"It was a magnificent tournament for youngsters learning how to play the game," commented UEFA technical observer Ginés Meléndez. "All eight teams – and not just the ones rated as potential winners – tried to construct, tried to build via combinations in midfield. It was great entertainment and it was something special to see such attacking football and such creativity. All eight teams were very similar. Not in terms of playing systems but with regard to their concepts about attacking and defending. If we saw a lot of goals, it was about well-constructed attacks and not about poor defending."
The result of attacking vocations was a tournament which contrasted sharply with the 2013 finals, at which only 24 goals had been scored and the champion had found the net four times in five games.
A pair of wings
The recent trend towards a 4-2-3-1 structure was continued at the final tournament in Malta, where six of the eight contestants used this formation as a default setting. Turkey and Portugal opted for a more clearly-defined 4-3-3 system, though the former's frequently evolved into a 4-1-4-1. Other teams also introduced shades of meaning via flexibility from game to game or during the 80 minutes – Scotland providing a prime example of the latter with strategic switches to 4-4-2 and Switzerland permuting 4-2-3-1 with 4-3-3.
Tactical flexibility made an impact on the tournament. Trailing 1-0 at half-time in the crucial group match against Switzerland, the Scots made a double half-time substitution, sending on Craig Wighton and Ryan Hardie to operate as the striking partnership in their switch to 4-4-2. On taking the advantage, this evolved into a 4-4-1-1 structure with Wighton as the more advanced striker and Hardie dropping deep to receive the ball and launch hard-running counter-strikes. A three-goal dividend from the tactical change allowed Scotland to reach the semi-finals at the expense of the Swiss and Germans, who might have been considered the pre-tournament favourites to qualify.
However, although team shapes ebbed and flowed, the common denominator in Malta was the use of the wide areas by fast, skilful wingers who were key components in the 4-2-3-1 and 4-3-3 structures. Even the teams eliminated in the group phase were equipped to run at opponents on the flanks. Malta, with Aidan Friggieri and Joseph Mbong, provided a prime example of ambitious, attack-minded play based on rapid incursions on the wings.
The approach work of semi-finalists Portugal relied heavily on the contributions by Diogo Gonçalves and Buta or João Carvalho in the wide areas. The finalists also exemplified the effectiveness of wing play. The high-speed dribbling skills and directional changes of Steven Bergwijn and Bilal Ould-Chikh were fundamental weapons in the Dutch attacking armoury, while England created a similar sense of danger via Patrick Roberts and Isaiah Brown.
Most teams effected positional interchanging of their wingers during the 80 minutes, but the presence of 'inverted wingers' was a notable element among their starting positions. The trend towards fielding left-footers as right-wingers and vice-versa opened the door for the wide players to cut inside and either search for shooting opportunities (both Bergwijn and Roberts occupied places among the leading scorers) or to open space on the wings for the overlapping full-backs. These players also made significant contributions to their teams' attacking play – to the extent that there were many candidates to join England's Jonjoe Kenny and Tafari Moore in the UEFA technical team's selection of the most notable players of the tournament, particularly Portugal right-back Hugo Santos or Scotland left-back Kyle Cameron.
A constructive approach
All eight teams gave preference to building from the back, with Turkey sometimes providing the exception to prove the rule by opting for direct lofted supplies to their target striker and captain Enes Ünal. The general modus operandi was based on possession play with, when the goalkeeper had the ball, the two full-backs advancing; the two centre-backs splitting wide; and the screening midfielder (or one of them) dropping deep to form a core triangle.
To compete at this level, centre-backs therefore needed to be technically equipped to detect and deliver the forward pass in addition to their basic requisites in terms of defensive skills. They tended to be positionally conservative, though the German pair of Lukas Boeder and Benedikt Gimber were prepared to push forward in search of numerical superiority in midfield. Furthermore, England centre-back Joseph Gomez was willing to indulge in powerful upfield runs, notably the high-speed incursion as far as the Turkish byline, when he produced the cutback that allowed Dominic Solanke to tap in the equaliser.
With almost all teams focusing on playing their way through midfield, screening midfielders had crucial roles to play in construction work and, more especially, in opening play to the flanks. Portugal operated with a single midfield screen, Rúben Neves making an outstanding contribution at the base of a triangle in which Gonçalo Rodrigues performed a box-to-box role and the gifted Renato Sanches produced the creative touches which linked midfield with attack. Among the teams who deployed twin screens, the balance between the two pivotal players was a relevant factor. In the English line-up, captain Ryan Ledson was the constant provider of leadership qualities and defensive cover, while other tasks were shared among his colleagues in midfield. The Dutch pair of Donny van der Beek and Jari Schuurman also achieved a nice balance in terms of shielding the back four and pushing forward to support attacks.
The strike force
With the exceptions of Scotland's switches to 4-4-2 and Fatih Aktay's support to Enes in the Turkish attack, the teams operated with a solitary striker. Enes could be cited among the few forwards with a 'target man' profile (a topic which can be linked to the lack of headed goals referred to as a 'talking point' elsewhere in this report). Among the teams in Malta, the trend was clearly towards a mobile central attacker prepared to drift wide to receive or to open central spaces. England's Adam Armstrong, the Dutch team's Segun Owobowale or Portugal's Alexandre Silva were prime examples. On the other hand, the Dutch squad contained target striker Dani van der Moot as an attacking option but, although he supplied two goals, strikers were not the predominant force among the tournament's leading scorers.
|Dani van der Moot||Netherlands||2|
The tournament total of 46 goals at an average of fractionally over three per match represented a sharp contrast to the previous season's final tournament in Slovakia, which had registered an all-time low of 1.6 goals per game. Comparisons can be unreliable in the sense that only the Swiss were making a second successive appearance, and the 2014 lineup featured six former champions of Europe at this level who travelled to Malta with ambitions of adding to their collection of silverware. As Meléndez remarked "
I've been at so many tournaments with the Spanish side, but this has to be among the most impressive. The concepts displayed by the teams were extraordinary in terms of speed and dynamism, creativity and movement. It was all about the sort of possession play I identify with – progressive, vertical possession using the width of the pitch and pushing players up to the box to support attacks. The number of goals reflected the philosophies of the teams and the quality of their attacking play."
The contrast between the two tournaments can be highlighted by comparisons between the two champions. In 2013, Russia won the title with an average of 6.60 goal attempts per match, of which 3.2 were on target. The table below includes the figures for the 2014 champions.
How the goals were scored
A salient feature of the tournament was that only five goals (11%) were derived from set plays; two of these were penalties converted by Dutch defender Calvin Verdonk. Three other spot kicks (in normal play) were saved by the goalkeeper. Only two goals stemmed from corners – both in confrontations between the Netherlands and England. During the group match, substitute Van der Moot headed in from close range after a short corner had resulted in the ball being played into the box. Then, in the final, England opened the scoring after a deep corner had been headed back across the box from beyond the far post. They represented the only rewards from 121 corners.
Only one goal was the result of a direct free-kick, with Portugal's Pedro Rodrigues hitting a shot which evaded attackers and defenders alike to find its way into the German net.
Debating the key elements behind set-play successes, the coaches pinpointed the quality of delivery as a determining factor.
Despite the quality of the combination moves and solo runs, the main source of open-play goals was long-range shooting, often attributable to situations where defences had been dragged deep, leaving unprotected areas in the proximity of the box. Although defence-to-attack transitions were generally fast, only three goals could be genuinely attributed to counterattacks, one of them being the Gomez upfield surge which led to England's equaliser against Turkey.
The goals were unevenly distributed over the 80 minutes, with only 14 (30%) scored during the first half compared with 32 after the interval. However, it would be risky to venture the fatigue factor as an explanation for the preponderance of second-half goals, as only seven hit the net during the closing ten minutes and none during additional time.
The card game
The tournament in Malta produced 307 fouls, compared with 413 in the previous year – a downturn of 25%. What is more, the 15 matches yielded 30 yellow cards in comparison with 68 in 2012 and 54 in 2013. Two players were red-carded at a final tournament where the two finalists also emerged as the top two in the UEFA fair play ranking.
Fatigue and fitness
The intensive match schedule made heavy demands on the players, obliging coaches to focus on rest and recovery during the two days between fixtures. Three of the semi-finalists (England, Netherlands and Portugal) were able to share workloads as a result of securing their place in the last four with a group game to spare. However, some coaches had to contend with fatigue accumulated prior to the trip to Malta. The Germany squad, for instance, contained players who had contested their final domestic championship matches days before the final tournament.
"Some are already in the Under-19 and youth leagues," commented coach Christian Wück, "and had already played 50 or so games before travelling to Malta. At this stage of player development, we need to be careful to differentiate between 'athletic conditioning' and 'football conditioning' and accept that, in terms of working the players, a 'less-is-more' policy is the most appropriate." Malta's Sergio Soldano also stressed "we need to keep a balance in physical preparation.
It's essential to remember that football is not a science – but that science can help."
Aptitudes and attitudes
"These tournaments are about developing players. The work dynamic is different and, when you have so many days together, you focus on man-management aspects related to group spirit and a sense of responsibility. So, apart from individual qualities, I look at a player's ability to integrate into the group, his behaviour, his ambition to improve. We have to help to form the player's attitudes." The words by Portugal's Emilio Peixe reflected the majority view among the coaches in Malta in terms of selection criteria.
Netherlands coach Maarten Stekelenburg concurred: "I look to make a nice mix of personalities and also ask basic questions like: 'Is he a talent?' or 'Is he just physically strong?' In Holland we can pretty well take technical ability for granted, so we need to look at other things, like what they actually contribute on the field; whether 'will to win' is among their capacities and whether we feel that they genuinely have a chance of reaching the 'A' team."
"It's important to know youth players as persons, to see what they do off the pitch," Swiss coach Yves Débonnaire added. "And it's fascinating to track each player's development, to keep an eye on the players who rise or fall year by year. Some of our U16s, for example, didn't make it into this team and others have developed enough to come in."
Débonnaire is a staunch supporter of the Swiss association's policy of entrusting the youth development teams to educators rather than big-name former players – a view endorsed by Scotland's performance director Mark Wotte. "I'm a former physical education teacher," he commented, "and I believe it's important that educational background should be present in coaching." Stekelenburg, a youth development specialist, prefers a mixed approach: "I wanted to work with a recently-retired player and recruited Mark van Bommel – who unfortunately wasn't able to go to the final tournament."
Peixe, a former international player, said that "as a national team coach at these levels you're not so much working on technique as on improving tactical knowledge, reading of the game and interpreting concepts." Débonnaire echoed this view: "
You transmit concepts rather than work on details and you use guided-discovery methods to encourage players to solve problems."
The tournament in Malta was the last to feature eight teams, with the 2015 finals in Bulgaria switching to 16 participants. The coaches unanimously hailed the change as an important advance in youth football. "It's a positive move," said Turkey's Hakan Tecimer, "because it will offer exposure to a greater variety of systems and tactics. This means better educational opportunities and a greater chance to measure yourself against other countries and to progress. For the coaches working at youth development levels, it also means more contacts with the colleagues in charge of other teams."