How this Head Coach trusts in youth and gets results
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Best Practice
How this Head Coach trusts in youth and gets results
by Peter Banke

Kent Nielsen, the Head Coach of Silkeborg IF, is in Europe’s top 10 for TransferRoom’s Trust in Youth and has led his team to the Danish Cup final. The 62-year-old and his Sporting Director explain the keys to his success.

It’s both the strategy and the Head Coach [that's led to our success]. It’s not only Kent Nielsen - Kent is very good, I have to say - but it’s also the strategy of the club that makes him succeed on such a high level.
Jesper Stüker
Sporting Director, Silkeborg IF

Wherever Kent Nielsen’s been, he's always done it his own way.


As an example, Nielsen doesn't follow the modern coaching trend of having a big support team around him. Instead, he surrounds himself with just an Assistant, a Sporting Director, and a part-time scout to observe opponents.


And it works.


In 2021-22, Nielsen and Silkeborg surprisingly finished third in Denmark’s top flight and qualified for Europe, straight after promotion from the First Division in the previous season.


Having cemented their place in the league, they're now going toe-to-toe with the heavyweights of Danish football—FC Copenhagen, Brøndby IF, and FC Midtjylland.


And all that success has come with one of the youngest squads in Denmark, earning Nielsen a place in Europe’s top 10 by TransferRoom’s Trust in Youth rating, which combines the average age of his starting XI, the percentage of minutes given to players under 24, and the number of senior debuts a coach has given.


Top 10 Head Coaches in Europe by Trust in Youth Rating


“Kent Nielsen is not always by the book when you read on the modern style on how to manage young players and teams,“ said Jesper Stüker, Silkeborg's Sporting Director with a smile. Stüker has been at the club for 17 years in a diverse range of roles and was the man responsible for hiring Nielsen in 2019.


Stüker explains why he thinks Nielsen excels in integrating young players into the team.


“He would say he’s a little bit old-fashioned. But I would say it’s a comeback for the modern leader. Because he is very clear. He is very clear on his demands for the players. He doesn’t nurse them, but they know where he is, and what he wants from them. They know what is good, and what is bad.


“When the players accept that, they see it is about the players’ development and for the best of the players. He has an ability also to give the players confidence and make them mentally strong,” said Stüker, who played under Nielsen for AC Horsens in the early 2000s.


“We had a good connection,“ said Stüker about the hiring process.


“Of course, we discussed what the role was for Kent, the strategy of the club. Also being a selling club, and how we wanted to develop the club. The importance of the Academy and the young players getting into the team.


kent nielsen silkeborg players 16x9

Silkeborg Head Coach Kent Nielsen (centre) leads a session with his young squad


“It is important that we, as a club, are pretty clear how we are as a club and want to develop the football department. How we want to play and how we want to put the squad together. Kent needed to see himself in that, and he did.”


At Silkeborg, Stüker and Nielsen are focused on building a team around a blend of Academy players, players between the ages of 20 and 22, and experienced players.


The prime example of Nielsen’s work in Silkeborg is Nicolai Vallys. The attacking midfielder came to Silkeborg at the age of 22 from Roskilde in Denmark’s First Division in 2018. In August ’22 Vallys went to Brøndby for a reported fee of 22.5million DKK (€3million). In August 2023, Vallys received his first call-up to the Denmark national team.


“He has developed me incredibly,” Vallys told Silkeborg IF's website. “I joke that I first learned to play football in Silkeborg.”


How to find the best Head Coach for your club


TransferRoom launched CoachFinder in November 2023, a product to help clubs make data-driven decisions and make the right appointment of a Head Coach, with access to a global talent pool.


And now TransferRoom has added CoachFinder for Agents, allowing Trusted Agents on TransferRoom to pitch their Head Coaches directly to the decision-makers and show why their client is the right fit for a club with in-depth data insights.


Additionally, an in-depth Head Coach report was generated, covering the top 10 rankings for Head Coach Rating, Team Rating Impact, and lastly Trust in Youth, prominently featuring Nielsen's name. Club decision-makers can access all three metrics on CoachFinder, within the global database of over 5,000 Head Coach profiles on the platform.

The Trust in Youth rating considers three metrics:

  • The average age of a Head Coach’s 11 starting players
  • The percentage of first-team minutes that are given to players under 24 - typically the age at which a player’s xTV (Expected Transfer Value) is at its peak
  • The number of senior debuts that a Head Coach provides


Read more: Trust in Youth rating explained

Kent Nielsen ranks among the top 10 Head Coaches in all of Europe for Trust in Youth, securing the ninth position, and holds the second spot in Denmark.
“I’m not surprised,” said Stüker, and he explains why.


“It’s both the strategy and the coach. It’s not only Kent - Kent is very good, I have to say - but it’s also the strategy of the club that makes him succeed on such a high level.”


Kent Nielsen is a Danish football legend, famous for his heroic defending when Denmark surprisingly won UEFA Euro 1992.


He had successful spells as a player with clubs such as Brøndby IF in Denmark and Aston Villa in England, and after retiring as a player, Nielsen transitioned into coaching and management.


With a wealth of 25 years of coaching experience in the Superliga, Nielsen has been involved in over 500 matches across AGF, AC Horsens, Brøndby, Aalborg, OB, and Silkeborg IF.


His biggest result is winning the Danish Superliga and Cup in 2013-14 with Aalborg, at that time a team of many young and local talents.


Adapting and innovating with a new style


At Silkeborg, Nielsen is earning an equal amount of respect for not only producing results with a young team – with a budget well below the top three clubs – but also with an entertaining brand of football.


Nielsen was formerly known as a defensive coach, now embracing an approach centred around honing a dynamic, passing-oriented style. Nielsen himself would describe his style as pragmatic – insisting on pursuing tasks in his own unique manner.


“We have found a way of playing that is different from what most teams are playing,” said Nielsen.


“We have found a niche. Instead of just copying – by statistics or whatever - other clubs, or saying we want to play with high pressure, high intense running. Our main focus is we want to have the ball, we want to play with the ball.”


Internationally, in the 2022-23 UEFA Europa Conference League group stage, Nielsen’s young guns impressed in narrow defeats to Premier League club West Ham United, the eventual winners of the trophy, a 3-2 loss at home and 1-0 away.


"After our bronze medal when we sold really, really good players and we were going out to play in Europe we were not that worried, everybody told us that you can’t play like that in Europe but we could. We did well.”


How Nielsen maximises player potential


Young or experienced you need to be smart to fit in Nielsen’s squad.


“What we have focused on is ‘smart players’. These smart players are so difficult to see on statistics.


“They don’t have to be quick, they don’t have to be big. They need to be good with the ball, but then they have to be good at making surprise passes. That makes us different.


“Our niche is also that we have to be very good at playing in the centre of the pitch, and no matter how many players the opponent puts in there, we need to find solutions there.


“And that’s where we have found players where in other clubs they say: ‘We need the high pressure, we need the high intense running.’ Some players can’t run with high intensity but if they are smart on the ball then we can use them.”


Maximising potential from his young players to achieve success is an important part of being a Silkeborg-coach. Watching him coaching his young team training at JYSK Park – surrounded by beautiful woodlands – you can clearly hear and see that he enjoys it.


“I have a temper, but we have created an environment where we are ambitious but we can also have a laugh. But we should always be clear on when it’s time for business.


“I can accept when players are trying the right thing but don’t have success. I prefer they are trying the right thing than playing the safe thing. Keep working.”


“In general I’ve always liked to work with young players.


“But if I come to a club where the demand is to win the championship then I would not say; OK, let’s bring a lot of youngsters in. Because that’s not realistic. You can do it – we did it in Aalborg – but it’s difficult to keep doing that.


“In Aalborg, we had to release some of the experienced players because of the financial situation, and then we only worked with youngsters.


“Here in Silkeborg, it is part of the strategy. We need young players.


“We have to work hard at our academy. And then we have to be aware of youngsters in other Superliga clubs that are not playing that much, are they suited for us. It has also to do with the finances, because we can’t go out and buy the best.


“That’s the strategy, to try to find youngsters at our academy and from the outside. But I’m still in this to make results, I’m not here only to develop.


“When we are putting together a team for the forthcoming game, that’s the best XI. At that time I don’t care if they are old, young, or whatever.


“It is a pleasure for me to work with youngsters that can fulfill their dreams. I am really pleased when it happens to some of the players. That, for me, is why I’m going on to the pitch every day.


“To work with the players and the team, be together with them… My part, the staff's part of making things happen, hopefully in a good way, seeing teams, and players getting better or blooming …that’s what really interests me and makes me happy.


“But we also want to win matches because that is the key factor for us. To win as many matches as possible.”


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