"The real education is having to play each game under pressure from the first minute to the last. At their clubs, this is usually impossible to learn because, in most countries, three or four of the teams might be good. But against the others, they score five or six goals in 20 minutes and then take it easy." The comment was made by Dario Bašić, who had a dozen GNK Dinamo Zagreb players in his Croatia squad.
"The tournament," added UEFA technical observer Jerzy Engel, "put them under non-stop pressure and some of them had to cope with penalty shoot-outs in crucial knockout games. That means, as a player, you grow up fast." "We don't play top games that often," Netherlands coach Maarten Stekelenburg admitted after the match against England. "The players had to get used to the intensity and it wasn't until they did so that you could see our quality."
Spain coach Santi Denia said "
it was fantastic for the development of my players to play in front of over 9,000 spectators. It's something they will remember all their lives". In Bulgaria, the levels of physique, technique and tactical maturity made it easy to forget that this was a youth development competition. "Every year, the players seem to be taller, stronger, faster and better prepared technically and tactically," Czech coach Václav Černý commented. "This is the result of self-education, better lifestyles and early cooperation with professionals who help them with proper diets and training. They are real athletes and, when you look at them, it is difficult to say how old they are."
As Stekelenburg added, "
apart from greater physical development, the U17 game is now tactically much more similar to adult football". "Coach education is the main reason behind this trend," said Greece coach Vassilis Georgopoulos, "because all the teams were very capably coached."
The upward trend in tactical maturity meant that attitudes and mental resilience could become key issues. "We conceded a goal and that was hard for the boys psychologically," Russia coach Mikhail Galaktionov admitted after the game against France. "We couldn't re-discover our attacking touch." "Once Greece got their goal, we knew it was going to be difficult," said Scotland coach Scot Gemmill. "When the goal went in we lost our shape, left too many open spaces and couldn't really get going again," conceded Italy coach Bruno Tedino after the defeat against England. One of the striking facts was that, during the 33 matches played in Bulgaria, no team was able to come back to win after conceding the first goal.
The finishing touch
The major talking point in Bulgaria, however, was the shortage of goals. France's 4-1 victory over Germany put a final cosmetic layer over a tournament which had previously yielded 54 goals at an average of 1.68 per match. The five-goal final hauled the average up to 1.79 – the second-lowest in the history of the competition and way below senior standards. The tournament offered spectators one goal per 45 minutes of play. One team – France – provided 25% of the goals; three teams went home without scoring; the talented players of Spain and the Netherlands failed to score in open play. The final was only the eighth game in which both teams scored – and, of those eight, five ended as 1-1 draws.
*Additional matches excluded
Discussion among UEFA's technical observers focused on various interlocking facets. Building from the back, the first was the standard of goalkeeping.
The new Neuers
"We are definitely seeing a new breed," commented former goalkeeper Marc Van Geersom. "Manuel Neuer's contribution during the World Cup in Brazil helped to accelerate a trend towards a more pro-active style of goalkeeping. The two keepers we saw in the final were prime examples. They were not standing on the line waiting to save shots. They were good at covering a big area, reading the game and reacting quickly to situations, participating in team play and active in building moves from the back. The improvement in standards is not only a reflection of the work being done by the goalkeeper coaches but also a reflection of the modern way of interpreting the goalkeeper's role."
The efficacy of the keepers in their sweeping role was reflected, according to Van Geersom, by the fact that "until the final, we rarely saw instances of through passes sending attackers into one-on-one situations. The keepers were quick to spot attempts to do this."
Standards of control and distribution with the feet were high. During the first half of the semi-final against Belgium, France keeper Luca Zidane was an active participant but touched the ball only once with his gloves – when he retrieved it to place it for a goal kick. Opponents were not slow to spot the preference for measured passing by the keepers and often pressed them hard with the aim of obliging them to pick the ball up and play it long. The best keepers were technically equipped to stay calm under pressure and to continue to launch attacks or counterattacks with telling passes. Germany's Constantin Frommann and Belgium's Jens Teunckens were outstanding examples of keepers who combined traditional shot-stopping virtues with the additional roles of sweeping and constructing. "The German goalkeeper," commented Jerzy Engel, "was very influential and a strong point in his team."
The technical team clearly felt that one of the factors underlying the lack of goals was disciplined, well-organised defending based on strong, athletic centre-backs and, generally, full-backs who were ready, willing and able to contribute to attacking play on the wings. Zonal back fours were the order of the day, with Austria and Slovenia switching to three at the back in response to game situations and Stekelenburg adjusting the Dutch formation to 3-4-3 as a tactical solution to problems experienced against England's midfield diamond.
Almost all the full-backs had attacking duties written large on their worksheets. In the group stage, Bulgaria left-back Mateo Stamatov, already enrolled by a Spanish club, and his Czech counterpart Libor Holík made impressive contributions, while Croatia left-back Borna Sosa illustrated the trend by breaking forward into the spaces vacated by Josip Brekalo's infield runs or by his dropping back to receive in midfield. The knockout rounds served to confirm the value of the contributions by, for example, Spain left-back Marc Cucurella, the French full-backs Alec Georgen and Emmanuel Maouassa or the Germany right-back, Jonas Busam – although one of the factors in the final was that his upfield surges were efficiently subdued by the France double-cover in the wide areas. "All the best teams had full-backs up and wingers cutting in," said technical observer Ghenadie Scurtul.
Centre-backs were generally strong on positional discipline, though a few, such as France's Dayot Upamecano, were prepared to burst forward (indeed, his run paved the way for his team's second goal in the final). The tournament confirmed that the modern centre-back is expected to provide more than tackling, clearances and aerial power. Stekelenburg offered a succinct job description, saying: "The centre-back needs physical power; he must choose the right position depending on situations; he must be strong in 1v1s; his decision-making must be good; he must know how to anticipate and must possess insight into the game along with construction skills."
Few of the teams in Bulgaria operated sustained high pressure, the Czech Republic providing the exception to the rule. Spain pressed high for certain periods. The general trend was to exert aggressive pressure on the ball-carrier while team-mates reacted with quick transitions into a compact defensive block. "France, Spain and Croatia had the levels of technique to play their way out of opponents' high pressure and to build through midfield," explained Technical observer Savvas Constantinou. "But many of the less-gifted teams were forced into hitting the safety-first long ball, which, very often, meant an immediate loss of possession. There were very few occasions when defences were caught out by a long ball from the opposition back line."
The lack of goals inevitably led to discussion on the lack of predatory instinct. A comment by Jerzy Engel on a specific match could easily be applied to many of the teams in Bulgaria, where a high percentage of coaches acknowledged their sides' lack of ability to convert chances into goals. "The team was well-organised," said Engel, "and played very effectively from behind, through midfield and out to the wingers. The only thing missing was a striker."
There was widespread praise for the quality of approach work, which ticked many boxes in terms of movement, skills and use of the wide areas. There was statistical evidence to support debate on the lack of efficient strikers. The number of goal attempts averaged out at 22.58 per match – not a great deal below the figure registered in the UEFA Champions League. But the number of attempts required to score a goal (12.63) was 40% higher than in the senior competition – and, had it not been for the five conversions in the final, the figure would have been 47%.
The chart reveals that France and Russia were the only teams to direct more than half their finishing accurately at the target. England and Spain reaped a dividend of only three goals from more than 70 attempts, while Bulgaria, Scotland and Slovenia failed to exceed two on-target goal attempts per game.
|Team||On target||Off target||Blocked||Woodwork||Total||Average||Goals|
|Rep. of Ireland||9||12||4||0||25||8.33||0|
At the same time, the strikers in Bulgaria were not targets for undue criticism. The overwhelming trend was for them to make intelligent movements, to be able to play with their backs to goal and to work tirelessly in attempts to close down opponents as the first line of defence. But, often operating in a lone role, they struggled to find space. France striker Odsonne Edouard provided the exception to the rule with his technical ability to spin in tight spaces and, more importantly, to strike with a one-touch finish. He topped the scoring chart with eight goals from 13 on-target attempts.
As Engel remarked: "This was not a problem related to the quality of attacking play. There was simply a lack of players with the predatory instinct." The debating point is what can be done at youth development levels to remedy this situation.
How the goals were scored
Only 22% of the goals were scored from dead-ball situations – although the percentage would have been higher had goalkeepers not been so proficient in the saving of penalties. Only two were scored directly from free-kicks – a statistic which hints at a lack of specialists. The successes bore the signatures of Ondrej Lingr, whose shot earned the Czech Republic three points against Slovenia, and Edouard, who put France 1-0 ahead in the semi-final against Belgium. There was a general preference for playing free-kicks short with a view to retaining possession.
Set-play successes depend heavily on the quality of deliveries and, in this context, Russia's corners and free-kicks from wide areas were of high quality. A high percentage of the coaches cited lack of time as a barrier to the rehearsal of set plays but, as a codicil, pointed out that their groups had worked on this aspect of play during the 18 months or two years they had spent together. Scotland were one of half a dozen teams who gave training-ground time to dead-ball situations, with Scot Gemmill dedicating 70% to attacking and the remainder to the mechanisms of defending set plays. Netherlands coach Stekelenburg gave responsibility for set-play training to his goalkeeper coach – a method also implemented by UEFA Champions League winners, FC Barcelona.
As the goalscoring chart indicates, open-play goals were evenly shared among the different modes, with defensive errors and own goals accounting for 10% of the tournament's goal tally. Eight of the goals were headers – three of them by Germany, two by Belgium and one apiece by France, Greece and Russia. Although many of the teams practised fast defence-to-attack transitions, only four goals could be directly attributed to successful counterattacks.
UEFA's technical team in Bulgaria signalled tactical flexibility as one of the outstanding features of the final tournament, with great credit to the coaches for the work they had evidently done in preparing their teams. "The players have to learn alternative systems," said Croatia coach Bašić, "and this was a major feature of our preparation work." Belgium coach Bob Browaeys commented "if your aim is to create the players of tomorrow and prepare players for the senior national team, they need to be educated to play against all kinds of systems".
The tournament underlined the trend towards 4-2-3-1 as the preferred formation, with no fewer than 11 of the 16 teams implementing it as a default setting. Belgium, Netherlands, Scotland and the hosts preferred a 4-3-3 though, in the case of Bulgaria, this evolved into a 4-1-4-1 for the final game against Austria. The 4-4-2 structure was only adopted by Italy, although other teams – notably Scotland and England – switched to this formation for specific games or game situations.
The trend towards the 4-2-3-1 structure evidently implied that the majority of teams fielded two controlling midfielders in front of the back four. However, half of the teams operated at some stage with a single screening midfielder whose priority was to provide defensive cover, especially if his team had both full-backs supporting attacking play. The tournament offered scenarios where both controlling midfielders were conscious of defensive priorities (Croatia, Greece and the Czech Republic provided examples), but the general trend was for coaches to look for a balance of defensive and playmaking qualities in their selection for the central midfield roles.
Santi Denia valued defensive sobriety in his choice of companion for Spain's talented playmaker, Carles Aleñà. Christian Wück deployed five different players in the screening positions and, against Belgium, used Niklas Dorsch in a holding role behind the more offensive Görkem Saglam and Niklas Schmidt. Generally, he sought a defence/attack balance, preferring the somewhat more conservative pairing of Gökhan Gül and Vitaly Janelt for the final.
Jean-Claude Giuntini was obliged by the injury to Jean Ruiz to make adjustments in this department of the France setup. He paired Jean-Victor Makengo with skipper Timothé Cognat to give his midfield a pacy, fluent core, with the latter more likely to appear in the opponents' box. But, whereas Aleñà could fit into the Pirlo mode, the France duo – given the team's high defensive line – were more about linking than launching.
"Teams are tactically better prepared these days and it is not easy to win games. Technology is the main reason for this improvement." The comment was made by England coach John Peacock, whose backroom staff included a video analyst for his own players in addition to one for opponents and potential opponents. This was the norm at the tournament in Bulgaria, where coaches were equipped to base their game plans on solid visual and data-based analysis of the opposition. The 2015 tournament was played by teenagers but in a thoroughly senior and professional environment.