The question emerged quite early in the tournament, while the technical team was reviewing the list of potential candidates for the All-Star Squad. Unusually, centre-backs were conspicuous by their absence. The search for a reason generated a bit of head-scratching – and the comment from Hope Powell that “in the matches I’ve seen, the centre-backs have been quite functional.” The adjective stuck. And functional centre-backs became one of the talking points of the tournament.
It would be misleading to tar all the centre-backs with the same brush. There were central defenders who tried to make an impact. Germany’s Sophia Kleinherne and Tanja Pawollek initiated attacks with some nice diagonal openings to the wings – mostly to the left – but impressed more against the defence-minded opposition from Scotland and Northern Ireland than against other opponents. Spain’s Lucía Rodríguez was prepared to break out from the back with runs into midfield. England’s Grace Fisk produced a good tournament. But eye-catching performances were generally few and far between.
In possession, the contribution by centre-backs often fell into the category of ‘clearing the lines’ rather than ‘distribution’. Spain provided a notable exception, but passing often struggled to earn a pass mark – unless it was of the safety-first variety across the back line. But ‘functional’ is not a critical adjective. It means that the centre-backs performed their function with, if you like, a five-out-of-ten assessment. The talking point is about their function.
It has become standard procedure in construction work for the two full-backs to move into advanced positions and for a holding midfielder to drop close to the centre-backs to form a covering triangle and, ideally, to launch attacking moves with clever forward passing. The team’s ‘playmaker’ is, these days, very often deployed in this deeper-lying midfield role, subtracting responsibility from the centre-backs.
To throw tangential evidence on to the debating table, it was also noticeable in Northern Ireland that the players who committed the most fouls were forwards or screening midfielders – the former briefed to act as the first line of defence after loss of possession. Although required to tackle, centre-backs were generally more inhibited when it came to giving away free-kicks in compromising areas. Or, indeed, to venturing out of their zone. With full-backs enjoying more exuberant roles, has the centre-back position become one of the most static roles in the team? As it happens, centre-backs accounted for none of the goals scored in Northern Ireland – not even from set plays.
The talking point is whether the job description of the centre-back has been whittled down to a bare minimum. At development levels, is the focus on attacking full-backs leading towards a neglect of the centre-back role? Are central defenders being encouraged to be nothing more than ‘functional’?
“Our players born in 1999 had a great experience at the Under-17 World Cup. But they went from that into a development programme with no truly competitive games. The 1998s have been even shorter of games. It makes it difficult to sustain a world-class challenge.
The gap between U19s and senior teams is even more significant now because the senior game has become more professional, but there are limited opportunities for youth players to break into first-team football at their clubs. These days, most young players learn their trade at the U19s or at the U20 World Cup, so I think we need 16 teams at the U19 finals so more players can access the big-tournament experience.”
The comments by England coach Mo Marley could provide the foundations for several talking points. And the subject can be approached from various points of Europe’s footballing geography. Only three European associations could send their 1999s to the World Cup. The parameters of league football vary considerably from country to country. And, when it comes to the age-limit national teams, the size of the pool of eligible players is a hugely conditioning factor. In Northern Ireland, for example, the host team’s coach Alfie Wylie had to draw from four years to compile his 18-player squad, with striker Emily Wilson taking the field in the final tournament a couple of weeks before her 16th birthday. While bridging the gap from U19 to senior levels is a universal challenge, defining development pathways is an issue that needs to be addressed by individual national associations.
Mo Marley’s observations nevertheless underline the rationality, among the countries with greater resources in terms of players, of working with two-year age-bands (rather than one) to coincide with the periodicity of World Cups. The England squad contained 10 x 1998 and 8 x 1999; France 13 + 5; Germany 6 + 9 (+ 3 x 2000); Netherlands 6 + 11 (+1); Spain 7 + 10 (+1). Overall, the tournament featured 66 players born in 1998; 62 in 1999; and 13 from the two subsequent years. Players from those five countries were alone in enjoying an opportunity to continue their development via the U20 World Cup in France in 2018.
Spain coach Pedro López remarked “we’ve been working for eight or nine years and, during that time, we’ve been fortunate enough not only to qualify for a lot of final tournaments but also to reach semi-finals or finals. And we’ve been able to see the difference between the players who have international experience and those who don’t. We’re starting to see the results of that experience in the senior team.” Germany’s Maren Meinert agreed: “qualifying for the U20 World Cup was really important to reduce the gap between U19 and senior.”
The inference is that national team football has greater relevance in player development than experience gained at club level. Mo Marley is relatively unfazed by the emigration of more than half her squad to the USA. “They get scholarships to balance education and football,” she commented. “They also get a full-time programme and they play regularly.” France coach Gilles Eyquem endorsed the concerns about lack of playing time: “our league has improved but young players don’t get game time – especially at the big clubs.
Three or four of our squad had decent playing time – at clubs fighting to avoid relegation.”
In Northern Ireland, playing time was not a problem. Goalkeepers apart, only five outfielders remained unused. From a development perspective, will the expansion of squad sizes from 18 to 20 as from 2017/18 offer game time to more players? Or increase the number who remain unused?
And another angle entwined with dates of birth, game time and development pathways – albeit a rather infrequent issue. Gareth Evans led the Scotland squad across the Irish Sea deprived of his best player. Not on account of an injury. Erin Cuthbert, who had scored 10 times in five games on the road to Belfast, was not eligible. The coach, however, was not complaining. “If a player has the option to go to a senior EURO, it’s a no-brainer. From a development point of view, you want her to go.”
As it happened, Cuthbert, who celebrated her 19th birthday while she was with the Scotland squad in the Netherlands, played 153 minutes and, 14 minutes after coming on as sub, scored her team’s goal against Portugal. But, purely as a talking point, supposing she had been an unused sub at EURO 2017. With regulations prohibiting players from taking part in more than one UEFA tournament in a single season, she would have missed out on match action at both EURO and U19s. From a player development perspective, is this ideal? Is there room in the regulations for a compromise based on the number of minutes played?