In theory, the 146 players who took part in the final tournament were at similar stages of their footballing development. Or were they? As Italy coach Paolo Vanoli commented on the eve of the final against France, “Their players have 195 appearances in the top two divisions of French football. Their goalkeeper, Paul Bernardoni, has played 21 games for Bordeaux. Ours is third keeper at Udinese. We cannot match them for big-game experience.”
His remarks provoked reflections. The exodus of French players to other leagues evidently opens windows of opportunity for younger footballers and allowed Ludovic Batelli to select a strong squad of home-based players already initiated at top-level. Vanoli’s charges, by contrast, arrived in Germany with little or no first-team experience, a prime example being left-back Federico Dimarco, on the books of FC Internazionale but loaned to Serie B Ascoli in 2015/16 and, after the tournament in Germany, to Empoli FC, where he hoped to savour some Serie A football. “I’ve realised that stepping up into senior football is difficult on account of the intensity," he conceded.
Similar parameters applied to other contestants. England attackers Dominic Solanke and Izzy Brown, for example, had spent the 2015/16 season on loan from Chelsea to Dutch club FC Vitesse. Portugal coach Emilio Peixe selected a mostly home-based squad (eight of them from SL Benfica) with most of them playing their club football in the national youth league. Five members of the Croatia squad, on the other hand, had already been recruited by clubs in Italy, Germany and Belgium.
However, ‘success’ in terms of club progress sometimes signified failure to attend the tournament in Germany. Austria were short of two important players due to problems with their release. The Netherlands squad was affected by shaking of the head by two Dutch and two English clubs. The France list might have included two players based in Germany and Spain. Croatia were without five key players, who were not released by their clubs because they were going to appear on team-sheets for the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League qualifiers that were being disputed while the ball was rolling in Germany. Head coach Ferdo Milin wrily remarked "it turned out that, of the team that played preparation friendlies against Qatar, none were in Germany. And of those who played in China, only five were at the final tournament".
Looking for a silver lining, Croatia's problems opened the door for eight players born in 1998 (of the 21 born in that year on squad lists at the tournament, along with two Portugal players born in 1999) to gain international experience. The talking points, however, are various. What could possibly be done to secure the release of players on these non-FIFA dates, especially by clubs who see little reason to support the national teams of other countries? How relevant is professional league experience when it comes to competing for titles or World Cup places at this level? “I think it’s an advantage to play in professional teams,” Batelli acknowledged, “
We are lucky in France to have so many coaches who show confidence in young players.”
At this crucial crossing point on the bridge between youth and senior football, does something need to be done to map better pathways for the emerging talents? Or to encourage more coaches to ‘show confidence in young players’?
Bridge over water?
The tournament in Germany split kick-off times between midday and evening. The 12:00 starts were immensely successful in terms of attracting groups of schoolchildren to the stadium but didn’t raise quite as many smiles among the coaching staffs prompted to schedule the pre-match pasta for something like 08:30. And, of course, it was summer. The technical observers felt that the midday matches were played at lower intensity – and it was noted that the Dutch played all their group games in that early time-slot.
At the senior EURO in France, standard procedure was for referees to signal a cooling break midway through each half if the temperature exceeded 32°. In Germany, even though matchdays side-stepped the highest temperatures, similar arrangements were put in place. There were some anecdotal notes in the margin, such as a water-break not being reflected in the time added-on at the end of the 45 minutes, even though the referee had his finger on the pause button for a couple of minutes. Or a cooling break called during the first half of a match that had kicked-off two hours later than one which hadn’t had one.
The main point, though, was that coaches were well aware that the cooling break constituted a great opportunity for some time-out coaching of their teams. And, having been offered a sweet, it’s easy to ask for two. “If he had a time-out midway through each half, why should I not have one just because the temperature is two degrees lower?” In torrid conditions, the water break is evidently a positive move in terms of player welfare. But, to be provocative, is it inadvertently building a bridge towards the introduction of the time-out?
The attacking block?
This is the scenario. The referee indicates a free-kick wide-ish on the right. Following the modern tendency, the defending team holds a high line at the edge of the box. But a member of the attacking team puts a player three metres goal-side of the line of defenders in an obviously offside position. When his team-mate runs up to deliver the set play, he moves back from his advanced position – but not to put himself onside. (Not that he’s likely to be flagged offside anyway, as his intention is not to make contact with the ball). When his attacking team-mates run in from the edge of the box, he bumps into one of the defenders and, with his marker eliminated from the equation, the attacker, unchallenged, heads into the net and the referee points to the centre-circle. Is there anything wrong with this?
History was made during the extra-time played in the FIFA World Cup play-off between Germany and the Netherlands. Aron Winter became the first coach to avail himself of the experimental option of making a fourth substitution. He did so in response to his team falling 2-3 behind. Four minutes later, Germany left-back Jannes Horn went down injured and was unable to continue.
UEFA's technical observers in Germany gave a nod to the first instalment of the experiment to be continued at other age-limit competitions. They felt that it was laudable in giving the coach a chance to make a tactical response to falling behind. And equally legitimate in terms of sparing one of the teams from having to see out minutes 110-120 of the match with one player less. Do you agree?