Coaches can control players; players can control matches; but nobody can control the heavens. As it happened, the heavens opened quite regularly during the final tournament in Croatia – frequently enough to avoid storm clouds gathering around the issue of pre-match and half-time pitch watering. Even so, there was sufficient sunshine during the group stage to warm up the debate about procedures. Several coaches had their enthusiasm for pitch watering dampened by refusals from colleagues in the other dressing room.
As a talking point, the issue can be approached from several directions. The current status quo is that both teams must agree before the water can be turned on. Is this the best approach? If one coach opts to vote against pitch watering, is it correct that a 'no' takes precedence over a 'yes'? That a negative carries more weight than a positive?
Another angle is that the issue has been absorbed into match strategies. Teams who request pitch watering usually do so because they want the ball to skip off the turf and promote high-tempo combination play. They argue that their objective is to lay foundations for attractive football and the greatest possible entertainment value.
Opponents who consider themselves to be less adept at rapid ball circulation will often prefer to keep the groundsman away from the irrigation system because they regard it as playing into the opposition's hands. Without saying as much, they would prefer longer grass and a slower playing surface to give their team a better chance. And, among the coaches, stances are not always in the same line.
In Croatia, one coach expressed frustration that his request for watering had been vetoed by the opposition but, further into the competition, gave a negative response to the same request by different opponents. In other words, it was a question of match strategy rather than a question of principles. The debating point is whether the decision should be taken independently rather than left to be chewed on as a bone of contention between the two coaches.
For Dany Ryser, world U17 champion with Switzerland and a member of UEFA's team of technical observers in Croatia, the issue has, in any case, limited relevance. "In my opinion," he maintained, "players at this level should be equipped to play on any type of surface. Coping with different conditions is simply a part of their education." Do you agree?
Give us a break
More water. It had been a grey, overcast morning in Velika Gorica and, with thunder rumbling around the horizon, spectators were reaching for protective clothing and casting anxious glances at the heavens during the England v Republic of Ireland quarter-final – anxious enough to provoke wry smiles when the whistle was blown after 20 minutes to decree a 60-second water break.
The skies had cleared when, later that day, the Germany v Netherlands fixture started on what the UEFA website described as "a scorching evening in Zapresic". Yes, you've guessed it. No water break.
A week earlier, the same stadium had provided the venue for the France v Faroe Islands fixture in Group B. The temperature at kick-off time was officially recorded as 19C. So eyebrows were raised along with water bottles when play was stopped midway through the first half. The interlude certainly took the heat off the Faroese debutants, who were already 4-0 down at the time. "The water break was definitely useful!" head coach Áki Johansen grinned afterwards. "We managed to change a few things and contain the French a lot better after that."
The example is innocuous in the sense that hitting the 'pause button' didn't change the final outcome of the game. But it illustrated that coaches make full use of the water break as a 'time-out' during which they can issue instructions to their players. In this context, should all coaches be offered equal opportunities? Should there be greater uniformity in the application of the water-break principle? In 40-minute halves, is there any need for it at all?
Safety in numbers?
Among the 16 coaches in Croatia, there was widespread support for the agreed expansion of squad size from 18 to 20. Various reasons were proferred, starting with the educational benefits of offering top-level international experience to more players – possibly younger ones (only 25 of the 288 in Croatia were born in 2001 and 43.75% of the workforce were born in the first three months of 2000).
Some teams had to fly in replacements due to injuries – notably Italy, who lost two members of their squad, plus striker Moise Kean, who was summoned home for club duty in the Turin derby but ultimately took no part in it. Turkey and Scotland started the tournament with three outfielders suspended, leaving them with very limited options on the bench.
Although regarding the imminent increase as an undoubted step in the right direction, some coaches would have liked more, feeling that 22 would give them the benefit of being able to play 11 v 11 on the training ground. The conundrum, however, is whether a larger squad genuinely equals greater opportunities.
Inactivity levels among goalkeepers are more readily understandable but, for the record, 26 outfielders enjoyed fewer than 40 minutes of action (equivalent to one half of a game) even though six teams played five or six matches in Croatia, nine players registering a matchplay total in single figures. Will the expansion signify inactivity for even more players?
Time and motion
The question raises other debating points. Is it time to review the norm of playing two 40-minute periods at this level when so many of the participants are playing 90-minute games at their clubs? Would it make more sense to play two lots of 45 minutes and allow greater use of players on the bench?
Experimentation with an additional substitution during extra time has simply by-passed the U17 tournament, where there is no extra time. With more players on the bench, would it be positive to reinstate extra time, maybe with a reduced duration? Bearing in mind that five of the last six U17 finals have been decided by shoot-outs, would this, in sporting terms, be more satisfactory than going directly to penalties?
The question was given greater pertinence by the final. After the psychological hammer blow of conceding the equaliser with the referee's watch indicating two seconds to play, recovering to win the immediate penalty shoot-out would have required a mental resilience way beyond the England players' age. Would it have been fairer to give them a chance to play their way back into the game?
And, if workloads are considered to be a determining factor in debate, would it be positive for national associations to (with protected anonymity) pass the GPS data they increasingly gather during these tournaments to the relevant bodies at UEFA?