More than just safe hands
The growing recent trend of goalkeepers becoming increasingly involved in the game, and not purely being chosen for their shot-stopping skills – the so-called sweeper-keeper phenomenon – was also quite evident in Georgia.
Simply saving shots no longer suffices to be an excellent goalkeeper, and in particular the performances of the Netherlands' number one Justin Bijlow, England custodian Aaron Ramsdale and the last line of the Portuguese defence – or perhaps one might argue the first line of their attack - Diogo Costa underlined this.
Bijlow was picked out for particular praise, and more so for his active involvement in his team's games. "He participates in the build-up and shows a very good feeling for the game," commented UEFA Technical Observer Ghenadie Scurtul. "He is able to regulate the rhythm of the game and to take the right decisions."
Goalkeepers varied how the games were restarted, no longer restricting themselves just to a long punt forward when playing out from the back was a preferred option, even if this was complicated by the tactic of opponents pressing high only when the opposition goalkeeper was in possession of the ball and less so when the ball was in midfield (see below).
This is why their decision making and discipline was so important and their performances demonstrated how much a part of the overall tactical shape of the teams goalkeepers have now become, rather than being told to focus on defending their goal or penalty area. "They were getting involved more in the game," noted Scurtul.
Giving attacking a wide berth
The most common – and successful – approach to attacking in Georgia was down the wings with at least half of the sides employing a strategy which aimed to increase productivity from the wingers and overlapping full-backs.
Indeed, 15 goals – more than one in three – were scored from crosses or cut-backs, with excellent movement and combinations down the flanks creating numerous opportunities. It was not simply the case of a winger getting his head down and running or dribbling his opponent either, but a more focused team effort to create spaces.
Wingers were doing this by moving into the middle with full-backs exploiting the gaps this created. The Czech Republic, Portugal and Germany all deployed similar tactics in this area, mixing the approach with full-backs taking a more central trajectory for their runs and wingers hugging the touchlines before a quick turn outside by the full-back, going around his winger, saw even more space exploited.
"This is a new trend in football; a tactical shift," commented UEFA Technical Observer Savvas Constantinou. "The wing play was coming increasingly from the full-backs and not just the wingers. When the Czechs had the ball, the two wingers were tucking in and staying inside and the full-backs were further outside and attacking."
Given the aforementioned preference of teams pressing only when their opposition goalkeeper had the ball, this led to more counterattacking with teams sitting back and waiting for their opportunity to strike, with an attack which consequently had more width and balance than trying to force a way through the congested centre.
Total shots per nation
|Total attempts||On target||Off target||Blocked||Against woodwork||Corners|
|v Czech Rep||11||4||6||1||0||6|
|v Czech Rep||15||3||10||2||0||8|
|v Czech Rep||7||5||2||0||0||3|
|v Czech Rep||18||7||10||1||0||8|
Tactics in motion
There appeared to be a highly sophisticated understanding of tactical flexibility among the players at the 2017 European Under-19 Championship.
Teams appeared prepared for everything with dynamic changing during matches a key feature in Georgia. While no side played with three at the back – save for brief moments in the semi-finals when England would have a five-man defensive line in response to the Czech Republic's five-man attacking line, with their advanced full-backs – most other tactical variations were exhausted without any signs of players struggling to take on board what their coaches were demanding.
"Many teams were changing things around more than twice in a game," said Ghenadie Scurtul, adding that it could be a reflection that the starting system was not always correct, but illustrating how match preparation now goes into finer detail about how games can develop and mutate over the full 90 minutes.
Germany switched their way through three systems in their group matches as they searched for a winning formula, but not even they attempted a three-man defence which has been used so successfully at senior level.
One explanation for this could be that a three-man defence is regarded as more complex to bed in, especially with such little contact time before and during such tournaments. "Three at the back is a trend at high levels, but it is a question of whether they prefer to use more classical systems, like 1-4-4-2 or 1-4-3-3, as the players are growing up. Maybe they are not ready," added Scurtul. "To play three defenders, you need to have good quality players."
Taking risks was not high up on any of the coaches' agendas. "The Czechs did it in the final seven minutes of the semi-final, when they switched to a 1-4-4-2," said Scurtul. The outcome says the rest.
Hosting a youth tournament can be an invaluable opportunity for nations who would otherwise rarely earn the opportunity of participating in such an event to take part and garner experience from facing top nations in such a competitive environment.
That may not be entirely true for Georgia, who qualified as of right just four years ago, but Bulgaria's third participation after 2008 and 2014 was significantly rooted in them hosting the 2015 European Under-17 Championship.
Eight members of their 2015 squad were part of Angel Stoykov's group, and he explained how their progress to the finals, which saw them finish above Portugal in the qualifying round and eliminate France, Bosnia & Herzegovina and Israel in the elite round, was all built on the experience hosting that tournament had provided.
"This is a team who have the most international experience since under-15s; it is the team which was developed for the Under-17s that we hosted two years ago," he said. "They have a lot of experience. I would certainly push for more development tournaments for older players – more opportunities for players to play in tournaments, which are different to friendlies."
On the subject of experience, Portugal's players needed only to look to the touchline to see plenty of that in the form of their head coach Hélio Sousa. After leading the Under-17s to glory in their age category a year ago, he underlined his success since assuming a coaching role within the Portuguese Football Association in 2010.
His wisdom was as valuable as the tactical indications he gave to his players.
"They will have many, many problems if they think they have achieved something after winning just a few games," he said. "For us it is very satisfying to be European champions and that six or seven of the champions – people like Danilo Pereira, William Carvalho. Gelson Martins and André Silva were in the Under-19s in 2014 in Hungary and the U-20 World Cup in New Zealand – I am more pleased with that than winning the European Under-17 Championship."
"I know it is an important time of their life from Under-15 to Under-20 and we can for sure put much input into their personality, we say it is very important for them and keep many of the things that we try to put into them and that is important for the future of our players.
"Often we are talking about tactical, physical and mentality, but sometimes conversation goes to life. I know players who were much better than me; who had the potential to go further than me, but they disappeared. Some of them were World Cup players, but that doesn't give them anything other than status. Maybe they got more openings, but you have to be more prepared. Just because you win once doesn't mean you will win again."
That is a bitter pill his team had to swallow in the Gori final, but who is to say they will not come back stronger from the experience.
Set pieces: Defence prevails over attack
All the head coaches in Georgia acknowledged that set pieces were being worked on in training, but it appears the emphasis was more on defending than attacking behaviour in dead ball situations.
The Czech Republic tried out a few variations, but there was a distinct trend in the taking of set-pieces: defensively, short free-kicks were predominant, while in attack, it was about getting the ball into the penalty area, where defensive organisation was therefore critical.
"Most of the teams were using all ten outfield players defending set pieces," said Ghenadie Scurtul. "There were different approaches, with man-to-man or zonal marking, but whereas before there would be one player remaining up the field to force their opponents to leave one player back, maybe as a reaction to seeing a lot of goals being scored after set pieces the teams are now keeping these players in the penalty area."
Explaining why the teams were not hitting the ball long from set-pieces inside their own half, Scurtul commented that "most of the teams are trying short passing if there is no chance to go for goal, to keep possession – the difference between weak teams and strong teams is who is able to keep possession. Defensive set pieces were played short, to try to lull in their opponents and then hit the ball long, but not go long directly from the free-kick" when the defences were already aligned and organised to the attacks.
Just eight goals came from set-pieces in Georgia, plus five penalties.
The centre of the field was barren ground for the Adidas Krasava match ball in Georgia, with a significant lack of action in the midfield.
Instead, the focus was on keeping possession and, if a build-up down the wings was not possible, a long ball was a frequently used method of attack, bypassing the lush, untrampled centre field territory.
Most teams were not trying combinations in the middle of the pitch, but rather doing this in their defensive line. They were trying to catch their opponents high and then play the long ball over the top, "because you have a risk in midfield of losing the ball when you play combinations there, so they prefer to leave this part of the game," said Ghenadie Scurtul.
"Maybe at senior level you can leave the ball to your opponents and defend, but here they try to dominate possession themselves and play with the ball," continued the UEFA Technical Observer. "It was a positive surprise from the Czech Republic against England – I had expected them to play more closed, but they instead tried to attack more and this also surprised England I think.
"It is good for player development – this is how the game should be promoted, with ball possession. Here we have the best teams and philosophies from Europe and they all try to play the ball."
For that to succeed, a strong target man was required to be on the receiving end of those long balls and either hold up the play and wait for support, or turn and attack the goal. It was no surprise, therefore, to see such players excelling.