In Finland, the actors produced performances which added up to a highly entertaining spectacle. But, before raising the tactical curtain on the event, the stage needs to be set. The outstanding novelty was the use of artificial turf at the two venues – a circumstance which entailed degrees of reticence among the coaches. France’s Bernard Diomède, for example, heeded warnings about the risk of overuse symptoms to knees and back by training on natural grass and restricting use of the artificial surface to matchplay. Watering was regarded as essential, but the abnormally high temperatures meant that, on occasions, the jets of water fired from irrigation guns evaporated before they hit the surface. However, the general view among the coaches was succinctly summarised by Italy coach Paolo Nicolato: “I think it generates more fatigue but it does not affect playing styles.”
To contrast with the novelty, a couple of perennial talking points. The July dates created the habitual problems, with England’s Paul Simpson reporting the extreme example of more than 30 candidates to travel to Finland ruled out by clubs’ refusals to release players. The outcome was a play-off defeat which prevented England from defending the FIFA U-20 World Cup title in 2019. With other finalists less affected or not affected at all, the final tournament was not played, in this respect, on a level playing field.
The other hardy perennial was the analysis of dates of birth. Of the 160 players in action in Finland, 43% were born in the first three months of the calendar year, whereas only 15% had birthdays in the last three. The coaches unanimously maintained that dates of birth were alien to their selection criteria. But the data suggest that there is still work to be done on the levelling of development pathways.
More defenders; more goals
So much for the scene-setting. The proceedings on the field of play highlighted two superficially paradoxical features. Whereas, at the UEFA U17 finals two months earlier, Norway had been alone among 16 teams to play five at the back, no fewer than five of the eight countries in Finland operated in this manner at some stage of the tournament. “I think we have to be careful about flagging this as a major trend,” mused UEFA technical observer Jarmo Matikainen, “because the coaches did this for different reasons and in different ways.” Simpson’s use of a 1-5-3-2 formation was a needs-must response to the lack of wide players in his improvised squad. Vedat Inceefe switched to a similar structure in order to mirror the Ukraine set-up in Turkey’s final group game. Although ‘Paco’ Johansen adopted five at the back as Norway’s default setting, the team logistics relied on a screening midfielder dropping in as the central component of the trio of centre-backs.
Semi-finalists Ukraine, on the other hand, provided a more classic example of five-at-the-back play with a 1-5-4-1 structure that, as Matikainen put it, “was perfect for their playing philosophy of setting out to defend in numbers; fill the pitch rationally enough for their defensive block to be difficult to penetrate; and counterattack with purpose. They illustrated that the coaches’ strategies were based on the type and quality of the players available.”
And yet – despite the highly-populated back lines – the tournament total of 55 goals (excluding, for the sake of comparisons, the World Cup play-off) set a record and cast the 2015 and 2017 totals of 36 and 39 deeply into the shade. “If we are looking for explanations,” UEFA’s other technical observer László Szalai reflected, “I think we could see that, if you are defending with a back line of five, you are obliged to open up rapidly to get into attacking mode when you win possession. At this moment, you become vulnerable and we saw quite a few goals scored after high regains at this critical stage of defence-to-attack transitions.”
The desire to focus on positives rather than negatives means that the goalscoring analysis section of this report records attributes relatively few goals to ‘defensive errors’. A less charitable review, on the other hand, might have told a different story. The ball-loss on the edge of the Norway box that allowed Portugal to take the lead; one goal for each team in Turkey v England derived from intercepted passes in critical areas; Finland’s ball-loss on the edge of the box that gave Portugal a 2-0 advantage; a hat-trick of glaring errors by England in their defensive third against France…
And centre-backs, although numerous, often belied theories about safety in numbers. Errors included match-changing moments, such as the run by France centre-back Malang Sarr into opposition territory during the semi-final against Italy. His easily-read pass was intercepted by Nicolò Zaniolo, whose second-touch delivery allowed striker Moise Kean to run clear and score. Or the error by Lucas Queirós, whose failure to accompany a runner (Kean again) led to the red card that reduced Portugal to ten after eight minutes against Italy.
Debit and credit
In reviewing the tournament, the challenge was to balance the error-based debit column with credit for creating and exploiting the errors. Discussions raised a number of interlocking topics, including the nature of pressing; the positioning of defensive blocks; the use of counterattacking as major weapon; or many teams’ readiness – even when faced by back-lines of five – to fully engage with defenders and create chaos with fluent off-the-ball movement and positional permutations. “Teams were ready to load the front line,” Matikainen commented, “and hit the opposition with direct attacks based on good deep passes. We saw a lot of attacking based on overloads on one flank followed by a good switch to the other when the defence was sliding over. I saw Turkey do this well against England – but then they changed their style and didn’t score in their other two games.”
“Italy were the tactical chameleon,” Szalai commented. “They had flexibility in their attacking options and constantly rotated their middle-to-front players.” Diagram 1, based on their group game against Norway, illustrates one of their attacking options when operating a 1-4-4-2 with Zaniolo at the apex of a midfield diamond. With No18 Sandro Tonali staying back to screen the centre-backs, both full-backs made deep upfield runs – especially No14 Raoul Bellanova on the right – while Zaniolo would join the two strikers in pushing the offside line and making interchanging runs across the centre-backs offering themselves to receive the lofted through pass or the cross. Depending on the reaction by the centre-backs, Zaniolo might drop deep in an attempt to draw them out or to receive the ball between opposition lines.
Portugal, the tournament’s top scorers, were strong in 1 v 1 abilities – as were France – and Diagram 2 shows how they married these with fluent off-the-ball movement in their attacking modus operandi. Unlike Italy, their habitual line-up did not feature a target striker, with José Gomes using his mobility and one-touch skills with rapier-like interventions rather than blunt-instrument attacks. The diagram (from the game against Finland) shows a typical build on the right, where No17 Francisco Trincão would drop towards No14 Thierry Correia with No8 Miguel Luís and Gomes creating an overload aimed at dragging the opponents out of shape and, frequently, playing neat switches to No10 Quina or No7 Jota to exploit free space on the less-protected flank.
“Overall, I had the feeling that teams did not overdo passing in their own half,” said Szalai. “Instead we saw a greater emphasis on direct attacking options.” The prime example was provided by Olexandr Petrakov’s Ukraine who, until the disastrous half-hour in the semi-final against Portugal, operated their 1-5-4-1 with what Paul Simpson described as “military precision”. Diagram 3, based on their opening victory against France, illustrates how the outstanding No11 Vladyslav Supriaha – often extremely isolated when possession was won – made strong runs to offer himself for the direct pass from one of the centre-backs, while the two full-backs demonstrated fitness levels by pushing forward and the two wide midfielders moved into linking positions where they could exercise their dribbling skills. This allowed Ukraine to base their attacking on the swift counter-punch.
The wrong foot is the right foot
The tournament in Finland illustrated that the wrong-footed winger, once a rarity, has become the norm, with the aforementioned Ukrainian pair of Heorhii Tsitaishvili and Serhii Buletsa providing prime examples, along with the champions Portugal, who deployed the left-footed Trincão on the right and the outstanding right-footed Jota on the left. “The advantages are obvious,” Szalai commented, “as the wrong-footed winger can cut in to work the pockets between defenders and open up the wings for the full-backs.”
Interlocking with the ratio of defensive errors, the technical observers stressed the importance of the well-drilled pressing strategies employed by the teams in Finland, where the emphasis was generally on high defensive lines and ‘forward defending’. The observers flagged up Finland’s closing minutes against Norway as an example of the dangers of deep defending. Leading 2-1 after 90 minutes, the hosts instinctively fell back to defend their advantage – and were punished twice during added-time, with Norway’s winner hitting the net in a pinball situation in a densely populated area close to the goalkeeper. Incidentally, this was one of only two goals scored by defenders – the other being the England equaliser against Turkey, converted by centre-back Japhet Tanganga after a free-kick in the vicinity of the corner-flag.
“The ability to win the ball in the opponents’ half was one of the key features,” Matikainen reflected. “I was particularly impressed by the teams who were able to read the moments when it was best to press to win the ball and also to see when it was better to keep the high block but to use positional pressing with a view to blocking the passing lines. And, in turn, this meant that teams’ ability to play their way out of pressing and to by-pass the opponents’ first line of defence was also a critical element.”
As a random example, Diagram 4 shows England’s pressing strategy during the match against Ukraine. The aim was to restrict the opponents’ construction to one side, with the front five moving strongly towards one flank to block passing channels and one of the midfield trio stepping up to press the centre-back. With the right wing-back pushing into the pressing unit, the other four remained on the alert for the long ball over the top.
During the same match, England provided examples of valid methods for opening the game when Ukraine opted for high collective pressing. Diagram 5 shows two of the three centre-backs dropping deep and wide while the third drifted away to open space and passing lines, giving the keeper pockets and channels to exploit. The front players were ready to hold up a longer pass and, after the initial pass from the keeper, there were quick movements to offer close support to the player in possession.
Ukraine mixed fast counters with more patient construction from the back – but, in both cases, the emphasis was on direct passing into the attacking third. Diagram 6 illustrates how they loaded the England defensive line to create a direct threat and, with the ball on the right, how they would use a drop-off by No21 to feed a ball-side pass to the central striker or a diagonal into the path of the infield runs by the two players on the other flank.
The ouch factor
“The heat was a barrier to sustained collective high pressing,” Szalai commented, “so we saw a good mix of defensive strategies in terms of the high, mid or deep defensive block. In each case, there was usually a rapid response with very fast counters. Three of the five goals by France against Turkey, for example, were counters that produced 1 v 1 situations.” “As well as the high regains,” Matikainen agreed, “we saw classic counters in numbers. Italy’s run to the final showed that they were always ready to commit players to fast breaks.” The third goals against Norway and Finland underlined that counters were an important part of Portugal’s repertoire, while two of Ukraine’s four goals were rapid-response forward breaks – one of them (the winner against France) came from a free-kick in favour of the opposition.
Finland coach Juha Malinen designed a press-and-counter strategy on knowing when to hurt the opposition – to make them say ‘ouch’, as he put it – and then to play a couple of passes to afford time for the team to switch to its attacking shape. Diagram 7 shows one of the methods employed. After ball-winning in their own half, Finland would play short passes and, with the opposition drawn across towards the ball-carriers, would then switch play to the opposite flank. Diagram 8 illustrates mechanisms for some of their direct attacking with pace and momentum. While the strong No9 would look for runs behind the back line, No8 would operate between lines, ready to turn, dribble or touch off the through pass. On the right No7 challenged defenders tirelessly with his dribbling skills and quality crosses while No10 and the left-back would combine to create and exploit space.
The return of the big striker
“One of the features of the tournament,” Szalai remarked, “was the number of big strikers. Norway’s Erling Håland, Ukraine’s Vladyslav Supriaha… Almost all the teams had them. But they were not the same type. Nor did they play the same role.” Håland was the classic target man; Supriaha was also the attacking reference point but operated on a wider front. England and Finland featured variations on the same theme. But the two finalists arguably produced the most interesting variations. Portugal coach Hélio Sousa (contrasting with colleagues such as Bernard Diomède, advocate of “teaching various playing systems”) maintained “I will change the players to change the personality of my team rather than change the structure.” He demonstrated this by fielding Pedro Correia – much more of a target striker than the mercurial José Gomes – in the semi-final against Ukraine and then bringing him on to score the vital winner against Italy in the final.
Paolo Nicolato had two ‘big strikers’ in his squad – but rarely fielded the two together. Moise Kean, operating in a central role and ready to use his pace in devastating bursts through the middle, preferred to drift wide when attacking moves were more elaborately built, opening spaces for midfield runs. Gianluca Scamacca, tall, aerially proficient and strong on ball skills, was equally effective in a more linking role from deeper starting positions.
Diagram 9 shows how Nicolato deployed Kean as a key element in Italy’s transition play during the group game against Portugal. The No20 was always ready to receive; hold the ball up; or make a forward run. But he was also a key component when Italy set out to counter by using the space between lines, drifting wide to tempt a centre-back out of position and opening channels for strong support runs from midfield.
Going back to playing systems, Portugal’s loyalty to their trademark 1-4-3-3 philosophy was at odds with contestants such as Italy, England or Turkey, who varied their structure to the extent that it was difficult for the technical observers to select the most typical attacking and defending formations for the diagrams on the team pages of this report.
Building from the back
“I have to make my players aware that building from the goalkeeper is sometimes risky,” Hélio Sousa remarked. “I think we sometimes go too far towards an obsession with building from the back and I try to convince the players that there is nothing wrong with playing a long ball to an area where we can use it.”
Debate can be fuelled by the number of goals resulting from passing errors in the defensive third – and the topic can be expanded to embrace the concept of ‘possession football’ as a whole. In Finland, six of the 13 matches that produced a result were won by teams with a lesser share of the ball. Ukraine reached the semi-finals averaging a tad over 40% of possession and registered their tournament-high of 45% against Portugal – much of it during the second half when already 5-0 down.
The match-by-match statistical breakdown reveals to what extent domination of the ball was reflected by penetrations into the final third and, more significantly, goal attempts.
The Finland coach, in charge only since March, emphasised the importance of motivational work and the promotion of self-belief. He was by no means alone in rating man-management as one of the crucial issues at this level. France coach Bernard Diomède, up until 4am talking to his players after the victory against England, underlined the importance of personal relationships and the management of a group where clubs and agents can easily encourage individual rather than collective attitudes. Ukraine’s Olexandr Petrakov acknowledged “. I see myself not only as a coach but also as a mentor in their life-training process. So my job is a lot about psychology – to challenge and inspire.” England’s Paul Simpson, one of the advocates of rotating his squad “to give every player development opportunities”, viewed one of his major tasks as “helping them to become better persons”. Norway’s ‘Paco’ Johansen appreciated the contributions made by a mental coach – the coach of a women’s team with a master in sport psychology who travelled to Finland on an unpaid basis. Turkey coach Vedat Inceefe had prepared assiduously for the final tournament by bringing his squad to Finland well before the first match – and needed to meet the man-management challenges associated with a group subjected to a prolonged spell away from homes and families.
The match schedule, the high-intensity nature of the football, the heat and the artificial surface also took a toll on physical resources – with the result that the coaches needed to collaborate closely with their back-room staff to optimise rest-and-recovery procedures and to take decisions on player rotation. Big-tournament experience was a further factor: was it coincidence that the Portugal squad featured 11 of the players who had won the U17 title two years earlier; Italy 10 of the squad from Azerbaijan; Ukraine nine and France seven?
In a tournament bereft of goal-less draws, the 55 goals at an average of 3.67 per match (58 @ 3.63 if the play-off is included) represent a healthy total. The goalscoring chart reveals that 15 of the 46 open-play goals (practically one-third) could be attributed to crosses or cut-backs from the wide areas. However, long-range shots were a fertile source of goals, along with solo runs – many of the latter stemming from fast counters. Only four goals were headed into the net – although Portugal’s first two goals in the semi-final against Ukraine came after a cut-back and a corner had initially been met by headers.
Set plays accounted for an abnormally low 16.36% of the total – contrasting starkly with the 43% at the FIFA World Cup which had ended hours before the ball started rolling in Finland. Even allowing for the absence of VAR technology, this represents a poor return on dead-ball situations not least the total of two successes from the tournament’s 140 corners. The fact that Finland equalised against Norway via a penalty awarded after a corner does little to adorn the statistics. “This was maybe not surprising,” Matikainen reflected, “bearing in mind the limited time to work on set plays.” Turkey and Finland dedicated significant amounts of training-ground time to set plays, whereas France and England gave them much lesser importance. The latter adopted a novel approach: “we only use a small amount of time to work on set plays,” said Paul Simpson. “We use a few routines but in general we allow the players to take ownership and play freely from attacking set plays. On defending, the players all have a profile that determines their role for the team.”
The attacking attitudes which marked the tournament in Finland were statistically endorsed by a 19% increase in the number of goal attempts in comparison with the previous year. Excluding, for the sake of comparison, the play-off match, the 55 goals resulted from 383 attempts – one success per seven shots. With regard to the accuracy of finishing, 46% of the attempts hit the target (although 60 shots were blocked). Italy were alone in registering more off-target than on-target attempts. The detailed breakdown confirms Portugal as the most efficient finishers with, give or take a few decimal points, one goal per five attempts.
Coaching by numbers
Many would argue that one of the nice things about the game of football is that it cannot be readily ‘reduced to statistics’. In an era when there are more data available than ever before, one of the challenges for the coach is to interpret statistical break-downs to establish which, if any, can be useful in improving team performance.
The tournament in Finland was monitored statistically by InStat, whose input has been combined with UEFA’s own data-gathering in the compilation of this report. Match-by-match stats have been preferred to averages which can be misleading. For example, Norway’s average of 11 goal attempts per game during the group phase was distorted by 25 in the play-off against England. It is hoped that the statistics will provoke reflections on areas such as the importance of ball-possession and how teams managed to convert possession into positive actions – penetrations into the final third; into the penalty area; and, ultimately, to culminate the phase of possession with an attempt on goal. Statistics indicate that, in general, the wide areas were the most frequently trodden routes towards goal – France providing an exception to the general rule by, in some games, attacking purposefully through the central area. The champions, Portugal, habitually opted for the wide routes, with Jota’s outstanding performances encouraging them to prefer the left flank. Significantly, the exception to that trend came in the group game between Portugal and Italy (underlining the codicil that averages can be deceptive) when Hélio Sousa’s team attacked preferentially through the middle. The explanation is that, after the ninth-minute dismissal of Lucas Queirós, Jota was sacrificed in order to send on David Carmo to fill the centre-back void.
Some of the tournament’s vital statistics are presented with a view to inviting interpretations.