Sticking to a system?
"Our youth teams all play the same system," said one of the coaches in Hungary. "But we have a new national team coach with the senior team and there hasn't been much contact with the youth levels."
Andreas Heraf, who led Austria into the semi-finals, said: "We don't strictly impose any single playing system. We'll defend with four at the back and we want to play a pressing game, but apart from that there's a degree of freedom. I'm also the coach of our Under-15 side and the two teams play in different styles."
The question is pertinent in that, during recent years, Spanish football had set benchmarks at all levels based on a constantly respected footballing philosophy. "I would say that we also need this," commented Ukraine head coach Oleksandr Petrakov. "I hope it will become possible in the near future when we have an operational national training centre. At the moment, I and our other national team coaches are free to make our choice of playing system." Bulgaria coach Aleksandar Dimitrov echoed this standpoint: "I have freedom of choice when it comes to the playing system because it depends on the players who are available and the opponents we have to play."
Germany coach Marcus Sorg commented on his country's FIFA World Cup success, based on bringing players through from the youth and U21 teams. "
Our teams all operate with four at the back and with the attitude of dominating game play and individual matches. But the rest depends on the players. For example, if we have two excellent strikers, we will play with two strikers to facilitate their development. The primary considerations, rather than a fixed system, are the development of players for the senior team and a high level or organisation in our game plans."
Portugal coach Hélio Sousa highlighted the dichotomy outlined in the opening paragraph. "Between the Under-15 and Under-20 levels we operate the same 4-3-3," he explained. "But there are variations in team dynamics to exploit and develop individual characteristics, notably the strength of our wingers in 1v1 or 1v2 situations and so on."
The talking point is therefore quite simple: should all the national teams within a national association adopt the same playing structure? What are the benefits? What are the disadvantages?
Changes to the dress code?
It sometimes takes a bizarre combination of circumstances to provoke reflections and debating points. As a coach, how would you react to the situation experienced by one of the coaches in Hungary? "During a game," he explained, "one of our players had his shirt torn by an opponent. We were obliged to take our player off the field and keep him on the touch line until he had changed his shirt. It so happened that the replacement shirt was in a dressing room some distance from the bench. One of our staff had to make his way there, unlock the room, find the right shirt and bring it back. It took about five minutes. During that time we were playing 10 against 11 so the team that had committed the infraction gained an advantage from it. To make things worse, they scored a goal during the time when we were one player short. Should teams have their replacement shirts with them on the bench so that play could be held up while the player changes? Is the situation we experienced really good in terms of fair play?"
A fair talking point?
Safety in numbers?
One of the perennial talking points at this age level refers to the size of the squads. Among the coaches in Hungary, there were differences of opinion. Some were quite happy just to be able to complete a squad of 18. Others were keen to get more players involved – Israel head coach Eli Ohana, for instance: "We were in the final tournament for the first time," he explained, "and it was a beautiful experience for the players and the coaching staff. A great, great experience. So why should we restrict our squad to 18? Is it not possible to offer this experience to more players?"
Hungary coach Géza Mészöly added: "We experienced some difficulties because we only had 18 in the squad. At a certain point we had one player unwell and a goalkeeper struggling with a hand injury. I would have liked to select 18 outfield players plus two keepers, for example." At a tournament which offers the prospect of five matches in 13 days, should workloads be more widely distributed and international experience offered to more of the players who had taken part in qualifying matches?
There was a further dimension to the numbers game. Mészöly sportingly concurred with his Austrian counterpart, Andreas Heraf, in raising a question about the team sheets when the two countries met on the opening day. In the final match of the elite round, Austria had clinched top spot on goal difference in a goalless draw with Russia that had produced six yellow cards – three for each team. As it happened, the trio of cautions were for Austrian players who had seen a yellow card earlier in their six-match qualifying campaign. The repercussion was that, in the opening game against Hungary, they were three players short. Their opponents, on the other hand, had qualified thanks to their status as hosts and therefore started with a clean sheet in terms of yellow cards. As Mészöly gently enquired with a modicum of embarrassment, "is this really fair?"
The calendar year
The Portugal squad was, initially, alone in featuring players exclusively from the generation of '95 with the younger Romário Baldé later drafted in as No19. At the other end of the spectrum, Serbia's initial list of 18 included seven players with birthdates in 1996 and two in 1997. But just under a third of the 144 players selected for the tournament in Hungary were born at the top end of the age bracket – in the first three months of 1995.
This is a frequent cue for discussion at Under-17 tournaments, where the physical differences can vary considerably between the January babies and those born towards the end of the calendar year. The first talking point is whether it's fair to assume these differences will have been substantially ironed out by the U19 stages of development.
At the final tournament in Hungary, 56 players (39% of the 'workforce') had birthdays between January and March. Only 22 (15%) had dates of birth in the last three months of the calendar year. Is it a concern that the January-to-March babies have two-and-a-half times more chances of success than the autumn children? It's risky to claim that players born early in the year have more talent than the others. So the talking point is: at what stage do the end-of-year players get an equal chance to shine?
Still on the subject of dates, the final tournament in 2014 once again raised serious issues related to the release of players at a stage of the season when the Under-19s are frequently involved in the first-team squads gathered for pre-season training camps, tours or, more to the point, important UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League qualifying fixtures. Almost endemically, the problem relates mostly to the best players in the age category. Half of the teams in Hungary had to cope with relevant absences because clubs refused to release players. Should – and can – the dates for the final tournament be rearranged to make them more club-compatible? What could be done to align them with FIFA dates?