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Technical topics

Technical topics

"I look back and compare with the time when I was an Under-19 player and the change is amazing. The football wasn't this tactical, the athletic condition was much lower, and the levels of awareness and understanding of the game are now much higher." The words spoken by Serbia coach Veljko Paunović served to summarise a tournament of remarkable tactical maturity.

There's also been a big change in the quality of the coaches
Eli Ohana
It is clear that coaches at youth development levels now need to train goalkeepers in outfield skills
László Szalai
A high fitness level has become one of the most important facets in modern football
Ghenadie Scurtul

"There's also been a big change in the quality of the coaches," added Israel's Eli Ohana, another former international player. "In my time, they were not the best in the world. But now there are elements like internet, contacts with other coaches and opportunities to travel to see how colleagues set about the job which have injected new things in coaching at youth level. This is visible at club level as well as in the national teams."

UEFA's technical observers at the final tournament endorsed the quality of the coaching. "It was evident that the coaches were active in encouraging and motivating their players. During matches, they were out there in their tracksuits staying really close to their teams. There was discipline; the team spirit was excellent and it was obvious that, even though there was not much time to do it, the tactical preparation was very good."

A world of difference
As a debating point, it could be argued that some of the group stage games were overly tactical, with risk management a notable priority. The technical team attributed this to the fact that Hungary 2014 was, in effect, two tournaments in one. With the top three teams in each group earning places at the 2015 FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand, a top-three finish became more of a priority for the less habitual participants at this level than actually winning the tournament. The emphasis was on compact, well-organised defending and, frequently, 'safety first' policies, such as patient passing interchanges along the back four, followed by a long pass to the target striker – a ploy pre-empting ball losses in delicate areas. The general trend (with the two finalists again providing exceptions) was for full-backs to play more conservative roles, rarely venturing beyond the halfway line.

This argument seems to be refuted by a group stage which produced 36 goals at an average of three per game – but it should be pointed out that 42% of the goals were scored on the second matchday when torrential rain represented an additional challenge for defensive work.

One at the front
The tournament confirmed the trend towards a 4-2-3-1 team structure, with Austria, Bulgaria, Germany, Israel, Serbia and Ukraine adopting it as a default setting; Hungary and Portugal opted more usually for 4-3-3 and many teams switched between the two according to individual game plans. As UEFA observer László Szalai remarked: "The system is effective in that it allows the three players positioned behind the central striker to constantly swap places. They were usually mobile, creative players with excellent technical abilities." However, the left and right members of the line of three were usually wide midfielders rather than traditional wingers. The two finalists provided exceptions to the rule, Portugal operating with Gelson Martins and Ivo Rodrigues on the flanks, and Germany blending Arjen Robben-style Julian Brandt on the left with Hany Mukhtar, who had more of an attacking midfielder profile.


Tournament top scorer Davie Selke

The common denominator was the lone striker. Germany's Davie Selke, the tournament's top scorer with six goals, was a modern leader of the attack, dropping wide (preferentially to the right) to open central spaces for the midfield trio. Portugal's André Silva scored four of his five goals in the rain-drenched match against Hungary, and Florian Grillitsch led the Austria attack with power and energy. However, the tournament again raised questions about whether enough strikers are being developed. As László Szalai remarked, "we didn't really see Van Nistelrooys at this tournament…". 

The sweeper-keeper
Szalai also pointed out that "the role of the goalkeeper has changed and this tournament confirmed that they are usually expected to act as the last line of defence. It's now very important for them to be able to read the game and to be able to play with their feet. It is clear that coaches at youth development levels now need to train goalkeepers in outfield skills and let them use their feet during training sessions. In this respect, standards varied and some of the young goalkeepers ran into trouble when they tried to use their feet."

There was general praise for the goalkeepers and the training ground work done by the goalkeeper coaches. Ukraine keeper Bogdan Sarnavskiy added leadership skills to shot-stopping abilities, effectively organising his team's defensive play and distributing the ball well. Accurate distribution is now a prerequisite for goalkeepers at this level.

Team players and team spirit
"The tournament demonstrated that team spirit is an important element," commented UEFA observer Ghenadie Scurtul. "England, France, Italy and Spain were among the teams who didn't qualify, while teams like Bulgaria, Ukraine or Serbia were in Hungary – not 'big' countries. The explanation for them reaching the finals was mostly about teamwork and the success of the coach in finding the right tools to manage the players."


Serbia were helped by their strong team ethic

Serbia coach Veljko Paunović added: "We focus on development and understanding of the game but also on human values. The most important thing in a team is to have good values like respect, responsibility, mutual confidence, trust … If we want to teach something without these values, we are missing the point and wasting our time." Israel coach Eli Ohana also stressed: "The key is the togetherness of the group so, in the selection process, you take into account how a player behaves as part of a group."

Austria coach Andreas Heraf agrees that the criteria for player selection have varied. "Coaches no longer go for players who are 190cm and can hit a long pass. Players of lesser physique are now getting opportunities – even if it gives you headaches when you're defending set plays – and you focus on pace and technique." Ohana remarked: "Talent is the basic element but it's not enough. Players must be ready to work hard and make sacrifices. At this age, they need to be devoted to their job and prepared to make an investment in their future." UEFA's technical observers felt that they had seen a lot of good players in Hungary – but no superstars.

Comfortable in possession
In Hungary, only Germany consistently applied high pressure on their opponents. Other teams tended to use this resource when chasing a result but generally opted to form a solid defensive block and press the ball carrier from midfield. The screening midfielders were expected to offer compact defensive cover to the back four (all eight teams operated with four at the back) and one was expected to stay deep when the full-backs advanced and the centre-backs split during the first phase of building from the back. The tournament confirmed that the modern centre-back needs to be comfortable on the ball and requires the ability to see and deliver the passes which serve as launchpads for the team's attacking play. One of the general features was that defenders remained composed and had the technique to play their way out of high-pressure situations. At the same time, the technical observers remarked that, for the coach, following the fashionable trend towards a possession-based game can be problematic if the players are not technically equipped to deal with high pressure and tight situations.

UEFA technical observer László Szalai

Learning to win
Development v result dilemmas are endemic to football in this age bracket. But the tournament was clearly result-orientated, with the World Cup carrot a significant enticement. Portugal coach Hélio Sousa was among the coaches who had accompanied the team during its development (for three years in his specific case) and explained "this season, the team has started winning". He stressed the importance of encouraging players to learn how to compete and to develop a winning mentality stemming, he maintained, from greater self-belief.

However, the coaches in Hungary had to deal with groups of players who were treading different areas of career pathways. The tactical maturity and professional approach of the German players could be traced to their involvement with Bundesliga squads, with two top players not released by their clubs because of their first-team status. Hélio Sousa, coach of the silver medallists, was working in a different ambience. Most of his players had been recruited from the academies of Portugal's biggest clubs, where first-team opportunities are hard to earn and the immediate future points towards experience in a B league. Austria coach Andreas Heraf was by no means alone in commenting on a difficult development phase in which the Under-19 players were trying to step up from academies to first teams. "They are sometimes in the first-team squad," he said, "but they're not playing." Eli Ohana reported that none of his players were first-team regulars in Israel; Ukraine coach Olexandr Petrakov's squad contained 16 players from second teams and youth leagues; Serbia coach Veljko Paunović had struggled to prepare a group blending players from the U19 league with others from first-team squads but who were "not main players"; Hungary coach Géza Mészöly remarked that "90% of my players have made a first-team debut but some have not played many minutes". He was one of many coaches who "try to persuade clubs to have greater faith in players of this age group and to help to design career pathways".

The coaches, who had struggled to resolve player release and team preparation issues prior to the event, agreed unanimously that international tournaments are invaluable player development experiences and that, in this age bracket, close cooperation with clubs is an essential ingredient.

How the goals were scored
The tournament in Hungary produced 41 goals, a 13% downturn and the lowest total since 2009. The goals were shared among 27 players. Crosses were the most fertile source but, as Ghenadie Scurtul pointed out, many of them were not of the traditional cross and strike variety, but rather crosses which were laid off to players in shooting positions. Having said that, 11 goals were headers – 27% of the total. 

Only two goals could be directly attributed to counterattacks, while another salient feature was the lack of goals scored from long range – a factor which could arguably be interpolated with previous remarks on the high standard of goalkeeping. 

Set plays accounted for 10 goals – fractionally under a quarter of the total, with four of them from the penalty spot. The only goal from a direct free-kick attracted attention to Austria's ploy of placing two players in kneeling positions a metre or so in front of the defensive wall. The strategy succeeded in the 48th minute of the opening game against Hungary when Peter Michorl struck his free-kick left-footed into the host team's net.

The four goals from corners represent a one in 35 success ratio on the tournament total of 139.

Goalscoring table
Set playCornerDirect from or following a corner4
Set playFree-kick (direct)Direct from a free-kick1
Set playFree-kick (indirect)Following a free-kick1
Set playPenaltySpot kick (or follow-up)4
Set playThrow-inFollowing a throw-in0
Open playCombinationWall pass or three-player (or more) combination6
Open playCrossCross from the wing10
Open playCutbackPass back from the byline3
Open playDiagonalDiagonal pass into the penalty box1
Open playRun with the ballDribble and close-range shot or dribble and pass5
Open playLong-range shotDirect shot or shot and rebound0
Open playForward passThrough pass or pass over the defence4
Open playDefensive errorBad back-pass or mistake by the goalkeeper2
Open playOwn goalGoal by the opponent0

Goal attempts
The two finalists registered averages of around 15 goal attempts per match, more than doubling the average of seven recorded by Ukraine. Bulgaria coach Aleksandar Dimitrov lamented his side's lack of finishing power yet, of the teams eliminated in the group stage, they achieved the highest number of goal attempts. As statistical confirmation of Germany's defensive acumen, their five opponents at the tournament accumulated only 32 goal attempts – the highest success rate corresponding to Portugal's 10 attempts during the final.


OpponentOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodworkTotal


OpponentOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodworkTotal


OpponentOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodworkTotal


OpponentOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodworkTotal


OpponentOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodworkTotal




OpponentOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodworkTotal


OpponentOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodworkTotal


OpponentOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodworkTotal

Note: attempts striking the woodwork are included in the on-target total if deflected by a goalkeeper or a defender and in the off-target total if the attempt strikes the woodwork directly.

Faster and fitter
Ghenadie Scurtul remarked: "A high fitness level has become one of the most important facets in modern football – even at youth level. Teams had backroom staffing levels that would have been unthinkable five years or so ago. Even in July, when fitness can be a problem, the tournament was played with a generally high standard of athletic condition, with well-organised rest-and-recovery procedures between matches."

László Szalai added: "The coaches openly said that speed was one of the main selection criteria these days and there were almost no 'slow' players in any of the teams. In addition to the physical pace, it was noticeable that a great number of players were fast in their decision-making – which is another important aspect of youth development. Germany were a great example. They were well-organised, they took up excellent positions on the pitch … if you were watching them, you would not believe that it was a youth team. They looked like a senior, truly professional team."

Despite the demanding conditions (ranging from very high temperatures to torrential rain), fitness levels were reflected in the table of goal times, which demonstrates that the final 15 minutes of matches were among the least productive periods. Unusually, the first half, when 22 of the tournament's goals were scored, was the more productive. However, even though the first goal tended to be early, no team managed to come back to win after conceding the opening goal.