academy. Everyone must understand we need to head in one direction and we must do it together. I can’t do everything by myself, I need to receive assistance from the coaches and for the players to cooperate. Discipline is essential and alongside that results would come”.
Do you think you managed to meet this target and transform this academy into a disciplined one?
“We are certainly heading in the right direction, we are constantly aiming at adding players to the first team, we have two players who are training with them today – in Daniel Peretz (goalkeeper) and Eden Kartzev. And we also have many players from the previous generation who are playing in the first team. In recent years many players were training with the first team. So for me that means that we are successful, because in order to reach the first team you require the basic football foundations, technique, discipline, tactical discipline and many players today have a real chance to play football at professional level and in my opinion we have many players who are on the right path to reach the first team eventually. There is no doubt that the success of the youth department players depend a lot on the coaches and the coaching staff but also on their parents at home and the personal mentality of each and every one of the players”.
On the disciplinary issue – do you consider yourself as a tough character?
“No. This is what everyone says. I am tough. I am a rules type. I think that if I chose a path, I must follow it. I have a clear opinion on how things must be and it is not just for one team but for the entire academy teams. From the age of 8 until 19. It is not about being tough it is about obtaining a philosophy that in my eyes one must follow”.
We are sitting here in the middle of the International Youth tournament which Maccabi Tel Aviv have organised, and this is something great for the club, so what does it in fact give the club at international level?
“well, this is a beginning of something international. There are many clubs in Europe that don’t travel to Israel that easily. The two foreign teams we brought here last season (Bayer Leverkusen and Red Star Paris) and the teams we brought here this season (Crystal Palace and Excelsior) have many questions. Every time something happens in Israel for someone who is living here it is a minor issue, but for them this is something major. We are still at an early stage, this is very important for Israeli football at youth level, for Maccabi it is important to build a culture of international tournaments as such. We could have easily participated in such tournaments abroad, but we want these teams to come to Israel. We saw last year how the local clubs enjoyed themselves, the foreign clubs enjoyed themselves and therefore we wanted to continue this season as well. We have plans to add other teams from different age groups to future tournaments, and include U17’s and maybe even U15’s – so we are considering to expand our spread. As far as our club is concerned, it is important that our kids will play at a different environment, these three days will include five matches for each team, playing against different systems when they are both fresh and tired. This is the concept which is being done in Europe on a regular basis, but sadly not in Israel, so we are hoping that other clubs will get motivated to organise such tournaments in the future”.
What are the reactions when you invite clubs to arrive for a tournament in Israel?
“Everyone shows interest, if you then look at the clubs which visit here they are from Europe or Eastern Europe. The climate in Israel in January is something unique and a different and for them it is appealing to come here. This is a period where quite a few leagues have yet to begin their second part of the season, so for them it is obviously very appealing to arrive here and create some sort of a short ‘winter training camp’, face clubs which play in different tactics, different attitudes, taste cultures they don’t usually know, and return with a positive attitude to their leagues”.
Is this something which in your eyes contributes to the development of players at this age?
“It definitely contributes. Especially in the situation in Israel where you don’t have U21 teams, so a player who ended the youth age group his next encounter against international teams could only take place if he makes it into the first team. Any international experience a player could gain outside the national teams, before he reaches the first team – is welcome. It helps their development. This is what we are looking to offer all the clubs taking part in this tournament”.
How does the life of an academy player look any different in comparison to the time before you arrived?
“One of the things I am aiming for, is to give the coach and the player a clear pattern in which he can work at. A way. I want them to know exactly how the training session is going to be, when is the session, so it will be in their heads every moment that today I must be in training at a certain designated time, whether that be in the morning or in the afternoon. I want them to think in advance before they arrive in training, on what they might expect to happen in training and conduct themselves accordingly throughout the day either in school or in the army, and obviously receive assistance from the parents who will assist the kids in turning into becoming a football player at club level. This is our project. It is open, it is clear, it consists of a football philosophy which gives the child a clear guideline to life alongside his life at his family cell and at school”.
Do you a scenario where the parents disrupt the kid’s career?
“It happened in the beginning of my time here. Yes. In Holland we say that there is a different wind. Today the parents understand this at the academy. We want the assistance of the parents. We want them to ensure their child arrives in training on time, we want them to ensure that he is ready for training and in the rest of the time we hope they enjoy the fact their child is playing football. This is what we expect of the parents. We don’t need tactical advise from the parents. We don’t need technical advice from the parents. Obviously there are certain situation when the parents think they know better than the coach or the management, but OK, this is only a small proportion. This is no longer big problems for us”.
What in your mind does a child need most when he is at an academy age?
“As soon as you insert discipline and as soon as what you want to achieve from football is very clear and understood, it obviously really helps the Israeli player. Talent, these kids have. I am always surprised not only with the kids at Maccabi, but with other clubs. There is a decent level here, but at the same time, I don’t think that the football world really values the talent of those kids and I don’t think that it wants to invest too much in that. What the national team displays, needs to be more stable. Because I see a small country, but I don’t see that it falls short of the talent in the Ukraine for instance where the population is 5-6 times bigger. One needs to grow more talented players here, and it begins with an investment that clubs need to place not only in the salaries of the coaches and the players but also the facilities”.
In the past, Maccabi Tel Aviv’s academy consisted of more teams, at all ages, and one of the things which you changed was to narrow the scale, cancel the effect of a ‘a pastime’ and transform it into something more organised, focused on finding the talented players. What led to that? Did you feel that the conduct was not professional?
“First we didn’t close that many teams. What we did was to try and change things into more professional. In my view at the age of 16 one should start working with the players and begin preparing them for the first team, but until they reach the age of 16 we must ensure we are pointing them in the right direction. It can’t begin at the age of 16 One of the most difficult rules for Israeli football, is that we have a situation where a club is not protected when it comes to kids until they reach the age of 15. The meaning is that if you are not doing a good job, every one of those kids could at the age of 15 to walk away “quarantine”, but we are trying to change this and start the good work with kids from the age of 7-8, as we are working to connect them to the club. To the club’s philosophy and its structure, so that they remain for as long as possible, at Maccabi Tel Aviv. This is the difference in my eyes between us and other clubs. Our academy does a lot for the kids inside the football world, but also the club does a lot for them outside football in terms of the environment which surrounds them. We give them a lot of help with video clips, with mental coaches, with education, so we focus not only in football but actually in giving them the complete package in order to give them the chance to become professional football players besides the fact they understand they must put in the effort in their education so they would be covered at both ends”.
What are the advantages of the Israeli kid as a footballer?
“I think that technically there is a talent of a high level. But, there are tactical aspects which are missing, and I connect that directly to how the leagues are structured from a young age. So if I compare this to Holland or Germany, where from the age of 7 the football and the leagues are structured, it gives them a better head-start and an advantage over the Israeli kid who begins his path in organised football at a later stage. Israeli football for ids must start in an organised manner with organised matches, at a younger age. Those matches improves the kids and makes them better. And here they try first and foremost what will be more comfortable for the club”.
Is it possible to make a kid more tactically aware?
“In every moment you let a kid play football, he must play in a certain position. As a club, you have the responsibility, at a young age, not to focus the kid on one position only, but to let him play in several positions to allow him develop his feelings with regards to all positions and then comes the moment, around the age of 14, where you can clearly see in what direction is the child developing. Is he a defensive player, a midfielder or a forward”.
When we see the national teams and the Israeli clubs on the international circuit, it is clear to all that one of the Israeli players’ biggest problems is mentality. We see the breaking point at those moments. Especially in the national team. This is something which begins at a younger age, but is this possible ‘to coach’ the mental side of kids?
“You can explain in advance to every kid what problems he might encounter in his future career. This is what we are trying to do. We are trying to prepare these kids to every situation. We have a collaboration with Ofer Ronen the club’s spokesman who explains to them that in the current world there is social media and media and how they influence, we are also working with mental coaches. First with the teams and then it filters down to the personal level that a mental coach is attached to a player, and when we feel that there is a need or desire to support the player. For example. A tournament like we are playing in now, with many games in a three-day-period, will only assist the player. Because most of the mistakes and most of the problems are during a game, and pop-up when the player gets tired or angry or when the coach replaces him”.
What was your main target when you arrived at Maccabi and has it changed since?
“My initial target was to structure an academy of European level. This is where I was aiming for. We don’t want to compete only in Israel but also abroad. We all knew that building an academy which supplied players to the first team is a process which takes two to three years. Now we are at a situation where the foundations are here, the talent is here at every age group, so from now on it depends on us to develop it and add new ideas and new things, in order to intensify the development process. We are at a stage where we have the organisation, we have the coaching staffs, we have the talented players and we hope that the club would make the final step and improve the training facilities, because this is something which could stop the development of a football academy and prevent you from breaking the glass ceiling you reached. The next step for Maccabi Tel Aviv is to improve its level of facilities. We can’t fit in more training sessions at this stage. We reached our maximum”.
Did you encounter any difficulties working with Israelis?
“I must admit that in Eastern Europe, the mentality is different. They more ‘walk after you’. One of the things which someone told me was, that “in Israel we are taught to be creative”. For me this answer means that we are simply heading in a certain direction, where people had their personal influence. I am tough, he is soft, and we create a difference by our different attitude of every professional we have. Look, we have the talented players or the ones which were targeted as those who could go a long distance. Some of them are defenders, which requires a different attitude and a different work. Some of them are midfielders, which requires us to give them different things. In the end, our aim is to send as many players to the first team. We need to reach a stage where our youth team has 6-8 players who are candidates to reach the first team, so when the first team coach approaches me and says ‘I need a left back’, we must make sure that a left back is ready at the academy or was raised at the academy and now plays for our B side”.
Every player likes to score goals. Every kid dreams about being the next Leo Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo. How do you take a kid and tells him ‘Listen, you are not Mesi or Ronaldo. You are a good left back. You are a good centre back’ and convince him to follow you?
“This is something you are working on from an early age. You must give every player a chance to play in range of positions. Let him be a left winger, but also a left back. Give him the experience. When he grows up, specific characteristics would stick out and not only to the coaches but also to the kid himself One would understand that he is a tough central defender, and the other would understand that he is a talented midfielder. This is what we are working on and as soon as we need to change his position to a specific one, then we do it. Obviously we have various debates for example with wingers who say for instance ‘I am left footed, I am comfortable playing on the right’ ok but we have our idea on how the team must play and how the kid must be integrated in it. We are trying to convince him and explain to him what are his qualities at this system. And in the end, we are hoping that our work plan will supply a player who is tactically ready, that he is mentally ready, and if the coach has a specific task for him which he wasn’t used to do at the academy, he could still make a quick adaptation and deliver the goods”.
One of the best ever age groups of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth department of late was the year of Dor Micha and Mounes Dabbur. One of the things they do best, is their movement off the ball. They are very smart in their game. Is this something which you are trying to focus on in the academy today?
We are focusing on that as well, of course. We teach our kids that there is that there is only one ball and 22 players on the pitch. Everyone has to move without the ball. We are teaching that, so they’d know where to move and if they happen to be free, then to know how to stay free. Our forward players we try and teach when they must reach the right area at the right moment, because this is one of the most important things. To run forward is good, but you need to know when to run. We are working on that with everyone. We want everyone to be able to initiate. If the right-back sees an opportunity to go forward, we want him to know how to do so together with the midfielder ahead of him or for an attacking player to capture the position of the full back in the event he goes forward and is an a further position up the pitch right now”.
One of the points of criticism of Maccabi Tel Aviv’s youth department in recent years was that it allowed its big talents to slip away. If we look at the first team now, about leading players like Eli Dasa and Omer Atzili belonged to Maccabi’s youth department, left and were later bought for millions of shekels. How do you prevent something like that happening as Performance Director?
“We can prevent that from happening only if we conduct an open discussion with the players and their parents, to tell them in advance what we are trying to achieve from them and with them. The second thing is that we must ensure that a situation where a parent wants to influence everything, will not happen because parents must understand that they have no influence on the footballing abilities of the child. At the end of the day, every club reaches a situation where a player will stay based on the negotiation talks over his contract. We try to prepare for that and reach a stage where we sit with the player and tell him ‘We think that you are talented, you have a future, you will receive a contract now which will not get your family to live wealthy from now on, but you will receive from us a benefit which mirrors what we see in you’. I am sure that in my time, we will lose players because sometimes you are pushed to a corner you don’t want to be in. You must think of the collective. If I have 25 players in the team, and one creates a problem, we must ensure the remaining 24 are on the right track. It could lead to us losing one talented player, there is no shame in that, especially when you want to go and a clear direction where everyone know what are our demands”.
What are the differences between a training session an 8 year old must receive, and the ones of a 16 year old?
“The big difference is that kids at the age of 7-8 must make mistakes. They need to make mistakes in order to understand football. When they are 16, we are aiming for them to make as little mistakes as possible. This is probably the most significant change. An 8 year old kid can make the same 5-6 mistakes, but with a 16 year old we want to see him make as many as one or to mistakes. They must know how to get out of their mistake and in fact need to know more. This is why I claim that kids of 8 years need to play as many positions as possible. To be able to know how to defend, how to play in midfield, how to attack. It will only help them make les mistakes in the future”.
You created a new system for players under the age of 21, which is to go on loan and receive playing minutes mostly in the second division. This season Maccabi is extremely successful and that is a lot due to the players who returned from loan spells. Do you believe that the decision to open B teams in the second division next season will be good for Israeli football?
“I really hope that this is what will happen. This is something which is missing in Israeli football. The statistic shows that many players between the age of 18-21 leave the game because they don’t get a chance to play. Not everyone is picked for the first team at this age and also not to teams in the second division and we lose many players in these ages. If I look at Maccabi, of the players we had on loan in recent years and returned to Maccabi or moved to another team, this is something which we should also work on. Personally I believe that one should work with those players within your club so that you’d be able to influence the player, to keep him in the same culture, the same style of play, instead of sending him on loan somewhere else where is a different way. We were fortunate to have a lot of interest in our players from Beitar Tel Aviv Ramle, and we opted for them to play together, and that is why in recent years we had 8-10 players sent on loan there together”.
What is the ideal route for a player who reaches the age of 19?
“For me – Maccabi B’/ Maccabi B’ in the second division. When you send a player on loan, he is no longer connected with the first team and a player at the age of 18-21, is someone who could put pressure on another player in the first team. But, on the other hand, it is very difficult for an 18 old player to leave an impression on a coach and convince him to keep him in the first team. This is why, when he stays within your system, ie Maccabi B’, you keep giving him the right framework and the chance to play for you but also allows the coach to keep following him and call him whenever he needs him in the first team. This gives a player another year-or-two of football within your organisation and this way the coach has another period of time in which he could follow his footballing development. For me, a 20 year old player needs to be ready for the first team and this is the way to prepare him for this position”.
How did you adapt to the system of a youth division, because we follow your Twitter account, there were several cases where you very critical of this subject. What is problematic with the system in your opinion?
“Well, one of the problems is obviously the fact we do not have a B’ team. For me the rule of the ‘over aged player’ is superficial. It leads to a situation where your team can have players who are three years apart, and not one year like it should be. You have players who are not out of school yet alongside players who are in the army. This effects the quality of the league. This is one of my problems. By the way, this is the reason why in our international tournament we defined in advance that the rule will be like the international rule. The games are for players under the age of 19 only. This is how we gave a chance to players under the age of 19 from the other participating Israeli clubs, to play against European opponents. Another problem I have is that every player under the age of 15 could to wherever he wants to. Or you have meetings with parents of a player and he tells you ‘listen, my kid is 15 years old and this is when football becomes a business. What are you offering me?’. These are things which are not good for clubs. Due to that, there are clubs that no longer invest in youth, there are those who invest but lose their players because they don’t have the ability to offer a contract as they invest everything on the development of a pitch and on coaches, this is where Israel must move more in the direction of Europe when a club investing in youth is always protected. So if a certain club wants a player from my team, he will have to compensate me financially and not be able to sign him without giving me anything in exchange. So in fact, those clubs would think again whether the actually need this player or do they already have someone similar in the tea who deserves a chance”.
Have you spoken to Willie Rotensteiner on this matter?
“We spoke on a range of topics, like B teams, we spoke of U19 teams and what needs to be done there, what needs to be done with the U15 teams, do we need a foreign player in the youth team, all those things we need to reach a situation where Israeli football is normal in relation to football across the world. I think that Willie is in the direction he could influence Israeli football”.
We saw Eden Kartzev earlier (Thursday) play and score a stunning goal. Where do you see his career heading, because Eden has been marked for several years as the next hot prospect of Israeli football?
“Ok, at the same this is also one of Eden’s problems, because from a really young age everyone has been saying that he is the hope of Israeli football. This is why things for him or for his parents didn’t progress as fast as they expected. They might have expected he would be already playing for the first team. But I think that over the past 2,5 years I had known Eden, he is at a point where he must play football in the top flight. He showed that he is becoming a more stable person and more stable player, and now is the time where he needs to show that. He received a few minutes in the Toto Cup and against Acco, last season he also played a little in the Toto Cup. But now the time has come and as an 18 year old player he could receive playing minutes in the top flight”.
One of the weaknesses of Israeli football in recent years was the lack of quality goalkeepers. At Maccabi you have Haviv Ohayon, Daniel Peretz and Omer Katz who is on lon at Beitar Tel Aviv Ramle and these are three who are marked to be Israel’s future keepers. Is this something you put emphasis on when you joined – finding the next keepers?
“To be perfectly honest, all three keepers you mentioned were here before. But yes, I have a clear vision on what I want to see from my keepers. I want to connect them with our style of play and this is something we performed a change the moment we signed Yisrael Eini (The Youth department GK coach) who has an experience of developing Dutch keepers, which is what we wanted to see. We have very talented keepers who got accustomed really well to the style of play with the feet, and know how to organise a game from the back, they are good in the air, so I am very pleased. When I look at the younger age groups, we have several more good keepers who are emerging now and I hope that in the future would be able to challenge and push Peretz and Ohayoun to their maximum”.
Haviv Ohayon was already on the right track for an international career at Watford but the serious injury he suffered stopped him. Do you see him bounce back and rejoin that track?
“It totally depends on him now, he understood that he must work hard in order to regain his fitness which would be his battle for the remainder of his career – to keep on working hard, because this is what he needs in his condition ‘.
In recent weeks there were negotiations with Beitar Jerusalem for Eylon Almog. But in the end he wasn’t sold, in exchange for almost EUR 1.5m for 50% of his registration. Do you think he is worth such a fee?
“It is completely irrelevant. Eylon is a very talented player. Only today, a Dutch player (Franki De Jong) was sold for approx. 85m, as we are in an age where money is no longer relevant. If a club is willing to pay, then the fee is normal”.
Do you think Maccabi, as the biggest club in Israel must sell its biggest talents to other clubs in the league?
“No. But we need to be open and honest and if there is a chance we must at least consider it and reach an opinion on the subject”.
What is it like for you to work for an owner like Mitch Goldhar who is willing to invest such big fees on the Youth department?
“For me and for the rest of the coaches it is important and very helpful that the youth department is so important for him and that he I willing to invest money in the development of youth, and that he wants the academy players to play for his first team. This is the best advertising card to advertise your club, which is not only to bring them to the first team but in the future to also sell themand generate a transfer which is good for your club, let us just hope that now after the results of his investment in the youth department are connected with the success of the first team, one could also improve the facilities of the club. This would be the final step in the long term plans of Maccabi Tel Aviv”.
It is impossible to build in Israel a La Masia like in Barcelona or a Jong Ajax, but what can Maccabi do so that Goldhar’s investment would deliver the goods and even repay itself?
“I think this will happen (for the department to repay the money invested in it). Without a doubt. If you take the latest situation with Eylon Almog. I can tell you that I see very talented players emerge, and we know that also from the international activities of our players, or from the fact European clubs got in touch with us requesting to call up our players for trials. We have a club which gives its players the opportunity to become professional players, we have an owner who gives those players the opportunity to reach their maximum potential. This is why we don’t need to sell talented players early or loan them, we want to keep them with us and develop them as much as possible”.