The heat was on
The opening fixtures at this European Under-19 Championship saw the mercury rise to levels which made cooling breaks an obligation, but were the brief time-outs enough for the players? With the temperature down on the pitch hitting 40C at times, especially during the rather paradoxically defined warm-ups, the effects of the heat were clearly visible.
"When you play in this kind of heat, you cannot perform," said UEFA Technical Observer Savvas Constantinou. "You cannot even concentrate or think straight, let alone play football. It gets to your head too."
To complicate matters, the sun was beaming down into the faces of those sat on the benches, meaning that the term 'fresh legs' for replacements could hardly have been more erroneous. Players coming on were unable to increase the tempo since they too had been dilapidated by the heat as they sat, waiting for their opportunity.
England placed an umbrella in front of their substitutes for their third group fixture against Germany to provide some light relief, but maybe a later kick-off would have been a more naturally effective way to keep the players at a more suitable performance temperature.
Squad expansion applauded
There were thumbs up from the coaches at the European Under-19 Championship to UEFA's decision to allow 20 players to be part of the squads at youth tournaments from next year.
Rather than the current situation, where squads are capped at 18, two additional players will be given an opportunity to experience youth tournaments from 2018, and it is a move which has received widespread approval.
"It's very good as it helps more young players who can show themselves in the national team, it helps the coach build his team and be more organised," said Georgia coach George Kipiani. "There can be injuries and suspensions so it is difficult to work with just 12/13 players, so I'm very happy that UEFA made the decision next year to have 20 players. These are great opportunities for young players to show themselves and to teach them respect."
Portugal coach Hélio Sousa added: "I think it will be a very good change to have 20 players – it will be two more players able to play the game, to live these moments which are unique and unforgettable, and we have more decisions to make dependent on their criteria, you have players fitter for each game to give more intensity and UEFA will benefit with that as it can produce better spectacles for the public and players are able to enjoy the game more."
Sousa went even further to suggest not only the squad numbers should be increased.
"If UEFA do what they did with under-17s – an increase to 16 teams – the competition would be more important and can gain more," he said. "Here we don't have France, we don't have Spain – the draw dictates that one of them will not be here, and that is a loss for UEFA and the competition. For sure they have great players and it can further them to be here.
"In Under-17 you have three or four teams who develop from this and in a few years they can be stronger. But sometimes they can't come here because they finish second and they miss the opportunity to live this tournament. They are at an important age to catch their dream."
Moving with the times
The timing of the European Under-19 Championship remains a bone of contention with indications that its current July slot is no longer suitable. With clubs throughout Europe's top leagues already commencing pre-season training, the national team coaches are finding it increasingly difficult to convince them to release players who may or may not feature in their first teams in the coming season.
"I don't know what can be done, but the quality of the players has been lessened," noted England manager Keith Downing. "We have been without six who should have come. The best players don't come for whatever reason: it's pre-season back at home and they are under pressure that they have to be there. It's a shame – it would be really good if everybody was bringing their best players. It's always better to play against the best, test yourselves against the best. For the development, that is what it is all about."
Downing could consider himself fortunate 'only' to be deprived of six players. Dutch coach Maarten Stekelenburg said as many as 22 candidates for his squad were unavailable – acknowledging that some were absent due to injury, "six or seven" had been ruled out for Germany coach Frank Kramer, with Sweden coach Claes Eriksson bemoaning the loss of a similar number. Downing admitted that he had brought players who had not even figured on a 33-strong long-list drawn up from their extensive scouting system.
Being outside the dates on FIFA's international match calendar for player release, the coaches have their hands tied. "I think the end of the season would be a good time for the tournament," suggested Stekelenburg. "When the leagues are ending mid-May, a week later, then the tournament starts."
Swapping dates with the UEFA European Under-17 Championship, which is held in May, could be an option. "What I like about the Under-17s was that all the best players were there, there was no discussion about clubs keeping their best players and that is a nice thing about the Under-17 age," added Stekelenburg. "If you have the biggest talents at Under-17 and look at the squad I have now here at Under-19, there is not a huge difference and this should be different."
Would clubs be happy with their players departing for a tournament at the end of the domestic season, or would they instead be keen on them being given a decent summer break?
Development on and off the field
While there can be no denying that UEFA's youth tournaments are important events for player development, the same most certainly applies to coach development.
Azerbaijan sent a delegation of UEFA pro-licence candidates while the hosts Georgia also had budding coaches present to follow the action live. Gaioz Darsadze, the Georgian Football Federation's (GFF) Coach Education Director, explained how staging the tournament had given him and coaches in Georgia an invaluable experience.
"This is a great event for Georgia," he said. "This tournament was interesting from a professional point of view and important to see how the different nations try to develop their philosophies and to see what the modern trends are in European football.
"We have our A-licence course at this time and it is a great opportunity for our coaches to see how the best teams are working, what the new challenges are from a tactical side and the development of playing systems and how the coaches were making changes during the games. My students, during this tournament, have attended all the matches and we are analysing all the matches, so this is once again a great opportunity for us."
It was therefore about dual development: of the players and the coaches.
"We would like to improve and develop our coaches' knowledge because through the development of coaches, we can develop football in this country, because this is a key, key moment for Georgian football," added Darsadze. "The Georgian team played well, but we have a few individually talented players, whereas football is a team game and we need to improve this weakness we have, and that is why it is important for us to see how the other – the best – teams are playing. These players are our future national team so it's important we focus on their development."
Platform for education
A lot can be learned from the wealth of documented material on coaching – including UEFA's Technical Reports – but observing and analysing the action live is the perfect platform for coach education.
UEFA's youth tournaments provide ideal occasions for match analysis, with numerous competitive matches packed into a short timeframe. Could the opportunity therefore be taken advantage of better?
"Maybe Technical Study Group meetings could be arranged during these tournaments, which would be interesting for Under-17 and Under-19 coaches of nations who are not participating here," suggested Ghenadie Scurtul. "They would see the skills of the players and role models, especially for countries who are trying to develop."
The example of the Azerbaijan and Georgian delegation confirms that developing nations are keen on bridging the gap to the leading nations – by seeing exactly what it is that they are doing. "The coaches want to analyse games here," said Savvas Constantinou. "They are focusing on analysing games and this is a good chance for them to analyse the games live."
Ghenadie Scurtul led such a delegation to the Under-21 Championship in Poland, which concluded just prior to the start of the action in Georgia.
"For my students, I wanted to show them how the best players of Europe are playing – they know about that, but they never see this live," he explained. "It was a big surprise for them, after the first game. There were ten different nations with coach education at under-21s, and I think you could organise reality-based studies." Could the Under-19s provide that platform in future?