Present and correct?
At U19 level, there are topics which have been talking points since time immemorial. In writing an annual report, there is a strong temptation to shy away from repetition. But if an issue is of constant concern to the coaches who take teams to final tournaments, should it be swept under the carpet simply because it has been broached before? Or does the fact that it continually crops up give it even greater legitimacy as a talking point?
The coaches in Greece discussed the ins and outs of several such issues, many of them interlocking. The most common denominator among their concerns was the question of player fitness during a tournament played fractionally earlier than the traditional mid to late-July dates. "This was a real challenge for a team whose game is based on technique," said France coach Patrick Gonfalone. "There's a limit to how far you can discuss team tactics and game plans when the players' physical conditioning simply doesn't allow them to attack and defend for 90 minutes."
His seven colleagues could be quoted in very similar terms, but each had to address the issue from a slightly different perspective. Germany coach Marcus Sorg, for example, admitted that his squad selection had been influenced. "We can't really talk too much about a development tournament," he said, "because we travelled to Greece with the players who we thought would be in the best form at that particular moment. We didn't think about the future."
Germany had been accompanied by Austria and Ukraine among the European representatives at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand, which had finished barely 16 days before the ball started rolling in Greece. "We thought very seriously about this matter, and finally decided to select all three of the players who had been at the World Cup," said Ukraine coach Olexandr Holovko. "They had had some time to rest but, even so, a coach can have problems with players in that situation if their eyes are not burning. You have to assess their degree of motivation."
One of the three, his team leader Viktor Kovalenko played, in the words of his coach, "beautiful games" against Greece and France but, with his team eliminated, was not on the team sheet for the final match against Austria – another contestant affected by the same issue.
"We had to look very carefully at our squad management," head coach Hermann Stadler admitted. "And we decided not to select the three players who'd been in New Zealand. It meant we were without our goalkeeper, a centre-back and a screening midfielder. We had injuries as well, so it was a tricky selection problem. The bottom line is that we were without six key players."
Although participants such as France, Germany, Greece and Spain reported that they had "all the players we wanted", the loss of key players was also a sore point for Netherlands coach Aron Winter. "You like to think that the final tournament is a culminating point in a development process," he said. "But of the group we started working with in September 2014, 19 were missing when we travelled to Greece." He provided an extreme example of a coach whose work was seriously affected by the clash of dates with UEFA Champions League and UEFA Europa League qualifiers – with the issue of player-release aggravated by the fact that, among Dutch clubs, players born in 1996 were, by and large, already members of senior squads.
Winter's discontent could be summed up by the fact that nine of his potential 11 starters were not available for the trip to Greece. His coaching challenge was therefore to prepare, in one month, a different group of players. Understandably, he was keen to add his name to the long list of coaches who have made the dates selected for the final tournament a perennial talking point. Brainstorming has gone on for many years – but is there a solution?
An awkward age?
One of the interlocking aspects is related to the U19 players' levels of match experience. Greece coach Giannis Goumas highlighted the fact that "we have three or four players in senior squads, but they spend most of their lives on the bench and, if they play, it's usually about ten minutes. We had three players who were getting regular football at second-division clubs – and they were the important players for us." Spain coach Luis de la Fuente commented: "The nucleus of our squad is a group of players who are getting regular football in the second division or at third-tier level: our Segunda B."
Gonfalone added: "This is a subject which makes it difficult for coaches to assess form and to work on team-building. It's a very difficult age group because, in theory, the top talents have been noticed by the top clubs. But at those top clubs, they may not be playing that much and lack match sharpness and the rhythm of competition."
In Greece, his viewpoint was endorsed by the case of Kingsley Coman who had played for Juventus, on 6 June, the closing minutes of the UEFA Champions League final against FC Barcelona after 14 league and two cup appearances for his club. But his total for the season was 701 minutes. After 40 minutes of France's second game he felt too fatigued to continue – though, in fairness, he had sandwiched holidays between Berlin and Greece and was most definitely in pre-season mode.
But the talking point among the coaches in Greece focused on whether the best development pathway in this awkward age group is to be part of the senior set-up at a top club – or to be playing regularly at a lower level?
Signs of the times?
If there was a horoscope page in football magazines it might make depressing reading for players at youth development levels. Especially those whose birth sign is Scorpio or Sagittarius. For many years, the predominance of players born in the first three months of the year has been an acknowledged feature at U17 level, where six or seven months can signify differences in physical and/or mental maturity.
The issue has regularly appeared as a debating point at that level. The 2014/15 season, however, demonstrated that the discussion can no longer be restricted to the U17 category. The tendency has now clearly permeated all levels of youth development right the way through U19 to U21 where, among the 184 players selected for the final tournament in the Czech Republic immediately prior to the U19 event in Greece, only 9.8% had been born in the last three months of the calendar year.
The player-release issues evidently affected the squad lists for the final tournament in Greece. Winter's problems, for example, contributed to the selection of eight players born in 1997. The Spanish and Austrian squads contained seven and five respectively; the Greece and Germany squads, none. Overall, 25 of the 144 players (17.4%) were born in 1997; the rest in 1996.
But, irrespective of year, the tendency to select those born in the first three months remained constant, whether the year of birth was 1996 or 1997. The statistics reveal that 34% were born between January and March; only 9.7% between October and December.
The talking point is whether it can legitimately be alleged that there is less footballing talent among boys born towards the end of the year? Or whether selection processes in the early teen years are permanently shutting the door on 'late developers' and allowing a significant percentage of talent to slip through the net?