The UEFA European Under-19 Championship in Lithuania was another fascinating event from a technical and tactical point of view, with its playing styles, technical talking points, key players and memorable goals. The tournament also provided a great deal of entertainment, because the emphasis was to go forward in search of goals.
All the teams that have participated in this final tournament deserve to be mentioned; every team has its own zest and positive moments, which are important for the development of football," said UEFA technical observer Ghenadie Scurtul. "Each team has its own technical and tactical features. Also, each team was interesting in its own way. The most positive thing was that all the teams preferred an attacking style of play. And that can only be pleasing, because it's the future of football and it makes supporters enjoy the game."
"Almost all the teams wanted to play offensively," added Scurtul's colleague as technical observer, Stefan Majewski. "So the trend of making football more spectacular and scoring as often as possible is preserved among these players too, at the age that decides their future path."
The emphasis on attack – and the winger returns
The overall emphasis was on attacking play based on trying to dominate in midfield. Most teams had very fluent positions apart from the back four, with midfielders interchanging and wingers swapping flanks.
Indeed, one of the key aspects of the final round in Lithuania was the renaissance of the winger and use of the flanks in attacking play. Eight of the 47 goals scored came from crosses from the wing. Most sides had good wingers who were equipped and prepared to take on the challenge of 1 v 1s. There was certainly a general preference for attacks on the wings – and, as in the senior game, teams attempted to find ways to the opponents' goal from the flanks because of the well-populated central areas.
Continuing the theme of wing play, all the sides made use of overlapping full-backs. Some, such as Spain and Portugal, were prepared to throw both forward with a screening midfielder staying back to complete a defensive triangle. Other teams would not push both full-backs forward at the same time – it was either one or the other to ensure there were three players at the back at all times. Spain deployed one particular move: their wingers were prepared to cut inside to make room for overlapping runs by the full-backs.
Systems and strengths
The 4-2-3-1 system proved popular at the 2013 finals. Lithuania, Netherlands, Serbia, Spain and Turkey played this system at some stage; France, Georgia and Portugal deployed the 4-3-3 formation as their default, and Serbia also made use of this shape. Lithuania were alone in utilising the 4-4-2 template in their match against Spain.
There was a general tendency towards high pressing in opponents' halves, while teams made rapid transition from attack to compact defensive blocks. Lithuania and Serbia focused on deep defending – Lithuania favouring a counterattacking game – and the trend was towards possession play and building from the back, with no significant use of long passes forward.
Serbia won the championship operating from a deep, compact defensive block, with fast transition from defence to attack and efficient use of their active full-backs. An effective midfield triangle was complemented by a fine finisher up front in Aleksandar Mitrović. Good links between the team lines, strong fitness levels and committed teamwork were all crucial factors in their run to the title – together with a fine goalkeeper, Predrag Rajković, who saved two penalties in the semi-final shoot-out against Portugal, and mental fortitude and resilience, key ingredients in coach Ljubinko Drulović's squad selection, which helped them through the difficult moments that any team must overcome on a final-round adventure.
The countries with the best defensive records reached the final. Champions Serbia and runners-up France conceded four goals in five matches – an average of 0.8 per game. Defensive work was based on strong players and unstinting work rate in the central areas. "In the end it was Serbia and France, teams that maybe didn't play in a very spectacular way, but they certainly chose the right tactics to progress," said Stefan Majewski. "If we take a look at what has been happening recently, it is usually not the teams who score most, but those who concede the fewest goals, who are the ones that go further. And that is reflected by this tournament.
"In most teams," Majewski reflected, "you had the formation of four defenders, two defensive midfielders, three who decided the play … the wide players, very noticeably in this tournament, were really important. If you look at how many crosses were made, you can see the trend.
"But whether the teams played with one or two defensive midfielders really decided whether the team was more offensively set up or not. It was equally noticeable that soon after taking the lead, a team would try to hold it until the end, leave one attacker and the rest would fall back."
The set-piece back-up question
As usual, set pieces threw up their fair share of talking points. For example, the technical observers noted that corners were not always hit straight into the penalty area. Teams preferred to play short and retain possession rather than loop the ball in and leave the opposition with counterattacking possibilities.
"It was also characteristic," said Majewski, "that for set pieces – the goalkeeper was there all the time, of course – the other ten players would immediately go back into their own half, and even in the case of corners would set themselves up in the penalty area in such a way as not to concede a goal … Another noticeable thing was that the teams were not that well set up for set pieces in defence. At a set piece, there were, sometimes unnecessarily, three or four or five players when there was only one opponent. I think that the offensive power could be enhanced if the coach made changes – for example leaving one player responsible for the opponent and one back-up, but not three or four back-ups for one player."
Stable goals tally
A total of 47 goals were scored in Lithuania – one more than in Romania in 2011, two more than in France in 2010 but two fewer than in Estonia in 2012. Evidently, scoring rates have stabilised in U19 final tournaments. The 2013 event saw 35 goals (74%) scored from open play, and 12 from set pieces (26%). Portugal were the highest scorers this year with ten goals in four matches, an average of 2.5 a game.
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The 12 set-play goals represented an increase of one from the 2012 edition. In Lithuania, these 12 goals comprised four direct from or following a corner; three direct free-kicks; four from the penalty spot or following up a penalty; and one following a throw-in. The percentage of 26% in 2013 is above the 24% in Romania in 2011 and the 22% in Estonia in 2012.
There was a slight fall in the number of goals scored from open play – 35 compared with 37 in 2012. The number of goals from defensive errors was minimal – only two, and one of those an own goal – which is a tribute to defensive diligence. Eleven came from flank play – eight crosses from the wing and three passes back from the byline, the latter including the crucial goal in the final.
How they went in
The most successful way to score goals? Well, seven strikes came as a result of players running with the ball – a dribble and close-range shot, or a dribble and pass, which emphasises the technical qualities that many players demonstrated. In Lithuania, the through pass or pass over the defence – likewise providing seven goals – also proved a productive way to breach concentrated, watchful defensive lines. Combination play was another successful way of finding the target, with five goals stemming from combinations unlocking the rearguard. It is interesting to note that in the 2013 tournament, only two goals were scored as a consequence of long-range efforts, and just one goal came through a diagonal pass into the penalty box.
Last year, a talking point continued to be headed goals. While at UEFA EURO 2012 there had been a record 22 headed goals, there were no goals from headers at the U17 and U19 final rounds in 2011. Since then, the number has been rising if one looks at the U19 level. In Estonia in 2012, there were seven headed goals, while the Lithuania showcase saw the tally climb again – this time around, headers found the target 11 times. A good percentage of these goals came from crosses or wing play, which again raises the recurring theme of teams using the flanks as an attacking ploy. Some sides crossed with regularity – the Netherlands' right-sided attacker Bilal Basacikoglu was particularly prolific in getting in crosses each match.
The 2013 tournament brought a total of 297 attempts on goal, at an average of 19.8 per game. This compares with 323 goal attempts at an average of 21.5 per match in 2012. A total of 143 (48%) were on target in 2013, against 150 (46%) the previous year.
There were high levels of fitness, tactical awareness and discipline on display in Lithuania. High levels of technique were also shown, in particular the ability to play in tight situations and switch play effectively, often through long diagonal passes. France were notable for their players' individual technique and strong dribbling skills. Some teams, especially Spain and Portugal, were easily identifiable with the countries' senior sides.
"I think all the teams showed a high level of discipline in terms of following the coaches' instructions and tactical preparation," said Ghenadie Scurtul. "And if we analyse this we can make a conclusion that the guys play football as adults. And the tendencies of the development of senior football in Europe and in the world are in tune with what we observed in this tournament. We can say for sure that there is a high level of preparation, especially in terms of tactics, and the coaches are also well-trained to implement these tendencies. They find those keys that help players demonstrate their best qualities and follow their instructions for the good of the team."
"Here you could see the players wanted to play football, show what they could do, because it's very important," added Stefan Majewski. "They are our so-called young stars, small diamonds that have to be properly cut. If you look at how the coaches deal with that, you can see that most of the players are very well prepared technically, which means that football is going in a good direction."
Following the leaders
All teams had at least one player who could make the difference or at least one leader per line. Leadership was an important quality. Aleksandar Mitrović for Serbia, Adrien Rabiot for France, Recep Niyaz for Turkey and Yassine Ayoub for the Netherlands were all examples at the 2013 final round of players who proved to be driving forces for their sides and inspirations for their colleagues.
"If you look at the teams, then the aim is that in practically all formations there is a leader," said Majewski. "The teams that have such leaders in each formation are strong, but when you get back to what was happening during the tournament, then the majority of the teams did have such a player who was able to take responsibility for the play, especially when the ball was coming from the back, playing unconventionally to surprise the opponents. This determines the value and the type of players they are. Look at Spain, where there are a few players who can play that role, but in other teams there's a player who can not only play well in defence, but who can also find his man, play accurately as well as individually, and decide the outcome of the match. I think that every team has their own so-called leader who is able to pass the ball, to play it unconventionally and optimally, and that determines the power of a team."
"One of the good signs of the tournament is that every team had good players," added Scurtul. "In some teams more, in some teams less. In the end it may influence the result, because the more talented players in a team, the better chance they have of winning a tournament. There were teams that have very good footballers, their leaders, due to which these teams are probably [in Lithuania]. On the other hand, in every team, there was a combination of a collective game and personal performances, and that is a guarantee of success."