Take-home messages from the Netherlands

The qualifiers for the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup are underway again – with teams looking to put into practice lessons learned from last year’s UEFA Women’s EURO. UEFA’s coaching magazine The Technician recently published a review of the UEFA Conference for Women’s National Team Coaches, and its technical and tactical findings from the tournament in the Netherlands.

The Netherlands, here celebrating their UEFA Women's EURO triumph, set new benchmarks for the future
The Netherlands, here celebrating their UEFA Women's EURO triumph, set new benchmarks for the future ©Getty Images

With the dust beginning to settle on UEFA Women’s EURO 2017 and the Netherlands’ ending of the 22-year German monopoly that was nestling safely in the record books, national team coaches and women’s football specialists from all of UEFA’s member associations were invited to a conference in Amsterdam in November, where the brief was to pinpoint the take-home messages transmitted by the final tournament in the Netherlands and translate them into useful pointers for the coaches working at all levels of the fast-growing women’s game.

In Amsterdam, the views expressed by UEFA’s technical observers Hesterine de Reus, Patricia González, Jarmo Matikainen and Anne Noë provided a valuable glance in the rear-view mirror during the steady onward drive that is sweeping through the women’s game.

“To be successful in the future, we need greater variety and flexibility in our attacking options” (Martin Sjögren). “The teams in possession didn’t seem to find solutions against deep defensive blocks. Options in the final third were not good enough” (Freyr Alexandersson). “All teams can defend well in the box, so we need to find solutions. Different kinds of crosses, running pathways into the box, overloads with more overlapping players” (Pia Sundhage). These comments by the coaches of Norway, Iceland and Sweden encapsulate one of the major talking points to emerge from a final tournament which, on the road to the final, posted a miserly all-time low of 2.07 goals per match. Even though the thrilling six-goal grand finale in Enschede lifted the overall average to 2.19, the prevalence of defence over attack was a salient feature of the first 16-team event, where Austria – one of five debutants – laid the foundations for a historic run to the semi-finals by conceding one goal in 510 minutes of football. The goal tally at EURO 2017 was 28% lower than the average registered at the 2015 Women’s World Cup. 

Strikers often came up against packed defences - such as here in the match between Austria and Switzerland
Strikers often came up against packed defences - such as here in the match between Austria and Switzerland©Sportsfile

Although statistics do not lie, they are often quite good at concealing the truth. So debate focused on whether the scarcity of goals was down to effective defending or ineffective attacking. Or both. In presenting the ‘case for the defence’, Jarmo Matikainen expressed the view that for teams [at Women’s EURO 2017] “all attributes related to defending had continued to improve” and that “once in defensive shape, teams were very difficult to break down”. Austria evidently provided a reference point, Dominik Thalhammer’s team implementing rapid transitions to defensive mode with one of the screening midfielders – Sara Puntigam – quickly slotting into the space between centre-back and left-back to complete a back line of five. 

Building from the back
Defensive density was further illustrated by the fact that, even though the number of goal attempts increased by 18.5% in relation to EURO 2013, the conversion rate dropped and 24% of attempts were blocked by defenders. The arts of defending also interlocked, with noticeable improvements in athletic preparation. As Jarmo Matikainen commented: “All teams had invested in physical preparation and were able to produce high-quality defensive work during the game and throughout an intensive tournament.” A glut of late goals is traditionally linked to fatigue factors – and this trend was notable by its absence in the Netherlands. Tournament data reveal that 55% of the goals were scored before the half-time interval.

Investment in fitness levels also made an impact on game strategies, with teams, as Jarmo Matikainen pointed out, displaying “greater ability to recover quickly after losing possession” and to execute “immediate pressing to regain possession whenever possible”. Defensive efficacy was further underlined by the fact that 23 of the 26 games which produced victories were won by the team scoring first. Even though the opening goal hit the net during the opening half-hour in half of those matches – giving the opposition time to find a response – teams were equipped to successfully preserve (or extend) their advantage.

Hence the doubts expressed by coaches and observers alike about whether attacking finesse had been able to keep pace with advances in the art of defending. As Spain coach Jorge Vilda commented: “When you have an opponent who shuts it down at the back and is able to sustain pace and power over the 90 minutes, you have to cope with lack of space in the final third. It’s difficult, but I’m convinced we can find solutions.”

England's Jodie Taylor was the leading goalscorer at UEFA Women's EURO 2017
England's Jodie Taylor was the leading goalscorer at UEFA Women's EURO 2017©Getty Images

This was one of the themes picked up by Patricia González when she took the stage to discuss attacking play. Spain, along with Germany and France, were alone among the 16 contestants to have more than 50% of possession in each game. All three were eliminated in the quarter-finals. Overall, eight of the tournament’s 26 victories were for the team with the lesser share of possession. The same three teams topped the table in terms of the number of passes per game and per phase of possession (Spain 3.6, Germany 3.5, France 2.7) compared with, for example, England’s 1.7 or Austria’s 1.2. “I felt that the possession teams didn’t have enough changes of pace in their attacking game,” commented Denmark coach Nils Nielsen, “whereas teams like England were able to do a lot of damage with direct fast-forward attacking.” The three ‘possession teams’ scored 10 goals in the 12 matches they played – 7 of which were from dead-ball situations. In other words, their 1,100 minutes of football yielded only three open-play goals. Efficient finishing was evidently a factor in the equation. Whereas England needed only 5.18 attempts to score a goal and the Netherlands 5.77, Germany required 17.6, France 21.67 and Spain 36.5. 

Playing direct pays dividends
The viability of the direct approach was underlined by the fact that 24% of the tournament’s open-play goals could be attributed to fast counterattacks executed before the opponent’s defensive block had time to assemble. The Netherlands capitalised on coaching-manual counters to score crucial goals, while Austria implemented a clear counterattacking strategy. As the tournament review indicates: “The preference was to play as directly as possible into the final third, exploiting Nina Burger’s intelligent off-the-ball running and composure on the ball. Second-ball support was provided at sprint speed, with Laura Feiersinger breaking out fast on the right to play a key transition role in an effective defence-to-attack strategy.” In Amsterdam, Nils Nielsen, during the coaches’ forum session, took the microphone to express the opinion that Feiersinger was his prototype of the player of the future: “unpredictable,” he said, “but everything she did made a contribution to the team’s collective play”. His opinion provokes reflections on potential dividends from the development of ‘transition players’. As Iceland’s Freyr Alexandersson admitted: “We did not use our transition moments as well as we could have. There were moments when we opted to clear the ball out instead of passing to our transition player.”

Denmark forward Nadia Nadim won plaudits for her attacking threat
Denmark forward Nadia Nadim won plaudits for her attacking threat©Sportsfile

On stage in Amsterdam, Hesterine de Reus’s review of player development issues broached the subject of players ready, willing and able to engage in one-on-ones in the final third: “Could it be that coaches are underestimating the value of one-on-one abilities, not basing game plans on them, not encouraging players to use them – or even discouraging players from using them?” “What I missed,” added Patricia González, “was greater bravery in going one-on-one in the final third. Players like Nadia Nadim, Lieke Martens and Pernille Harder stood out because they were willing to create disbalance by taking on opponents.” Jarmo Matikainen added: “We saw excellent one-on-one defending – but not so much at the other end. There was a tendency to be very disciplined in applying game plans, and maybe not enough room for improvisation.”  

Dutch star Lieke Martens (left) was named Player of the Tournament
Dutch star Lieke Martens (left) was named Player of the Tournament©Getty Images

The coaches on stage were quick to endorse the importance of audacity in the final third. “I support this absolutely,” Nils Nielsen commented. “You don’t win by being careful, so the key is to go 100%. This was our approach in the final. It was certainly more interesting than if we had parked the bus in front of our goal. We would probably have lost anyway …” Switzerland coach Martina Voss-Tecklenburg added: “I always ask my players to try their one-on-one skills. It’s important that they feel brave enough. So it’s something that, as coaches, we should encourage even more.” 

Although it was fair to argue that defensive qualities had the edge at Women’s EURO 2017, goals were scored – and, as Patricia González pointed out, wing play generated almost one third of the tournament’s open-play goals. Teams were aware that, with defensive blocks difficult to penetrate centrally, the most viable solution was to go round them. However, statistics related to supply from the wide areas generated more questions than answers. In numerical terms, the possession teams – Spain, Germany and France – delivered the most crosses, with Spain registering the highest success rate (59%) based on whether the delivery found a team-mate or not. On the other hand, the Netherlands, very much a mid-table team in terms of quantity and success rate, owed four of their nine open-play goals to supply from the wide areas, largely because they were able to penetrate into the areas behind full-backs (notably by playing into space on the right to exploit the pace of Shanice van de Sanden) and deliver crosses that goalkeepers and back-tracking defenders found awkward to deal with.

By and large, they found set plays easier to deal with. Although dead-ball situations accounted for almost one-third of the tournament’s goals, 37% were penalties. The major talking point, however, was the total of four goals from 303 corner kicks – two of them on the opening matchday – while the scouting of opponents was barely under way. The question for coaches is whether, with a success rate of 1:76 (1:29 at Women’s EURO 2013), it is worth investing training ground time in rehearsing set plays. Nils Nielsen was among those who acknowledged the need to work on the defensive side. “If you were to lose a game because of poor defending at a corner, you would feel really bad.” Martina Voss-Tecklenburg also conceded: “You have very little room for creativity at corners in attack. The options are limited and working on set plays in training is not a lot of fun. Free-kicks offer you more scope and, in general, set plays can be useful if you have a specialist in delivering them.” Scotland coach Anna Signeul (now with Finland) agreed: “The quality of delivery is everything. That’s why we enlisted the help of a specialist to work on kicking techniques.” Dominik Thalhammer, on the other hand, felt that: “Set plays are an important part of the game and, during the run-up to EURO, we focused on them quite a lot. Not just corners, I have to emphasise. We also scored a goal from a long throw …”

A spotlight on goalkeeping
Maybe the hottest potato was handed to former Belgium keeper – and national team coach – Anne Noé, asked to analyse goalkeeping performances. In Amsterdam, she followed up comments in the tournament review that: “In an honest review of Women’s EURO 2017, goalkeeping is a nettle that has to be grasped. But for goalkeepers’ errors, the goal tally would have fallen even further below its record low. A compilation of important – many of them match-changing – errors might give goalkeeper coaches sleepless nights. Crosses misjudged or mishandled, shots palmed into the net, questionable positioning of keeper and wall at set plays, passes directly to the opposition striker. On the other hand, the tournament was painted in chiaroscuro – the errors were mixed with a large number of outstanding saves.” Anne Noé reviewed the contrasting facets of a tournament which illustrated, as she put it, the route from hero to zero – and vice versa. The 31 matches produced 23 clean sheets, athletic qualities had undoubtedly improved, long-range shots (historically a fertile source of goals in women’s football) were so competently dealt with that only two reached the net, and mental preparation allowed keepers to rebound strongly after errors. But, as she pointed out, keepers often opted to parry or punch instead of catching the ball even when unchallenged – and this frequently prolonged the opposition’s attack by keeping the ball in play and creating scenes of chaos in the box.

Handling and decision-making apart, her review of the take-away messages for goalkeeper development also included the fact that 34% of the tournament’s goals had been scored from the zone between the penalty spot and the edge of the goal area, and 29% from inside the latter. The inference is that goalkeeper coaches should not be over-reluctant to pepper keepers from close range on the training ground.

The overall impression, however, was that, whereas goalkeeping standards had been one of the outstanding features in 2013, Women’s EURO 2017 had left a more enigmatic legacy. “Have goalkeepers not made the same progress as outfield players?” Noé asked. “Or was it just a bad month at the office?” The second option was supported, as it happened, by events at the European Women’s Under-19 Championship final tournament which kicked off less than 48 hours after the Dutch had lifted the trophy in Enschede. Performances in Northern Ireland prompted the UEFA technical observers to include three keepers in the tournament’s all-star squad. England coach ‘Mo’ Marley said she had “two outstanding goalkeepers” in her squad and, even though results went against their teams, the goalkeepers of Scotland and Northern Ireland were applauded for impressive performances. Anja Palusevic, one of the observers, commented: “We are seeing results from good-quality coaching and it augurs well for the future.”

Denmark's Pernille Harder is challenged by Dutch opponent Desiree van Lunteren
Denmark's Pernille Harder is challenged by Dutch opponent Desiree van Lunteren©UEFA

The adjacency of the two tournaments provided a link with two issues of concern to the coaches in Amsterdam: how best to bridge the gap between Under-19 and senior levels, and how best to prepare players mentally for the jump into pressure-laden atmospheres at major tournaments played to huge audiences. 

The responses by national associations to the challenge of steering players from youth development levels on to the senior stage are too diverse to be listed. But Martina Voss-Tecklenburg spoke for a great many of her coaching colleagues when she said: “The biggest challenge during that transitional phase is making the jump in terms of athletic ability, reaction time and levels of match intensity.”

On the athletic front, a majority of the coaches who travelled to Women’s EURO 2017 acknowledged that they had worked hard on bringing fitness levels up to international standards from the more modest parameters of domestic competitions. At the same time, they admitted that indices of serious injury at youth development levels were triggering alarms. As Germany coach Steffi Jones commented: “As coaches, we need to achieve the right balance – we need to consider the welfare of the players and not just have our own results uppermost in our minds.”

Being in the right state of mind
The coaches unanimously underlined the value of preparing players mentally for life at the top. Nils Nielsen, for example, explained how his players had been nervous prior to Denmark’s opening game against Belgium and felt more at ease when wearing the underdog label: “We knew the tournament was going to be tough and it was important to make it clear that, if something went wrong, we were not going to lie down and cry. If your head is not in the game, it is very difficult to be successful.” Anna Signeul explained how mental preparation had been fundamental in allowing her players to bounce back after defeats by England and Portugal. Dominik Thalhammer underlined the important role played by the mental coach who has been working with the Austria team since 2011 and who has been fully integrated into the coaching team. And as Spain coach Jorge Vilda remarked: “The growth in the popularity of women’s football is bringing it closer to the men’s game. But the men are well ahead of us in dealing with the pressures. We need to educate our players to cope with the media work, the sponsor work … all the trappings that go with top-level sport.” 

Links with the men’s game provided another talking point in Amsterdam, where Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, for example, underlined the value of a holistic approach to football in general, rather than treating women’s football as a separate entity. “In Switzerland,” she told her colleagues, “we focus on cooperation and input from everybody – including club coaches.” Dominik

Thalhammer spoke of regular meetings with the coaches of the men’s team and the useful tips they had given him during the run-up to the final tournament.

Focus on the future
All of this prompted Richard Barnwell, coach of the Estonia women’s Under-19 team, to enquire about the fundamentals at youth development levels. “To make players feel comfortable on the ball, to stress the importance of enjoying the game, to be prepared not to win every match, and to set reasonable targets,” said Nils Nielsen. “If you don’t have a large pool of players,” added Martina Voss-Tecklenburg, “the coach has to design a playing strategy according to the strengths of the individual players.”

“To have a vision and a dream at the national association and to go for them,” said Dominik Thalhammer, “and, when you lose, not to look at the result but at the process and ask whether you have achieved the targets you had set.” “To devise a long-term development plan,” Anna Signeul chipped in, “including all competition structures. And share your vision with the clubs.”

Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman receives an award from UEFA Women's Football Committee chairwoman Anne Rei for taking her team to the EURO title
Dutch coach Sarina Wiegman receives an award from UEFA Women's Football Committee chairwoman Anne Rei for taking her team to the EURO title©Sportsfile

In Amsterdam, it was easy to open the floor to questions. In print, that facility ceases to exist. If readers could ask questions, the first might easily be how it is possible to write so much without mentioning Sarina Wiegman. She earned a standing ovation from her colleagues with a frank, open-book exposé of all the meticulous planning and attention to detail which had underpinned the Netherlands’ run to the title – after which UEFA’s managing director of technical development, Ioan Lupescu, and Anne Rei, chairwomen of the UEFA Women’s Football Committee, stepped on stage to present a commemorative plaque to the champion coach. Wiegman gave an extensive interview in issue No 172, but it is only fair to give her the last word here: “The starting point was a dream. Then hard work on tasks and responsibilities among the players and the team behind the team. Then we focused on commitment and togetherness. We examined every possible scenario on and off the pitch to prevent unknown situations. And we pursued our goal of getting into the hearts of Dutch society.” The Netherlands also set benchmarks for the other national associations aspiring to develop champions of the future. 

This article originally appeared in UEFA Direct 174