One of the first things that greeted the eye as spectators took the turning towards the stadium in Zilina was a huge advertising hoarding that bore the legend 'RealityDreams' – all in one word. It was, in fact, publicising a company dealing in real estate. But the slogan, with its juxtaposition of the two words with no space between, could easily be appropriated, with a philosophical question mark, to the final tournament. Is Under-17 football about lessons in pure reality? Or is it about nurturing the players who dream of reaching the top and playing dream football?
This is a perennial debating point attached to U17 football. To what extent is it about player development? To what extent is it about results? And to what extent is it possible to marry the two concepts as closely as the words on the advertisement?
As Willi Ruttensteiner, one of UEFA's technical observers in Slovakia, remarked: "It was noticeable that youth football is becoming more similar to the senior game in all areas and that technical/tactical patterns can be seen at Under-17 level. The central question is whether we should try to counteract this trend and revert to a situation where development is not only characterised by results."
Looking at the scoreboard
The results v development issue was summarised by Ivan Gudelj. "I want to win every game," said the Croatia coach. The fact that the top three teams in each group were to earn a trip to the FIFA U-17 World Cup was also an influential factor when the finalists gathered in Slovakia. "To qualify or not to qualify for the World Cup doesn't matter so much in terms of player development," Gudelj maintained. "The development of the player is the most important thing." On the other hand, Russian coach Dmitri Khomukha felt that the World Cup dimension had affected his strategic approach to the tournament, while his opposite number in the final, Italy's Daniele Zoratto, admitted: "The mental approach was a little bit different and I opted to use more experienced players. The main objective was the World Cup."
The end product
The eight teams in Slovakia undoubtedly ticked a lot of technical and tactical boxes. But discussion, once again, has goalscoring data as a departure point. As the words 'once again' suggest, this has become a regular platform for debate in recent seasons and the high turnover of teams involved in recent years hints strongly that this is a generalised issue. The final tournament in 2012 had registered a goal tally of 28, which was 40% lower than the total in 2005 and a 15% drop on the previous all-time low of 33 goals which was set at the 2009 finals in Germany.
The 2013 tournament in Slovakia highlighted the downward trend by registering an all-time low of 24 goals at an average of 1.6 per match; or one goal per 50 minutes of playing time. One third of the games ended goalless. As a cross-reference, the 125 games played in the 2012/13 UEFA Champions League set a new record of 2.94 goals per match.
*additional matches excluded
The coaches in Slovakia tendered plausible explanations. The quality of finishing was one of them. "I think we were good in our approach play," commented Switzerland coach Heinz Moser, "but we were lacking the final touch." "In our three matches we had over 20 chances but we did not produce a calm finish when needed," lamented Ivan Gudelj, coach of the Croatia side which, having eliminated Belgium, France and Spain, travelled to Slovakia as the form team.
As a platform for discussion, it is worth recording the number of goal attempts:
|Team||Goal attempts||On target||Average||Goals|
Comparisons with the previous final tournament are not flattering. Germany and Netherlands, the 2012 finalists, managed 96 and 68 goal attempts respectively. Although technical appraisal has to avoid journalistic extremes, the decline can legitimately be described as dramatic. Statistics reveal that the Russian champions averaged 3.2 on-target attempts per match.
How the goals were scored
Counterattacks accounted for only four of the tournament's 24 goals (16.6%). Half the goals stemmed from possession play or elaborately built attacks. No fewer than 7 (29.2%) had their origins in set plays – and one resulted from an individual action.
In contrast to UEFA EURO 2012, only two goals were headers. Two-thirds were scored with a one-touch finish – the other eight hitting the net after the ball had been controlled.
One quarter of the goals were scored from close range in the goal area. Fifteen were scored from positions elsewhere in the penalty area. Only three were struck from outside the box.
Three goals were scored directly from a free-kick or following an individual action. When the remaining 21 were scored, four of the final passes were delivered from inside the penalty area; five from the central area outside the box; five from the left flank (including one diagonal pass into the area); and no fewer than seven from an area between the edge of the box and the touch line on the right wing.
The goals were unevenly distributed over the 80 minutes, with nine (37.5%) scored during the first half and 15 after the break. However, it would be risky to suggest that fatigue was a factor at a tournament where fitness levels were exceptionally high, as only three goals were scored after the 70th minute.
John Peacock, a member of UEFA's technical team at the 2012 final tournament, had remarked "we were short of predators – the clinical finishers who can win games for you". Dušan Fitzel and Willi Ruttensteiner, the technical team in Slovakia, echoed this opinion – and when an opinion is valid from one year to the next it is legitimate to present it as an indicator of a trend.
The fact that no player scored more than twice offers further evidence of the lack of influential 'predators' and, of the four players who scored twice in Slovakia, two were midfielders (Robin Kamber of Switzerland and Italy's Mario Pugliese); one was a central defender (Italy's Elio Capradossi) who went up for set plays; and the other was Slovakian winger Martin Slaninka, who started every game on the bench. Of the 20 players who scored, five were forwards; five were wingers/wide midfielders; five were midfielders; and five were defenders. This was in line with the 2012 final tournament, when only two players scored more than once and only 25% of the 28 goals were scored by strikers. Interestingly, of the five forwards chosen by the technical team for the tournament's select squad, Swiss winger Marco Trachsel was alone in getting his name on the scoresheet.
In previous tournaments, the clear trend towards a 4-2-3-1 structure prompted debate on the role of the lone striker. However, the technical observers in Slovakia pointed to a wider variety of playing shapes. Croatia, Slovakia and Ukraine adopted the 4-2-3-1 formation; Austria, Russia and Switzerland operated variations on a 4-3-3; while Italy and Sweden played a classic 4-4-2. "It's risky to talk too much about the numbers," they added, "because structures changed rapidly when teams switched from attacking to defensive mode."
The first line of defence
In Slovakia, the common denominator in attack-to-defence transitions was that the forwards immediately became the first line of defence. A prime example was provided by Russia's Ramil Sheydaev who, during the final against Italy, ran tirelessly in attempts to pre-empt forward passing by the goalkeeper or the central defenders. The debating point is whether the forwards' defensive obligations can be linked to their lack of sharpness and efficiency when scoring chances arose.
The direct approach
The absences of countries such as France, Portugal or Spain undoubtedly affected the texture of the tournament in Slovakia. The overall tendency was towards direct attacking rather than elaborate build-up, though Switzerland, Austria and, sometimes, Italy and Slovakia produced eye-catching combination play. The general trend was for central defenders to launch long passes to the target striker or, in some cases, to the wingers. "For me," commented Slovakia coach Ladislav Pecko, "the most important trend is towards direct play, coupled with the speed of combination moves."
Target men were required to compete for the ball and, if they succeeded, to hold it up until reinforcements arrived from deeper positions. Forwards such as Croatia's Fran Brodić, Slovakia's Tomáš Vestenický, Ukraine's Viktor Tsygankov or Sweden's Valmir Berisha, did an excellent job of leading the line. The latter was ably supported by Gustav Engvall in Sweden's two-pronged attack while Italy – the other team to play 4-4-2 – relied on Alberto Cerri (whose physical stature acted like a magnet to defenders) to lead the line and to create spaces for the more mercurial Luca Vido, who had one-on-one confrontations with goalkeepers thanks to fast breaks through the central areas opened up by Cerri's runs.
In the teams operating with a sole striker, the lack of goals provoked questions about whether, when there is a focus on deep defending, sufficient support was given to the frontrunners. One point raised was the view that it is easier to coach defending than to nurture creative, attacking qualities. This was an issue addressed by Italy's coach, Daniele Zoratto. "Italians know how to defend without training too much," he said. "Historically, it has been our strength. We're looking to develop other, more attack-minded concepts. Defence comes more naturally to us. Attack is trickier to teach." Sweden's coach Roland Larsson commented: "We have always placed great emphasis on good organisation in defence. Now we're trying to balance it with attacking qualities."
Who were the creative players? And where did they play? The technical observers in Slovakia addressed these two questions. Of the players especially equipped to spot and deliver the decisive pass, two operated on the left-hand side of a three-man midfield with a single screen: Austria's Valentino Lazaro and Switzerland's Robin Kamber. One, Croatia's Alen Halilović, operated in a 'free spirit' role behind the main striker. On the other hand, Italy's Mario Pugliese, Sweden's Elias Andersson, Slovakia's Jakub Grič and Ukraine's Beka Vachiberadze were fielded in central, screening midfield roles and exerted their influence from an area which could be compared to Andrea Pirlo's pivotal role in front of the Italian defence at UEFA EURO 2012.
Austria's coach Hermann Stadler said: "The noticeable trend in build-ups was for the centre-backs to open up; the two full-backs to push forward at the same time; and for one holding midfielder to drop close to the centre-backs." UEFA's technical observers saw a positive trend for centre-backs prepared to run the ball forward to achieve a numerical advantage in midfield. "It's clear that this demands more creative attributes from central defenders," Stadler remarked. "We're also seeing more left-footed players on the right and vice versa, which means that wingers cut inside from wide positions and either go for a shot or deliver the ball to an attacker behind the defensive line."
A contact game
The preference for long passing and a 'second-ball mentality', allied with a scarcity of one-touch football, led many matches into physical-contact territory, with players competing strongly for high or bouncing balls. The total of 413 free-kicks at an average of 27.5 per match represented a 24% increase in comparison with 2012. This led to a substantial rise in the number of stoppages, raising questions about real playing times and entertainment value.
On the other hand, the sharp increase in the number of fouls was accompanied by a notable decrease in yellow cards – from 68 in 2012 to 54.
As mentioned elsewhere, the parameters of U17 football are moving steadily towards senior standards – and not only in terms of tactical maturity. In Slovakia, many of the head coaches publicly praised their backroom staff for their work on fitness and the rest-and-recovery demands of a final round which, for the two finalists, entails five matches in 13 days. This required careful planning with regard to the way the two rest days between games should be used.
Teams were backed by game-editing staff responsible for compiling video coverage of opposing teams – one of the finalists even invested in a full statistical-analysis system. (UEFA's technical observers wondered whether analysis systems could be used by UEFA and distributed to member associations.) The sports psychologist is now a regular feature – and the importance of this facet of the game was underlined by the mental strength demonstrated by the players at critical moments, notably the penalty shoot-outs which decided one semi-final and the final. This was reflected by the sheer quality of confident penalty-taking in situations of extreme stress. As Slovakia's coach Pecko remarked: "There has been important development in the mental area."
From Russia with gloves
Russia goalkeeper Anton Mitryushkin took the headlines thanks to his heroics during the two shoot-outs. But to focus exclusively on this facet is to undervalue his outstanding contribution to his team's success. He exemplified the extraordinarily high standard of the goalkeeping in Slovakia. As the 'goal attempts' stats suggest, the keepers were not generally overworked in terms of shot-stopping. But crucial saves proved to be decisive in a number of games and, in general, the keepers were influential figures in their teams' performances, reacting quickly to cover a wide area behind their defence and, in many cases, to initiate attacking moves by distributing the ball intelligently. Before attributing the low goal tally totally to attacking shortcomings, it is relevant to salute the high levels of goalkeeping and to discuss whether this can be linked to the upgrading of standards in the education of goalkeeper coaches.
Russia's victory evoked memories of their previous U17 success in 2006. "We can use that team as an example," said winning coach Dmitri Khomukha, "but many factors can prevent young players from making it to the top. Only time will tell which of my boys will play at the highest level." For the educators, what is the best way of converting dreams into reality?