When it comes to player development, Dinamo Zagreb are among Europe’s elite. FTF spoke to Dinamo’s former technical director Romeo Jozak to find out why.
To Romeo’s left, to Romeo’s right and in front of him, there was Luka Modric, Mario Mandzukic and Vedran Corluka dressed in the baggy blue and white strips of Dinamo Zagreb.
This was the early 2000s, before the cup finals and golden medals when the three men were just scrawny boys still learning their trade with the Croatian outfit.
‘Twenty years ago all these guys were young and skinny,’ Romeo Jozak, who worked in various positions at Dinamo Zagreb intermittently between 1999-2017, tells First Time Finish.
‘When you go back and remember yourself in the locker-room with all these guys it’s unbelievable to think what they have achieved.’
Since the 2000s Dinamo Zagreb’s diaspora has stretched across the globe. Romeo Jozak has seen the club’s proteges including Modric, Mandzukic and Corluka lift multiple Champions League titles, World Cup medals and even a Ballon D’or.
Jozak and Dinamo’s achievements have earned them recognition from esteemed organisations like the CIES Football Observatory.
According to CIES statistics, Dinamo Zagreb have produced the third highest number of professional players (71) playing in Europe’s top divisions. With a score of 76.6, only Real Madrid, Barcelona, SL Benfica and Ajax are ranked higher.
It has not been an overnight success. Everything started back then, in the early 2000s and with Romeo. FTF spoke at length to the former academy director about the recipe for his success.
Back in 1999, Romeo Jozak was only in charge of Dinamo Zagreb’s reserve team. He was still making his tentative steps into football coaching at the same time as Luka Modric was making his first steps in professional football.
Romeo Jozak still remembers his former player well.
‘Luka was good, he was very very skinny. He was agile and fast and he kept the ball securely like he does now.
He played in the same position. To be honest he wasn’t standing out in the same way he does now but what he did have was stability and consistency. He was very reliable.
In the Croatian second league it was tough, we played against a bunch of older guys who pressed us hard and the safest pass was always to Luka in the middle. He was never going to lose the ball or at least very rarely.’
But back then Romeo remembers a Dinamo Zagreb team littered with talented players. Some who were on the same level as Luka Modric.
‘In these early ages, he was okay, I mean he was more than okay,’ he explains. ‘But I tell you what back then we had twenty players in the second team who were all national players for the U17,U18 and U19 national teams. They were a bunch of really good kids who were the core part of the national teams. Some of his teammates were just as good as him.’
In the end it was Modric who pipped them all and forged a career in Europe, becoming one of the first success stories in Dinamo Zagreb’s academy history and a first inkling that Romeo had a knack for player development.
After flitting around as Dinamo Zagreb assistant manager and a brief stint at NK Osijek in 2007, Romeo Jozak was appointed as the club’s Academy Director in 2008.
‘That was when things really began,’ Romeo remembers.
By then Dinamo Zagreb already had a culture and strong academy ethos. The club’s first team squad included the likes of Vedran Corluka, Mario Mandzukic, Dejan Lovren and the aforementioned Modric.
However, Jozak wanted to take them a step further. Having embedded himself into the club’s culture he had a strong vision of how to take Dinamo Zagreb to the next level.
‘In the first three years, maybe only two people stayed from the original staff who was there when I arrived. I said thank you to 25 people in the academy,’ he explains.
Jozak’s concentrated vision necessitated the radical changes.
‘The criteria I was following with the new coaches was a particular personality. I was looking for people who had this genetic inborn passion with a football logic and intelligence.’
Romeo drove around Zagreb and across Croatia day and night to find the right personnel who adhered to his vision. He listened to word of mouth and went wherever it led him.
‘I followed their (potential coaches) games in the lower-leagues where they were playing watching their behaviour in the game, listening to what others had to say about them without them even knowing.’
In the space of three years, as 25 staff members departed the academy Romeo Jozak recruited roughly 32 new coaches.
‘Some of them didn’t have all the licenses, but they had all the other things, like the personality, the drive and an intelligent understanding of the game. They had core human values which influenced my decisions.’
Romeo’s decision has been affirmed in the years since.
‘Those guys are now in the Croatian first division or later on became coaches in the Croatian national team set-ups.’
Under Jozak’s helm Dinamo Zagreb’s esteem in Europe and around the world grew in multitudes.
‘All the other coaches and staff were just as crazy and had the same ambitions as me. It was together that we made the Dinamo Zagreb academy into what it is today,’ Rome explains.
Changes were not just implemented in terms of staff, Romeo Jozak and his fellow coaches introduced an extensive training and development programme as well as an innovative talent identification system which is now being used by many other academies worldwide.
‘I put down a curriculum where we concentrated about the skill and the technical aspects. One big component of that however was that the skilful players do not make it unless there was a mentality behind it.
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You can have all the quality in the world, but if you don’t have the passion to put your head down on somebody’s cleats it’s going to be very hard to make it. So we made sure we primarily selected players with a similar drive.’
The Dinamo Zagreb method was also ahead of its time in terms of incorporating scientific knowledge about muscle growth and cognitive muscle memory into their development programme.
‘In term of training philosophy we created a periodisation and a curriculum to develop players’ techniques at the right ages and not overload them, which at the time nobody else was doing.’
‘In the ages of 11 or 12 ,we started with the basic operation of the individual technique transfer into the functional technique.’
An individual technique is what a player can do on the ball without the interference of tactics or opponents. Functional technique as defined by Romeo is when a player is using his skills to solve problems on the pitch. At Dinamo, the focus first and foremost was to develop individual techniques at a young age, before gradually moving to implement those techniques in more and more problem solving scenarios.
‘Later on, we equalised functional technique with individual tactics. We taught players how to position themselves on the pitch towards the space and their teammates in order to define their control of the ball.’
This methodology was an integral part of the club’s coaching system.
‘The functional technique became a key component of our player development. At older age groups we used it to integrate it into team tactics to the offense and the defence. That was the general structure of our philosophy, with millions of details in there of course.’
With the right coaches in charge, an excellent player identification system and an advanced player development model, Dinamo Zagreb were able to thrive under Romeo Jozak’s tenure.
In 2013, the club’s 1998 generation who were around nine or ten years of age when Jozak first took over won the prestigious Nike Premier Cup beating the best academies in world football like AC Milan, Arsenal and Boca Juniors at the hallowed Old Trafford stadium.
And since Jozak’s tenure, Dinamo have sold academy products to Juventus, Barcelona, RB Leipzig, Napoli, Inter, VfL Wolsburg, Manchester City, Leicester City, AS Roma and Lyon just to name a few, netting the club mass profits in the process.
Dissecting the success
14 players in Croatia’s 2018 World Cup Final squad had either come through Dinamo Zagreb or represented the Croatian giants during their fledgling career. That number was a record at the tournament and will be difficult to beat in future competitions.
Since the 2010/11 season there has been at least one Croatian in at least one of the Champions League finalist’ squad. This includes the likes of Luka Modric, Dejan Lovren, Mateo Kovacic or Mario Mandzukic from Dinamo Zagreb.
With two of the four meeting each other in this year’s semi-final there’s already a guarantee that the trend will continue in the 2020/21 season ensuring a decade long run.
‘It’s all about the coaches,’ Jozak explains, who left his role in 2013 to become the technical director of the Croatian national team before returning to the club for a brief year in 2017.
‘It doesn’t matter which colour jersey you are going to wear, red, blue, green or whatever, you need a proper coach, with a proper drive, intelligence and the proper talent with strong values so he doesn’t turn on the wrong path. Then you need the proper player selection and then the curriculum. That’s the triangle which is very important for success.’
The club’s prestigious academy is now attracting players not just from Croatia but all over the world.
Dani Olmo made waves when he switched from Barcelona’s La Masia academy back in 2014 to Dinamo Zagreb in a move which has paid dividends to both the player and the club. In 2020, Wales U21 international Robbie Burton moved from Arsenal to Dinamo at just 20 years of age.
‘Fifteen years ago someone like Dani Olmo would never come to Dinamo Zagreb at the level the academy was when I got there.
‘Now with all the references and our reputation around the world Dinamo can attract quality players.’
A strong future
During the 2020/21 season Dinamo Zagreb achieved the club’s best European performance in the 21st century. On their run to the Europa League quarter finals Dinamo defeated Tottenham Hotspur with a starting eleven that had an average age of 25.6.
Meanwhile, nine players who either came through the ranks at Dinamo Zagreb or currently represent the club were in the Croatia U21 squad that knocked out England at the European Championships.
These successes are proof the club’s academy continues to flourish even in the absence of Jozak. Especially considering the likes of Josko Gvardiol, Borna Sosa and Josip Brekalo missed out on an U21 call-up due to first team commitments or injury.
Whether the next Dinamo Zagreb graduates can emulate their predecessors is a chapter yet to be written.
But the simple fact that a country of merely 4 million people continues to be able to compete with football’s elite should be enough to take notice.
Especially, in a diluted football world where the rich perpetually supress the poor.
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