A head start?
The issue of headers became headline news at UEFA EURO 2012, where headed goals accounted for 29% of the tournament total. The striking statistic has provided a benchmark for comparisons with subsequent tournaments and, at the 2013 UEFA European Under-17 Championship in Slovakia, one of the notable features was that only two goals (of 24) were headers.
This trend was perpetuated in Malta where, even though the goal tally for the final tournament was practically doubled, headed goals were limited to a grand total of three. Scott Wright headed Scotland's winner against Germany; Fatih Aktay's header pulled Turkey back to 2-3 against the Dutch; and a short corner led to Dani van der Moot clinching a 2-0 win for the Netherlands against England in their final group game. Curiously, the last two were scored by substitutes within seconds of entering the field of play.
There is no need to put a negative spin on that statistic, however. The dominant characteristic of the final tournament was ball-to-feet possession play, exemplified by the two teams who disputed the final. Both the Netherlands and England were more susceptible to create danger via wingers who generally preferred to cut inside rather than act as traditional purveyors of high crosses from the flanks. Much the same could be applied to the Portuguese modus operandi, with wingers aiming to strike low crosses or dribble their way into positions along the byline from where they could cut the ball back.
The extremely low ratio of headed goals in the last two final tournaments therefore gives rise to an interesting debating point. While heading ability remains a prerequisite for central defenders, is it becoming a neglected art among attackers? Even though the game may be drifting away from the cross-plus-header recipe for goals, how much work at youth development levels should be dedicated to aerial ability?
One of the novel features of the final tournament in Malta was the experimental use by referees of aerosol spray to mark the positions of the ball and the defensive wall at set plays. The spray produced white marks which vanished within a few minutes. The coaches in Malta unanimously endorsed the experiment. "It was positive," said Turkey's Hakan Tecimer, "because it made it easier for the refs to concentrate on other things." Portugal's Emilio Peixe added: "I think it helped to earn greater respect for the referee." Ginés Meléndez, a member of UEFA's technical team at the tournament, said: "
It translated into fewer yellow cards and greater respect for the referee and the rules of the game. But it could have been a bit quicker."
The latter point was echoed by many of the coaches. The referee carried the can in a holster but was not always quick on the draw. Procedure was, first of all, to mark the position where the taker needed to place the ball – and there was one comment about referees needing to make sure that the procedure did not prevent the taker from exploiting the advantage of a quickly-taken free-kick.
The referee then paced out the distance and sprayed a line to mark the position of the defensive wall. It has to be said that one of the positive features of the tournament in Malta was that it did not provide a plethora of free-kicks in areas where a defensive wall was required. But, in one of the group games, timings of two such cases revealed that the procedure, from whistle to whistle, took 53 and 51 seconds respectively. Subsequent readings brought the average down to something in excess of 40 seconds.
The debating point here is whether this figure is genuinely excessive. As a stand-alone statistic, it might seem slow. But is it necessarily a lengthier procedure than the time-honoured scenario of the referee having to dedicate time to re-positioning or even cautioning encroaching defenders?
The topic will, evidently, be pursued at administrative and sporting levels. But it is legitimate to record that the on-site feedback from coaches and referees at the tournament in Malta was highly positive. So was the reaction to the decision by referees to make use of a natural stoppage in play (a throw-in, a free-kick, an injury or a substitution) to give the players a 'water break' midway through each half.
In point of fact, temperatures in Malta were not excessive – indeed, there was no need for water breaks on the chilly, sometimes rainy evenings when the knockout games were played. But this is often an issue when youth tournaments are played in southern climes and where concerns about the players' well-being are paramount. During the group stage, many matches kicked off at 11.00, 11.15 or 15.15 local time, meaning that the players were exposed to the sun pretty much at its zenith.
A talking point here is to what extent the water breaks should be exploited as coaching opportunities. The coaches in Malta were well aware that, around the 20-minute mark, the referee would gesture towards the touch line and provide them with the equivalent of a 'time-out'. In other words, it afforded them two coaching opportunities in addition to the traditional half-time team talk.
The spray and the water add up to another talking point. During the match where the aerosol procedure for two free-kicks added up to 1m 44secs, the water breaks were of two minutes in the first half and 94 seconds in the other. At the end of the second half, the referee signalled four minutes of added time – of which all but 42 seconds were consumed by the water break and the two free-kicks. The debating point here is whether the 'spray procedure' should be regarded as a natural part of the game or as a 'stoppage' which needs to be reflected in the total amount of time added to the duration of each half?
Birthday present; birthday future?
For readers who refer back to the technical reports on previous final tournaments, the following lines might be as familiar an experience as it is to blow out candles on birthday cakes. It is an annual occurrence. The ineluctable fact is that the opportunities to acquire international experience at this age level – or the lack of them – have become a perennial talking point.
Debate focuses on the birth dates of the 144 players who started the tournament in Malta. In Slovakia a year earlier, 29% of the 'workforce' had been born in either January or February. In 2014, this increased to 32%. In other words, almost one-third of the players had birthdays in one-sixth of the year.
In Malta, 61 of the players (42%) had been born between January and March of 1997, with a further 17 celebrating birthdays in April. No fewer than 11 of the German squad and ten of the Portuguese were born during the first quarter of 1997, followed closely by England (nine), Netherlands and Turkey (both eight). For the record, 11 players had post-1997 dates of birth – three of them goalkeepers and five of them members of the Maltese squad. The English, German and Turkish squads were comprised exclusively of players born in 1997.
But the point for discussion is that the final tournament featured only 11 players born during the last three months of the year – a frugal 7.6% of the total. The German and Portuguese squads did not include any players born between October and December. Bearing in mind the ongoing nature of this scenario, the perennial questions can be asked once again. What more can be done to offer equal opportunities to gain international experience at this level? Is talent being lost to the game purely on the basis of birth dates?