"The women's game is at a higher level than it has ever been," said former England boss Hope Powell as UEFA's Technical Observers got together to digest what they had learned from the Women's EURO 2022 group stage.
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Is it coincidence that, in a ranking of teams who apply the highest percentages of pressure in the opponents’ half of the pitch, the top six have made it into the KO rounds? This was one of the debating points when UEFA’s Technical Observers got together online to exchange views from coaching perspectives on what they had seen during the group stage of UEFA Women’s EURO 2022.
The execution of high-pressing strategies had been one of the constant topics to emerge from their reports on the first phase of the final tournament. "The top teams were very good at defending in the opponent’s half," Jarmo Matikainen commented, "and this is backed up by statistics on the number of turnovers in advanced areas. Teams set about it in different ways but still made an impact." France, Sweden and Spain topped this particular ranking, while Germany drew praise from the observers because, as Matikainen put it, "they were not only effective in their high pressing but were also equally comfortable and efficient when they opted to defend in a midfield block or, as they demonstrated against Spain, when they needed to defend deep in their own half".
Hope Powell, former England coach
The women's game is at a higher level than it has ever been. The opportunity to be a full-time athlete has enabled players to practice and perfect their abilities as footballers, improving the game in all aspects: technically, tactically and physically.
With high-pressing strategies becoming increasingly prevalent, teams' ability to play out under pressure is being seriously tested during the tournament in England. "Spain have been setting the benchmarks," remarked current Wales manager Gemma Grainger, "because their exceptional technique allows them to play successfully out of situations when they look likely to lose possession. And Belgium, in their match against France, for example, were successful because they were able to find a free player in midfield to give them an outlet."
The observers also addressed the apparent contradiction between improved defensive skills and a scoring rate which, by the end of the group stage, had already surpassed the tally of 68 goals at the previous tournament in 2017. "Defences are so well-drilled," remarked former England manager Hope Powell, "that attacking qualities have been obliged to improve. At this tournament, we’ve seen a lot of positional rotations, greater awareness in the final third and increased technical ability, with players trusting their team-mates to receive in tight 1v1, 1v2 or even 1v3 situations."
Joe Montemurro, Juventus coach
The ultimate aim of the technical observer is to analyse each game and team, understanding patterns and trends that are applied. From this information we then collate data to summarise the technical and tactical findings of the tournament via a technical report.
The top teams, faced with well-organised defensive blocks, are responding to the challenge of finding ways to break them down. "We’ve seen a variety of options," says Grainger, "with midfielders making runs to penetrate central areas or, more often, overloads in the wide areas, as England and Spain did during the group stage."
In the meantime, the observers noted, the possession teams have become adept at building patiently from the back; moving the opponent’s defensive block; and then switching play to the other wing. "We’ve seen excellent long diagonal passes," commented Matikainen, "and accurate deliveries into the less congested areas. This has been a big factor in breaking down defensive blocks."
"We've been able to see an evolution in wing play," former Belgium boss Anne Noé added, "with not so much emphasis on the traditional overlapping runs by full-backs and a greater tendency for them to use the inside channels or to deliver early crosses."
Thus far, wing play has been the most fertile source, with crosses and cut-backs supplying 27% of the goals scored in open play. "The delivery of crosses has become so much better," Powell maintains. "There’s been greater accuracy and I think crosses are being delivered at higher speed – which obliges centre-backs to assess them and deal with them much more quickly." This was borne out during a group stage when 33% of the goal attempts that hit the net were headers.