“There are not many gaps between levels,” commented England coach Steve Cooper. “The qualifying rounds also demonstrated that, with teams like Germany and Spain edging through and France not making it. But playing the final tournament allows you to build on lots of things. The competition gives you a sharp edge and the coach also learns valuable things about his players.” Italy coach Carmine Nunziata reflected “our clubs work well, but the level of our domestic football is not the same and, when we travel to an international tournament, we have to cope with a big difference in intensity.”
Impressions of parity were endorsed when the Netherlands lifted the trophy after drawing their three knockout-round games. Dany Ryser, one of the UEFA Technical Observers at the event, remarked “all the teams came into the tournament with a positive approach. They were constructive and I think the differences on the scoreboard reflected differences in levels of technique – the first touch, the ability to play out of tight situations, body positioning and so on. It reinforced my personal opinion that, at this development level, training-ground work without opponents is an error.”
On the other hand, scorelines failed to support the notion of parity. In England, 29 of the 31 games produced goals. But there were only nine where both teams found the net – four of them in the knockout rounds. Only four matches were won by the team conceding the opening goal. The salient feature, however, was a 26% descent in the number of goals in relation to the previous year.
The statistic can be regarded from two perspectives: either outstanding defending; or less-than-outstanding attacking. To cloud the image even further, the technical observers noted that a significant number of goals could be attributed to glaring defensive errors – individual mistakes with the ball, interspersed with individual or collective blips in positional play. At the same time, the striking downturn in the number of goals in comparison with the record total set in 2017 merely signifies a return to the average of 2.35 per game posted in Azerbaijan in 2016. As the year-by-year chart demonstrates, the tally in England was by no means the lowest scoring ratio during the last decade.
Curiously, 23% of the tournament’s goals were scored in the 10-minute segment from the 61st to the 70th minutes. The fact that the final 10 minutes were by no means the most prolific endorses theories that the athletic condition of players in this category allows them to negotiate 80 minutes with a degree of comfort. The physical issue was more to do with organising rest-and-recovery schedules to deal with the need to play several high-intensity games in a short period of time. As Dany Ryser remarked, “players are not the same. Some need a break. Others do better if they maintain momentum. The coach needs to know how to evaluate fatigue and plan recovery schedules on the basis of knowledge of each individual, rather than automatically adopt a collective approach.”
Still with the drop in goalscoring, the technical observers’ concerns about quality in the final third could be underpinned by statistical evidence. The number of goal attempts in 2018 was actually higher than the total in 2017 – to be precise, 668 compared with 650. Yet, apart from the much lower goal tally, the number of on-target attempts declined from 271 to 238. In England, just over one-third (35.6%) required keepers to take action. Ten of the 16 teams missed the target more times than they hit it – the most striking exceptions being Spain and Switzerland, both accurate in their finishing but by no means the most prolific in terms of creating scoring chances. As technical observer Savvas Constantinou put it, “teams generally had an attacking philosophy but often lacked attacking efficiency.” The issue was illustrated by Italy striker Edoardo Vergani during the semi-final against Belgium when, after losing out to the keeper in a pair of 1 v 1 scenarios and shooting wide from a good position, he scored the winner in more difficult manner – a long-range effort after latching on to a long pass from central defender Nicolò Armini. In general, though, the standard of finishing prompted the technical observers to discuss the relevance of specialised ‘striker coaches’ at this development level.
The table sorts the participants on the basis of goal attempts per game and, if the total of on-target attempts is divided by the number of matches played, highlights the lack of efficient finishing.
Note: attempts striking the woodwork are included in the on-target total if deflected by goalkeeper or defender and in the off-target total if the attempt strikes the woodwork directly.
The tournament showcased diverse approaches to attacking play and endorsed the trend towards the use of wrong-footed wingers. Denmark, for example, permuted their wide players, alternating between the wrong-footed and orthodox approaches. There were many variations on the theme with Spain, to cite another example, deploying two left-footed wingers: Bryan Gil on the left; Víctor Mollejo on the right. The tendency led to a change in approach play with, as John Peacock pointed out “the wrong-footed winger tends to work the inside channels with the result that we saw many more cut-backs than traditional crosses.” The goalscoring chart endorses this observation, with England, Italy, Denmark, Spain and Netherlands the only teams to convert traditional crosses into goals. In 2017, crosses had been the most fruitful source of goals. In England, they were relegated to fourth place, behind combination play, cut-backs and long-range shooting, a category in which Italy excelled. Indeed, the number of successes from outside the box could rise by one: Germany’s deflected long-range consolation goal against Spain going into the records as an own goal.
The chart records that 22% of the tournament’s goals (23% in 2017) stemmed from dead-ball situations, with the Republic of Ireland (Troy Parrott) and Norway (Thomas Rekdal) providing the only goals from direct free-kicks – a fact which, at a 31-game event, invites questions about the development of this specialised skill. The only goal scored indirectly from a free-kick was the Bosnia and Herzegovina equaliser in their opening match against Denmark. Spain accounted for two of the eight successes from corner kicks – a conversion rate of one goal per 31.5 corners. This was significantly better than the ratios of 1:42 in the previous year and 1:49 in 2016.
Defensive mechanisms against set plays took various forms with a majority opting for mixed solutions based on zonal coverage plus individual marking for the main set-play target men. Germany and Italy generally preferred a purely zonal approach, while three teams focused on man-to-man set-ups. Whereas Sweden and Ireland generally pulled the whole team back to defend, a majority preferred to maintain an upfield presence and, in consequence, counterattacking opportunities against opponents who, in general, had centre-backs upfield. Only five goals were headers – three following corners and two from crosses.
Almost one-fifth of the tournament’s goals could be attributed to counterattacks.
The number of players committed ahead of the ball varied considerably. The Netherlands frequently set themselves up to attack with a front line of five or six players, aiming to pose questions to an overloaded back four. However, they were unable to create chaos against orderly deep defending during their quarter-final against the Republic of Ireland. Italy, their opponents in the final, opted for an interesting lopsided diamond in midfield, with coach Carmine Nunziata commenting “we thought this was the best approach, as we didn’t have the right type of wingers. I believe that the coach must always adapt to the qualities of the players rather than follow a rigid system of play.” The diagram illustrates how attacks were directed at Alessio Riccardi wide on the left, with two midfielders (and sometimes the left-back) making runs to create overloads. Supply was frequently a long pass from the right centre-back, as illustrated, or a run with the ball into midfield by the left centre-back, with the screening and left midfielders opening a pathway for a forward pass into the interior channel (diagram 1).
The approach created difficulties for opponents. The diagram is based on the semi-final (when No16 Jean Freddi Greco replaced suspended Riccardi). Belgium played 1-4-2-3-1 when out of possession, only to encounter problems in dealing with Italy’s No17 at the apex of their diamond, who exploited space between the two holding midfielders. In addition, the overloads created by No7, No17 and No16 on the left caused major problems for the unprotected Belgium right-back (diagram 2).
Italy’s approach meant that attacks on their right were based on occasional runs by midfielder Emmanuel Gyabuaa or upfield surges by the right-back. When selecting their Team of the Tournament, the technical observers struggled to find full-backs who, in their opinion, had made outstanding contributions. Teams such as Denmark, England and Spain blurred job descriptions by switching players from full-back to winger from game to game or moving them from flank to flank, creating wrong-footed full-backs. Ghenadie Scurtul commented “we saw full-backs prepared to play high but very often the crossing was poor. They attacked but they didn’t deliver a good end product.” Dany Ryser added “in terms of development, we can ask whether we are over-emphasising the creative aspects and opting to field full-backs who think they are wingers. Personally, I think there was a decline in the arts of defending – skills in 1 v 1 situations, staying on feet…the traditional elements in the full-back’s job description. We saw quite a few full-backs who survived just because they had great pace.” John Peacock agreed: “sometimes you get the feeling that the full-backs were forwards who could drop into defence…”
Permission to build
Most teams set out to build from the back, even when under pressure. “We saw some examples of teams forgetting the risk factor,” John Peacock commented. “It is easy to give yourself problems by insisting on playing out from the back. I thought Spain were exceptionally good at handling this issue. They had the technical skills to play out of tight situations and would often suck opponents in and then play their way through. They also had good criteria in deciding when to play long to the wingers.” Standard procedure was for centre-backs to drop deep on either side of the box when the keeper was in possession, with full-backs pushing high. Italy, however, were standard-bearers for the many teams who set out to force opponents to play long by holding a high line and pushing players into high-pressing positions. The diagram shows how the two forwards threatened the centre-backs, while the midfielders were prepared to pounce on other short-passing options (diagram 3).
The following diagram shows how Germany gave themselves five passing options when Serbia pushed two forwards up to press (diagram 4).
The Dutch, when pressed only by the opponents’ first defensive line of two, dropped holding midfielder and playmaker Wouter Burger in line with the centre-backs and, if not pressed at all – as against the Irish – the centre-backs would also advance, leaving Burger as the player closest to his goalkeeper (diagram 5).
Spain adopted a similar set-up, attempting to play out at every opportunity. They were very expansive when the ball was with the keeper. The two centre-backs played good passes into midfield, while the No6 Iván Morante, was used effectively in the build-up, always with good movement in front of the player with the ball. Construction was patient but the ball was passed with speed, authority and variations of tempo (diagram 6).
Spain were also among the teams who preferred to defend high. The diagram depicts a scenario from the quarter-final against Belgium, when they pushed up in numbers on the opposing defenders, asking them to choose between taking risks at the back or playing long. To pre-empt the latter option, the two centre-backs marked the Belgium striker very closely and tightly (diagram 7).
Denmark were among the teams who insisted on playing out from the back. The goalkeeper was patient in possession, waiting for good movement by the midfield players. In this scene from the match against Bosnia and Herzegovina, the No6 and the No10 dropped down to take markers with them, leaving space for a clever run by the No14 and a subtle pass from the keeper which opened a pathway through midfield (diagram 8).
The long and the short
As the goalscoring chart indicates, the tournament featured some excellent combination play. Switzerland’s first goal against Israel, for instance, was a 41-second move involving eight players. The Netherlands’ opening goal in the final came after 15 passes in 40 seconds. Spain’s third in the 5-1 win against Germany was a 33-second, 12-pass combination culminating in a cut-back. Portugal’s fourth against Slovenia was a 47-second movement involving 15 passes. And Sweden’s opener against the same opponent was a seven-pass combination over a period of 30 seconds. The ingredients of Sweden’s attacking in their trademark 1-4-4-2 structure also included direct back-to-front supply. The diagram shows a scenario from the match against Slovenia. The two options are based on a lofted pass by the centre-back or a low delivery by the left-back into the advanced area, with No15 cutting in to open a pathway for the pass and the right-hand striker making a crossfield run to connect with the delivery while his attacking partner took his marker out of the way (diagram 9).
Shaping up for the future
“We focus more on game principles. The system itself is not the most important thing,” said Slovenia coach Agron Šalja. Switzerland coach Stefan Marini maintained “we respect a number of principles, but the emphasis is on preparing the players to be flexible and to play in different systems and manners.” In England, the Swiss mixed 1-4-2-3-1 with 1-4-4-2, as did Israel and the Republic of Ireland. Observers noted few tactical changes during the 80 minutes: Serbia switching to 1-3-4-3 for the second half against Germany; Sweden protecting their advantage by changing to 1-5-4-1 for the closing minutes against Portugal… As Ireland coach Colin O’Brien commented, “the challenge with operating different systems at this level is the amount of contact time with the players.”
The 1-4-2-3-1 structure was the most popular, with ten of the teams setting themselves up in this way at some stage, if not always. Sweden were alone in adhering to a classic 1-4-4-2 structure and their Nordic neighbours Norway were alone in operating with three at the back, with rapid transitions to a five-man line when defending. After a nervy start, they grew in confidence from holding Portugal to a draw in their opening game, when Gunnar Halle’s team stifled the attacking potential of the 2016 champions.
The diagram shows how, when a Portuguese midfielder made trademark short diagonal runs into the Norway back line, the centre-back on that side picked him up, with the wing-back then covering the player on the wing – either the wide midfielder or the full-back. This mechanism successfully prevented gaps from appearing in the wide areas of the defence (diagram 10).
Change a winning team?
The final tournament in England heralded an expansion of squads from 18 to 20 players – though injured players could no longer be replaced. There was a contrasting response from the coaches: some opted to remain faithful to a settled starting line-up; others preferred to share game-time among the whole squad – notably Netherlands coach Kees van Wonderen who, in the first two games, used 17 of his 18 outfielders. The overall result was that 23 outfield players remained on the bench during the group stage alongside, understandably, the second keepers.
The annual issue
One of the perennial talking points at this level is that a high percentage of the players on show have dates of birth in the first three months of the year. Despite the squad expansion, 2018 was no exception. No fewer than 133 of the 320 players were born between January and March 2001 – 42% of the total. Of the 17 players born in 2002, 12 also had dates of birth in the first three months of the year. Only 7.5% of the 320 were born between October and December.
Delving deeper into the tournament data base, 78% had dates of birth in the first six months of the calendar year. Including the entire Germany squad and 90% of the Norway players. Interestingly, the Low Countries had the highest ratio of younger players. The champions had a 60-40% split between the two halves of the year, while Belgium achieved a 50-50 balance as a result of a decade of work with late-development squads at U15, U16 and U17 levels.
Kids or adults?
“It is easy to forget that this is youth football,” Dany Ryser remarked. “We could see that a lot of the teams were at professional levels in the number of backroom staff. As a coach, you have to be careful that the management of a large group of staff doesn’t distract you from the core job of coaching the players.” For many of the players, the event in England represented a first experience of a long tournament and, as John Peacock pointed out, “it’s also easy to forget that, apart from technical, tactical and physical aspects, there is a fourth quarter – the social and psychological side.” In England, Norway set benchmarks by organising social activities on practically every day. “I think it’s important,” said Peacock, “to let the players ‘get out of their bubble’ and to be kids for a while.”
Dany Ryser added “one of the key questions is how much responsibility to give to these teenagers. We don’t want to develop robots, so my personal view is that coaches at this level should present them with problems and encourage them to resolve them.” This was the stance in the England camp, where Steve Cooper divided his squad into small groups and invited them to discuss aspects of the game. Coaching styles on the touchline also varied – as illustrated by the Spain v Netherlands game where Santi Denia constantly offered advice to his players, whereas Kees van Wonderen was more of a silent observer. John Peacock reflected “this is a crucial stage where you need to find the best way to mix a winning team with player development and helping them to fulfil their potential. To what extent should they be encouraged to learn by leaving them alone and letting them make mistakes? This is where the coach has to decide what is right.”