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Technical topics

Technical topics
Where did the goals come from at the 2016 finals? ©Panoramic

Technical topics

“All the national teams have freedom to choose the playing system. The only obligation is to play with four at the back.” The comment made by France coach Ludovic Batelli could be applied to the tournament as a whole: the only common denominator among default settings was a four-man back line. Croatia coach Ferdo Milin provided the notable exception to the rule when, taking advantage of England’s celebration of a fourth-minute opening goal, he summoned all his players to the touchline – goalkeeper included – for an improvised time-out. After shipping another goal minutes later, he ordered a switch to a 1-5-2-3 structure with screening midfielder Kristijan Jakić dropping in as a third centre-back. Six minutes before half-time, he sent on Fran Brodić to replace midfielder Josip Brekalo and changed to a 1-5-3-2 structure that served as a platform for a more coherent second-half performance.

The best teams didn’t spend too much energy on high pressing and adopted an intelligent reaction to the loss of the ball. They were good at forcing their opponents wide; quickly taking up their defensive positions; and putting the ball-carrier under intensive pressure
UEFA technical observer Yves Débonnaire
Relationships on the flanks were very important and most teams were set up to implement the ‘channel’ system. If the winger cut in, the full-back stayed wide; and vice-versa. This was nicely illustrated by the second goal in the final when Blas cut in; the ball was played wide to the full-back; and it was the winger who headed in Michelin’s cross
UEFA technical observer László Szalai

The numbers game, however, was not easy to play. Croatia was one of quintet of teams that initially set out their stalls in 1-4-3-3 formation with two opting for 1-4-2-3-1 with two screening midfielders and Italy alone in implementing a classic 1-4-4-2 – although England and the Netherlands played spells in the latter formation. As Yves Débonnaire, one of the two UEFA technical observers in Germany, remarked, “attacking and defending formations tended to be very different and one of the notable features of the tournament was that almost all the teams were very well-organised in their transitions from attack to defence. The best teams didn’t spend too much energy on high pressing and adopted an intelligent reaction to the loss of the ball. They were good at forcing their opponents wide; quickly taking up their defensive positions; and putting the ball-carrier under intensive pressure.”

The balancing act
“Most of the teams,” said László Szalai, UEFA’s other technical observer in Germany, “had a strong spine, with two centre-backs and two central midfielders. The teams’ mobility tended to be around them.” Germany’s total of goal attempts illustrated the hosts’ readiness to commit numbers to attack, while many of the other teams paid greater respect to their opponents’ counterattacking potential. Austria provided a good example by attacking with four with two supporting players patrolling the area around the box and four more in a lozenge formation ready to pre-empt quick counters by the opposition. “The top teams,” Débonnaire commented, “were alert to opportunities to attack quickly, looking to make direct transitions with two or three passes, but with eight players still behind the ball. If the direct route was not viable, the emphasis was on a risk-management policy aiming to avoid losses of possession in the danger areas.”


England's Fred Woodman: the only real 'sweeper-keeper'

Playing from the back
“In a way, it was a quiet tournament for goalkeepers,” Szalai commented. “There was not much pressure on them, so it was easy for them to distribute the ball sensibly. But, in general, they didn’t have a high level of participation. There were not that many back passes and teams didn’t rely very heavily on them in building from the back. We saw mostly short, simple passes to centre-backs or full-backs and we didn’t see that much use of the long ball to the strikers.” It meant that the trend towards the keeper-sweeper was not overly visible in Germany. The England goalkeeper Fred Woodman was practically alone in regularly occupying advanced positions outside the box.

The tournament illustrated a template for the construction of attacking moves. With the full-backs advancing, a central midfielder gravitated towards the centre-backs who, if they received the ball, looked to supply a full-back or strike a diagonal pass towards the wide midfielders or wingers. Even the sides who could comfortably wear the ‘possession game’ label, such as France, England or the Netherlands, were alert to the possible dividends available from direct back-to-front supply.

More patient build-ups were generally initiated by a simple pass to the deepest-lying midfielder (not always the same player), who took a decision on the direction the attack would be taking. The receiver of his forward pass would then take a second decision on how best to penetrate into the final third. Portugal and France passed the attacking baton with great fluidity and flexibility. The former combined the intelligence and vision of Pedro Rodrigues with the perpetual movement of Gonçalo Rodrigues and the ability of João Carvalho to detect and deliver the penetrating pass. The linking play for France was relayed via the controlling midfielder Lucas Tousart to Denis Poha and Harit, who fluently brought the front three into play. “The best teams demonstrated that playmaking is no longer about one man nor about one creative area,” Débonnaire observed. “The inspiration for attacking play came from the three midfielders and, very often, from a deeper position within the team’s own half rather than in the traditional No10 area.”


The Portugal midfield showed sharp ball movement

Solo skills and job descriptions
As UEFA’s technical observers stressed, the emphasis was also on flexibility and efficiency in the attacking department, where wide players were quick to interchange; where 1 v 1 abilities came to the fore; and where the ‘target striker’ needed mobility and work-rate to combine his attacking role with duties as the first line of defence. With one of the perennial talking points at this age-level focusing on the difficulties in encouraging youngsters to take on the ‘lone striker’ role, it was interesting to note that the promising Germany striker, Janni Serra, had been pushed forward from the centre-back position.

Among the ten players who ruffled the opponents’ net more than once, Netherlands No9 Sam Lammers provided the closest approximation to the reference-point target striker. His finishing efficiency could be gauged from three goals in eight attempts, all but one of which were on target. France’s Jean-Kévin Augustin and England’s Dominic Solanke relied more on mobility and technique than on blunt-instrument virtues, while Kylian Mbappé, Buta, Izzy Brown, Steven Bergwijn, Ludovic Blas and Phillipp Ochs supplied their goals from the wide areas.

“What the tournament showed,” said Szalai, “was that the attackers’ first touch was crucial. Players like Buta and Mbappé were able to take opponents out of the game with their first control. “At youth development levels,” Débonnaire agreed, “we should be focusing on developing 1 v 1 skills, agility, body positioning and changes of pace.”


France's Kylian Mbappé carried a threat from out wide

High and wide
Effective use of the wide areas was one of the crucial factors in the final tournament. Crosses were, by far, the most productive sources of goals and, if the cut-backs are included along with the deliveries which provoked the three own goals, it means that 44% of the open-play goals stemmed from wing play.

There was an even split between teams who fielded wingers and those who entrusted the wide areas to players more accurately described as wide midfielders. “In general,” Szalai commented, “full-backs played more of a supporting role in the wide areas, in the sense that they were rarely seen in front of the ball. Relationships on the flanks were very important and most teams were set up to implement the ‘channel’ system. If the winger cut in, the full-back stayed wide; and vice-versa. This was nicely illustrated by the second goal in the final when Blas cut in; the ball was played wide to the full-back; and it was the winger who headed in Michelin’s cross. Even though two goals in the final were scored after deep runs, the general tendency was for crosses to be delivered from slightly deeper areas rather than for players to head for the corner flag. On the other hand, we did see some solo runs along the byline, such as the one by Mbappé that set up France’s equaliser in the semi-final against Portugal. In fact, we saw a trend towards low crossing of the ball rather than the traditional high centre.”

Whereas one of the features of the 2015 finals was the total absence of the cross + header formula, this route to the net was re-opened in Germany, albeit in limited form. Up to the final in Sinsheim, only four goals bore the cross + header trademark – two by Germany and two by the Netherlands. With France successfully treading this route twice in the final, it meant that five of the finalists drew no dividends from high crosses.


The Netherlands' Abdelhak Nouri: a free-kick specialist

Good defending; more goals
The apparent paradox was highlighted by the final between an Italy team that had conceded three goals and a France team that had scored 11. As the technical observers remarked, even the efficient organisation of defensive play failed to snuff out the attacking power of the top teams. They also pointed out that the tournament’s scoring patterns had been uneven, with the four matches involving the Netherlands yielding 19 goals and Germany’s 17. France’s five games also generated 19 goals. There were stark contrasts in relation to the previous year’s tournament. In Greece, both teams scored in only five of the 15 fixtures. In Germany, this happened in 12 of the 16 games. In 2015, 15 matches had produced only 36 goals at an average of 2.4 per game. In Germany, the 55 goals in 16 represented a sharp rise to 3.4 per fixture. However, to give the figures a historical perspective, it signified a return (after two years of significant downturns) to the scoring patterns of previous seasons, in which the average had regularly topped three goals per game.

In Germany, set plays accounted for 29% of the goals and it was a dead-ball situation that led to the important opening goal in five matches. Italy owed their presence in the final to three penalties and two free-kicks and travelled home without scoring a goal in open play. The three direct free-kick successes were superbly executed by Manuel Locatelli and Federico Dimarco (both of Italy) and the Netherlands captain Abdelhak Nouri. However, the most striking statistic related to set pieces is that the 159 corners awarded in the 16 games failed to produce a goal. Germany, in their four matches, earned 41 corners. Italy, in five games, only nine. Paolo Vanoli’s team, on the other hand, successfully defended 47 corners – though their own goal which allowed England to come back to 2-1 in the semi-final could be traced back to a corner-kick. As the technical observers pointed out, this could be associated with the quality of deliveries which often failed to clear the players defending the near post or sailed too far beyond the back post.

All the coaches in Germany dedicated training-ground time to set plays – some of them, such as England and France, off the pitch as well as on it. “We worked without the ball on rehearsing our positioning,” Batelli commented, “and we go through the procedures with the ball in play. We also worked on the mental aspects, including whistling free-kicks – some justified, some not – and then checking the players’ reactions.”


Lucas Tousart struck from distance in the final

As mentioned earlier, use of the wide areas accounted for a high percentage of the goals scored in open play. This represented a marked contrast with the 2015 final tournament in which 30% of the open-play goals had stemmed from combination play and a further 26% from solo efforts. These two figures dropped sharply to 8% and 15% respectively. Two of the half-dozen successes from long range corresponded to Croatia. The last word in that chapter belonged to France captain Lucas Tousart, whose long-distance strike against Italy in the final was deflected past the keeper.

CornersDirect from / following a corner0
Free-kicks (direct)Direct from a free-kick3
Free-kicks (indirect)Following a free-kick6
PenaltiesSpot kick (or follow-up from a penalty) 6
Throw-insFollowing a throw-in 1
CombinationsWall pass / combination move 3
CrossesCross from the wing 12 
Cut-backsPass back from area near byline 
DiagonalsDiagonal pass into the penalty box
Running with the ballDribble and close-range shot / dribble and pass 
Long-range shotsDirect shot / shot and rebound 
Forward passesThrough pass or pass over the defence 
Defensive errorsBad back-pass / mistake by the goalkeeper 
Own goalsGoal by the opponents 
Total 55

Goal attempts
Although the number of goals increased sharply, the number of attempts remained relatively stable. In fact, if the play-off match is omitted to compare 15 games with the 15 played in 2015, the total was down from 346 to 331. Whereas in Greece 9.6 attempts had been required in order to score a goal, in Germany the tournament yielded one goal per 6.75. The figure drops still further to 6.56 if the play-off between Netherlands and Germany is included.

In terms of efficiency, nobody could match the Dutch, who managed to direct 68% of their finishing at the target. England, on the other hand, were accurate with just under half that percentage.


OpponentsTotalOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodwork


OpponentsTotalOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodwork


OpponentsTotalOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodwork


OpponentsTotalOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodwork


OpponentsTotalOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodwork


OpponentsTotalOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodwork


OpponentsTotalOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodwork


OpponentsTotalOn targetOff targetBlockedWoodwork

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

Goal times


*decimal points account for the extra 2%

Game intelligence
“I think that, at this level, a lot depends on developing the players’ game intelligence,” commented Yves Débonnaire. He and Laszló Szalai agreed that the tournament had highlighted a number of key components in terms of player development. “We are seeing a lot of well-organised and disciplined defending,” they agreed, “and the teams at the top of the pack were the ones with the best ability to open and close spaces and the most effective movement off the ball. Players need to be taught to read the game in terms of awareness of their roles and movements in a team context and, individually, this is a time to focus on agility, body positioning and change of pace as well as technique. The best teams were the ones who, when they had the ball, looked for solutions and interactions and, when they didn’t have the ball, they worked hard for the team. We could also see that, at this level, developing a winning mentality is also very important.”