"To win titles," said Sweden coach Calle Barrling, "you need to be strong at both ends of the pitch." Mirel Albon, UEFA technical observer at the final tournament in Wales, felt that the teams which most consistently achieved this balance were the ones to reach the final. "The top teams," he said, "built on solid foundations and were able to find a variety of attacking solutions in the final third and to distribute the scoring options among various middle-to-front players." As England's coach Mo Marley remarked, "We had longer and shorter passing options and we had a variety which the great teams need."
Coming so soon after UEFA Women's EURO 2013 in Sweden, the championship in south-west Wales served to demonstrate that football at Women's Under-19 level has scaled rungs and climbed nearer to the top of the senior ladder. The ability to perform consistently in an intensive big-tournament environment was often a key factor at an event where the margins between the contestants were slimmer than some of the results might suggest. In a competition where levels of physical fitness were outstanding, mental strength and resilience came into play as determining influences.
The relevance of psychological factors came to the fore during a tournament which was, in certain respects, contradictory. On the one hand, observers saluted high standards of defensive organisation and goalkeeping yet, on the other hand, the finals registered a 54% increase in the number of goals scored in relation to 2012. On the one hand, it could be argued that margins between victory and defeat were slim yet, on the other hand, six of the 15 matches were won by differentials of three goals or more and a 5-0 scoreline appeared twice during the group stage.
The apparent contradiction can be linked to a theory that the impact of a goal was frequently compounded by the shockwave it generated. In most of the high-scoring games, the losing side coped successfully with the opposition for long periods, only to allow the shock of conceding a goal to lay them open to further blows. Denmark, in their 3-0 defeat by England, shipped two goals in five minutes; against France, three in 16. The Welsh net was ruffled twice in six minutes by England and three times in 19 by France. Sweden lost three goals in ten minutes to Norway while, in their opening match against Germany, Norway conceded three in nine minutes and five in 31 – which would have been six had Lina Magull not struck a penalty over the bar. "The players were shocked by the experience," Norway's coach Jarl Torske admitted.
The phenomenon was extended into the two semi-finals, where Germany, after dominating the first half in Llanelli, were dealt a psychological setback by going 1-0 down early in the second – and allowed France to score again within two minutes. Finland, who had remained unfazed when falling a goal behind against Sweden and Germany, seemed similarly unruffled when England made the breakthrough in Carmarthen. But a second goal left them groggy enough to let in a third within six minutes. In other words, 22 of the championship's goals were scored like lethal short bursts from a machine gun.
"It might be a bit exaggerated to talk about teams collapsing," Albon noted. "But the tournament underlined how important the psychological factors can be – and reminded us that, no matter how high the standards of fitness and technique, we were still watching youth football."
Shapes and philosophies
In Wales, variations on 4-3-3 constituted the most popular team set-up. Germany were alone in adopting a clear 4-2-3-1 structure with playmaker Magull and the industrious Rebecca Knaak offering balance in the two midfield screening positions. The main exponents of 4-4-2 were Finland and Sweden, though the latter, in the second game against Germany, switched to 4-1-4-1. Denmark, England and Norway operated 4-3-3 templates with midfield triangles formed by one or two holding midfielders.
In the England team, the hardworking Sherry McCue clearly played the 'windscreen wiper' role in front of the back four, leaving her two companions to either assist her in defensive duties or push forward to support attacks. Denmark, when trailing to England in their must-win group fixture, made personnel changes and were prepared to throw four into attack – though the 4-3-3 formation remained unaltered. The Welsh side, overtly playing their strongest suits of industry and organisation, functioned in a system which could carry either 4-4-1-1 or 4-2-3-1 labels, depending on match situations.
France were the most difficult outfit to convert into numbers – to the extent that selection of a 'formation diagram' for the team page proved a challenge for the technical observers. Gilles Eyquem opened and closed the tournament against England with twin screening midfielders but switched to one against Denmark and Wales. If England had fewer changes of personnel, they also presented an example of flexibility with the front five (all equipped to perform various roles) engaged in constant positional interchanging. In Wales, the most successful countries did not rely on a rigid structure.
Playing philosophies, on the other hand, were more rigidly respected. "The heartening thing," said Finland coach Marianne Miettinen after their opening draw with Sweden, "is that the team stuck to its playing philosophy, even when 1-0 down for so much of the game." Sweden's Barrling commented: "Last year in Turkey, the climate was a conditioning factor and teams focused on low defending simply because the heat gave them no alternative. In Wales we saw more high pressure and games of much greater intensity. The presence of four Nordic teams meant we could have expected more direct back-to-front passing. But in the event it was not what the teams wanted to do. Most of the long balls were in response to high pressing rather than a playing philosophy." Marley endorsed his view: "Most teams tried to play out from the back and a lot of countries have moved on in terms of technique, team organisation and knowledge about opponents. Teams now have more options than low [in one’s own half] ball-winning and counters."
Of the semi-finalists, Germany based their game on some outstanding slick short-passing combinations; the Finns also focused on short or medium passing (until forced to look for longer solutions by England's incessant high pressure in the semi); while both France and England owed their success to effective blends of short and long passing.
Setting the benchmarks
The trend towards a high-tempo passing game has induced a shift away from physical stature as a priority among selection criteria. Denmark coach Søren Randa-Boldt said: "We look for football intelligence, technique, speed, mental strength and players who love the game." In selecting his Swedish squads, Barrling emphasises "technique, game understanding, physical aspects – especially speed – and, most definitely, character." Wales coach Jarmo Matikainen looked for "players with a good first touch who are comfortable on the ball. Then physical attributes, especially speed and endurance."
"Levels of athletic qualities were outstanding," said UEFA technical observer Albon. "The fact the goals were shared evenly over the 90 minutes indicates this. There was also high tempo and great technique." Germany's Meinert maintained that "we emphasise the combination of speed and technique. In a team, you might fit in one or two who are not fast – but not four or five. The sort of player we used to see in these tournaments five or so years ago is now an extinct species." She also admitted that defensive work occupies a high place on her training-ground agenda. "In Germany we have players who, when it comes to attacking, don't need to be told what to do. So the first thing is to teach them how to defend and to be able to make quick decisions."
Finland's progress at the finals was also attributable to a clear development plan. "We used the 2011 FIFA Women's World Cup as our starting point," Miettinen said. "We wanted to draw up finite requirements and job descriptions for each playing position. Then we listed the physical, mental and technical demands. So the group that went to Wales had been developed in accordance with these guidelines over a period of two years. To offer an example, the girls averaged 1,983m in yo-yo testing – and our senior team at Women's EURO 2013 averaged around 2,200m."
As Matikainen observed: "These tournaments are where benchmarks are set."
The final third
Barrling's comment about "being strong at both ends of the pitch" was especially relevant. His Sweden team scored in the fourth minute of their opener against Finland – and then not again. The hosts failed to score. Denmark's two goals were both from set plays. Norway's sudden goal glut against Sweden, coming after 220 minutes without hitting the net, was too late to avoid elimination.
In a tournament notable for its defensive qualities, it was strength at the other end which decreed success or failure. Most sides operated with a single striker – notably Germany, whose 17-year-old forward Pauline Bremer emerged as top scorer. It was noticeable that Meinert had to delve into the generation of '96 to find her, while Eyquem confessed: "France's boys' teams are being encouraged to play with two up front, but in girls' football two strikers are hard to find." Of the teams deploying two up front, Barrling permuted partnerships, whereas the Finnish pair of Juliette Kemppi and Adelina Engman made an impact with their speed, skills, off-the-ball movement and direct running at goal.
The event also confirmed the trend away from the classic playmaker, with maybe only Germany's controlling midfielder Magull fitting into that category. Otherwise, as Albon noted, "it was more a case of seeing a leader in each line rather than a single playmaker. Attacking moves were initiated by a variety of players – in fact, if you looked at England's semi-final against Finland, you could argue that one of the principal 'playmakers' was the left-back Paige Williams. Otherwise you were looking at a series of players who could link the middle-to-front play, such as France's No6 Aminata Diallo."
In Wales, the England team supplied role-model examples of transitions in both directions – but there was an overall move towards efficient, high-speed transitions. The eight finalists were equipped to counterattack at pace, with Finland (one of the leading exponents) effecting a classic counter after the Norwegians had moved upfield to take a free-kick. A two-pass break down the right culminated in a cross which Engman headed home. Norway responded with an equally efficient counter which opened the floodgates in their game against Sweden. Germany were a constant threat on the counter as a result of their high pressing which led to ball-winning in advanced areas – their third against Norway came from an immediate through pass following an advanced ball-win. The championship not only illustrated the need to have counterattacking ability in a side's armoury, but also the need to be alert to ways of effectively 'countering the counter' with pressure on ball-carriers or high-speed transition into defensive blocks.
How the goals were scored
The tournament produced 40 goals, compared with 26 in Turkey in 2012. The goalscoring pattern also registered a sharp contrast. In 2012, the most frequent source of goals was a diagonal pass into the box. In 2013, none of the goals had this origin. Instead, 35% of the open-play goals stemmed from crosses or cutbacks, highlighting the importance given to penetration through the wide areas. At the same time through passes (none of which had proved decisive in 2012) yielded four goals – with Germany, Finland and Norway cashing in on penetrating forward passing. Long-range shooting paid dividends on six occasions though this was not an indication of poor goalkeeping. As Albon acknowledged, "The top teams recognised that opponents were setting up compact, deep defensive blocks and were able to find solutions – among them the ability to shoot hard at goal from the less-protected areas around the box." Indeed, shooting from distance accounted for more goals (Kadidiatou Diani's strike for France in the semi-final against Germany, for example) but, for the sake of consistency, the 'long-range' category was reserved for shots from outside the penalty area.
In the set-play category, one of the curiosities was that the tournament witnessed exactly the same number of corners as in 2012 (131) yet whereas only one resulted in a goal in Turkey, four were successful in Wales, including the French goal that broke the deadlock during extra time in the final. Just one goal originated from a free-kick (Denmark's winner against a distracted Welsh defence). Four penalties were converted out of seven awarded. "There was nothing especially noteworthy about the set plays," Mirel Albon concluded, "in the sense that there were no novelties. Most free-kicks and corners were simply delivered into a packed penalty area. But the high level of scouting and analysis at the tournament went a long way towards eliminating the surprise factor."
|Set play||Corners||Direct from / following a corner||4|
|Set play||Free-kicks (direct)||Direct from a free-kick||0|
|Set play||Free-kicks (indirect)||Following a free-kick||1|
|Set play||Penalties||Spot kick (or a follow-up from a penalty)||4|
|Set play||Throw-ins||Following a throw-in||0|
|Open play||Combinations||Wall pass / 3-player (or more) combination||5|
|Open play||Crosses||Cross from the wing||9|
|Open play||Cutbacks||Pass back from the byline||2|
|Open play||Diagonals||Diagonal pass into the penalty box||0|
|Open play||Running with the ball||Dribble and close-range shot / dribble and pass||2|
|Open play||Long-range shots||Direct shot / shot and rebound||6|
|Open play||Forward passes||Through pass or pass over the defence||4|
|Open play||Defensive errors||Bad pass back / mistake by the goalkeeper||2|
|Open play||Own goals||Goal by the opponent||1|
In terms of attempts on goal, the table below confirms that the fourth-placed team in each group was the one which had the fewest. As a measure of defensive efficiency, a notable fact is that, in four games, Germany's opponents totalled 19 goal attempts, of which only eight were on target. Meanwhile the champions, while shooting at goal 81 times, afforded just 25 attempts to their opponents, seven of them during the final which went to extra time.
|Team||Goal attempts||Average||On target||Average|
|Extra time 91-105||1||2|
|Extra time 106-120||1||3|