France reached the final with a curious track record. They had not scored a goal while their eleven starting players were on the field. That fact might appear to be an item of footballing trivia. But this was no anecdotic accident. It has become a hallmark of Gilles Eyquem’s coaching credo. His comment “my only risk is to play all my cards from the start” had been made during France’s run to the 2016 title in Slovakia, where he made match-turning substitutions either in the first half or at half-time in three of his team’s five fixtures. When winning the title in his debut season in 2013, much the same – throwing on match-winning substitutes, such as Claire Lavogez and Kadidiatou Diani during the semi-final against Germany.
In Northern Ireland, even more of the same. Two changes at half-time against the Netherlands; ditto in the semi-final against Germany; two during the opening ten minutes of the second half against England; and one after 28 minutes against Italy. “I was at that match,” commented UEFA technical observer Anja Palusevic, “and
Italy had looked very impressive during the first twenty minutes or so. Then the France coach made a substitution and sparked off an explosion.”
In many of the instances where he kept his gunpowder dry, the explosive element was the fast Emelyne Laurent, fielded on either flank or through the middle of the attack. Against Italy, she scored one and had a hand (well, two feet and a chest…) in three more goals as France came from behind to win 6-1. 1-0 down to Germany at half-time in the semi-final, Eyquem sent on Laurent and Julie Thibaud for the re-start. The two goals they supplied meant that, en route to the final, six of France’s nine goals had been scored by subs.
France were not alone. Italy (2), Germany (2), Northern Ireland and the Netherlands also cashed-in on substitutions, with the result that 31% of the tournament’s open-play goals came from the bench. As Hope Powell commented “there’s no doubt that substitutions made a real impact on the outcome of the tournament. So, good decisions by coaches.” Indeed, the immediate reaction is to pat coaches on the back. But, from a coaching perspective, the interesting debating point is whether The Eyquem Strategy could have wider application among his coaching colleagues. There are, of course, imponderables – the quality on the bench among them. But, especially in a tournament of this nature (five games in 13 days) how valid is it to “rest some players in the first half and send them on in the second when they can make an impact”? Does your starting line-up have to be your best?
Looking after No1
With the first round of matches being played less than 48 hours after the senior Women’s EURO 2017 in the Netherlands, the two tournaments rolled seamlessly onwards. But there were some striking contrasts. Goalkeeping, for a start. Whereas erratic performances between the posts had emerged as one of the main talking points at the senior event, performances in Northern Ireland prompted the technical observers, faced with an array of quality, to include three in the tournament’s All-Star Squad. England coach ‘Mo’ Marley, for example, admitted to selection problems because she had “two outstanding goalkeepers” in her squad. Even though results went against their teams, the goalkeepers of Scotland and Northern Ireland were applauded for impressive performances.
“This was very heartening,” remarked Hope Powell, “and good for the profile of the goalkeeper. In the not-too-distant past, it was not a fashionable job. But at EURO 2013 Nadine Angerer came out as a role model and made it more exciting, more attractive. It was great to see former international keepers like Silke Rottenberg and Sandrine Roux working with Germany and France in Northern Ireland because they have so much to give the game.”
“I think the quality of goalkeeper coaching is the key,” Anja Palusevic added. “I am aware that, in Germany, we are getting more female goalkeeper coaches, as well. We are beginning to see the results of good-quality coaching and it augurs well for the future.” The observers agreed that they ‘looked the part’ in terms of athletic qualities, positioning and handling. Netherlands coach Jessica Torny underlined the importance of the work done by GK coaches at the two academies in her country. Roux, although more than satisfied with the progress of Mylène Chavas – already France’s keeper at the U20 World Cup in 2016 – felt that goalkeeper development programmes would benefit from starting earlier than the current norm – the age of 15.
Keeping the score
Discounting – to make comparisons easier – the additional play-off game, the tournament produced 50 goals at an average of 3.33 per game. Although lower than the 2016 total, it was a far cry from the 1.73 registered in 2012, when the torrid conditions in Turkey inevitably had repercussions.
Goalscoring year by year
*For the sake of comparison extra play-off games are excluded
In Northern Ireland, the 50 goals were shared among 30 players. Central attackers scored 16; wingers / wide midfielders 11; full-backs 2; and 19 by central midfielders. The other two were own goals. The patterns differs significantly from the senior EURO, where strikers accounted for 32 goals and central midfielders only 13. For the record, Emelyne Laurent’s goals have been attributed according to her playing position at the time: either central attacker or wide midfielder.
The predominance of goals from midfield was illustrated when Patricia Guijarro picked up the Golden Ball award after contributing two goals to Spain’s victory in the final. The champions’ set-up featured one of the impressive midfield triangles which made a mark on the tournament. Damaris Egurrola played a vital screening / balancing role while Maite Oroz worked the width, making herself available to receive and linking her team’s middle-to-front play with clever passes or solo runs. Guijarro operated in a box-to-box role. Oroz, it could be argued, was the closest approximation to the playmaking No10, whereas other teams tended to launch their game-opening passes from the controlling midfielder area in front of the back four. Germany generally played with Janina Minge and Luca Graf in the screening / playmaking roles while Laura Freigang pushed forward to probe from ‘shadow striker’ areas behind the target-player, Klara Bühl. The Netherlands relied similarly on Nurija van Schoonhoven and Nadine Noordam for controlling and ball-winning in midfield while Victoria Pelova worked cleverly between opposition lines. In the France midfield, Sana Daoudi was a key figure in the screening role. However, her ‘playmaking’ was more about rational distribution and linking runs than about creative passing.
How the goals were created
Wing play led to 31% of the tournament’s open-play goals, crosses and cut-backs totalling 12. This was in line with the 32.6% recorded a couple of weeks earlier at the senior EURO. However, forward passes were the second most fertile sources of goals, some of them leading to counterattack goals, such as the direct through passes to Emelyne Laurent which yielded goals for France against Germany and Spain in the semi-final and final. Or the forward pass during the other semi-final which allowed Spain striker Lucía García to turn her marker and stride through to score. The success rate for the through pass was significantly higher than at Women’s EURO 2017, where deep defensive blocks restricted the number to seven.
Interestingly, no fewer than 11 of the final touches were headers, seven of them from dead-ball situations – a fact which underlines the importance of training-ground work on this technical aspect of the game.
|Corners||Direct from / following a corner||8|
|Free-kicks (direct)||Direct from a free-kick||1|
|Free-kicks (indirect)||Following a free-kick||3|
|Penalties||Spot kick (or follow-up from a penalty)||1|
|Throw-ins||Following a throw-in||0|
|Open play||Combinations||Wall pass / combination move||5|
|Crosses||Cross from the wing||7|
|Cut-backs||Pass back from the byline||5|
|Diagonals||Diagonal pass into the penalty box||1|
|Running with the ball||Dribble and close-range shot / dribble and pass||2|
|Long-range shots||Direct shot / shot and rebound||4|
|Forward passes||Through pass or pass over the defence||11|
|Defensive errors||Bad back-pass / mistake by the goalkeeper||2|
|Own goals||Goal by the opponent||2|
The rebound mentality
Eleven of the 16 games played in Northern Ireland were won by the team scoring first. Only three matches ended in a victory for the team that had fallen 0-1 behind – all of them involving France. Gilles Eyquem’s team hit back to defeat Italy 6-1 and then, in the semi-final, Germany 2-1. They saw the darker side of the moon in the final where Spain came from 0-1 and 1-2 down to take the title after a match which exerted some destruction-testing on their mental strength.
Spain’s two late goals in the final converted the last 15-minute segment of games into the most prolific in terms of goalscoring. The margin, however, was minimal and, by and large, goals were fairly evenly spread. Nevertheless, there was a clear split between the first half (21 goals) and the second (31), largely due to France who scored only three times during the opening 45 minutes and eight times after the interval. In the knockout games (semi-finals and final) three goals hit the net in the first half; 10 in the second.
|1st half add.||1||2|
|2nd half add.||3||6|
*Including play-off game
Could Spain score goals? That was one of the questions being asked after three group matches in which Pedro López’s team – like the seniors at EURO 2017 – struggled to convert impressively skilful possession play into goals. Like the seniors, they were frustrated by the deep defensive blocks set up by the hosts and Scotland. They had no fewer than 20 shots blocked by opponents – more than any other team in the tournament. England, another possession team, albeit with a more vertical attacking style, found it similarly difficult to find routes into the net. As the table indicates, ‘Mo’ Marley’s side needed, on average, 14.25 attempts to score a goal. France, using the sheer pace of Emelyne Laurent as a direct attacking and counterattacking weapon, mostly as a foil to the hard-running, hard-working striker Mathilde Bourdieu, were the most effective in converting chances into goals (1:4.27) – followed closely by the Netherlands (1:4.44). In their last two matches against Italy and Spain, Jessica Torny’s team converted 15 attempts into five goals. Although Germany were the most prolific in terms of goal attempts, they managed only seven in the group game against Spain – and won 2-0.
|Team||Attempts||Ave.||On target||Ave.||Off target||Blocked||Woodwork||Goals|
Note: attempts striking the woodwork are included in the on-target total if deflected by goalkeeper or defender
and in the off-target total if the attempt strikes the woodwork directly
* Play-off match included
The dead ball
Spain’s match-winning set plays (a corner and two free-kicks) in the final highlighted the value of training-ground time dedicated to rehearsals of dead-ball situations. If the England v Scotland World Cup play-off is included in the equation, seven of the 15 goals scored in the KO phase of the tournament stemmed from set plays.
All in all, 25% of the tournament’s goals stemmed from dead-ball situations. This is a modest percentage compared with the 32% at the senior EURO. The pattern, however, was totally different. Whereas spot kicks had been a major element in the Netherlands, only one penalty was awarded in Northern Ireland.
Spain’s two successful free-kicks in the final came at the end of a tournament that had previously yielded only one. The striking feature was the success rate from corners. This had emerged as a talking point in the Netherlands, where a success ratio of 1:76 had raised questions about worthwhile dividends from investments in training-ground time. In Northern Ireland, the success rate was one goal per 16.25 corners.
The eye-catching fact was that the group stage yielded only three goals from corners, whereas the four KO fixtures, played when teams had enjoyed ample opportunities to scout their opponents, produced five. There was diversity in methods of defending corners. England and Netherlands were among the teams who adopted a mix of zonal and individual marking; Scotland preferred the latter Spain generally preferred a zonal approach, as did France. Germany also defended in zone, often bringing all ten outfielders back into the box. During the semi-final against France, a corner on their left was defended with one player on the near post; one protecting it; four in zonal line some three metres out; and two near the penalty spot against three France players, one of whom (Julie Thibaud) headed the equaliser.
The next step
At the senior EURO, one of the major concerns expressed by the coaches was how best to negotiate what Scotland coach Gareth Evans described as “the vacuum between the U19s and the A team”. The hosts were arguably the least affected by this issue, given that the small pool of players is conducive to rapid transitions from U19 to senior. “We treated it as big development opportunity,” said their coach Alfie Wylie. “The important thing is to learn to be competitive.” The challenge for the coaches of the more prominent nations focused on approximating levels of performance, discipline and concentration to the requirements of the senior game. “The result,” remarked Anja Palusevic, “was a tournament that was very even balanced among the major teams yet there was a variety of styles. It was easy to identify the different football cultures.”
“There was the important incentive in terms of helping to bridge the gap by taking players to the World Cup,” stated Hope Powell. “So we did see matches played at high levels of tempo and intensity with good game plans suited to the physicality and mentality of the teams, giving them the best possible chance to realise their potential.”
There were diverse approaches. Gilles Eyquem, for example, believed “it is good for the players to be familiar with various playing systems”. During the tournament, France operated in 1-4-3-3, 1-4-4-2 or even 1-4-2-3-1 formations. By contrast, Spain remained constantly faithful to their 1-4-3-3 set-up. Indeed, variations on 1-4-3-3 were the most common denominator among the contestants, operated with different measures of attacking vocation. None of the teams in Northern Ireland operated with three at the back – with the momentary exception of the hosts, who switched to 1-3-5-2 when chasing the result against Scotland.
“One of the outstanding features,” commented Anja Palusevic, “was the tactical flexibility within matches.” “The game has definitely moved forward,” said Hope Powell. “
Coaches take a more strategic approach, constantly adjusting to the realities of the opposition. The experience is invaluable as the coach has to understand physical loading, rest-and-recovery procedures for a tight schedule, scouting opponents, filtering that information, being better equipped to cope with different situations, exercise group management skills…These tournaments are now a good education for the coach as well as preparing players for the senior team.”
This adds a further dimension to views on bridging the gap between U19 and senior levels in the women’s game. In Northern Ireland, the line-up featured technicians with long and distinguished track records (‘Mo’ Marley, Maren Meinert, Gilles Eyquem…) yet the ascension of Spain’s Jorge Vilda from U19 to senior level stands out as a rare occurrence. Any particular reason?
Setting the mind
Although winning matches was the priority, the coaches agreed that tuning minds was an important part of the development process at this age level. “The first step,” said Gareth Evans, “is to create a thoroughly professional environment and then easing the players into it.
In many cases, players' perceptions of top-level football are a long way from the truth.” Other colleague aligned with this stance. “The game has changed over the last decade or so,” said one of them. “Athletic condition has improved radically but I’m not sure that the ability to read and understand the game has kept pace. There is a tendency for players to expect to have everything taken care of. There is less initiative and a greater reliance on being told what to do. This means that they need to be coached in understanding the game.”
Many coaches are already walking along that road. Jessica Torny, for example, placed great emphasis on ‘talking football’ with the Netherlands players and encouraging them to assume responsibilities in match analysis and team plans. We make time for set plays at every training session and we encourage the players to take responsibility in that area as well. In terms of mentality, I also feel that the coaches’ behaviour is important. When the staff are calm and relaxed, it helps the players to develop the right attitude.”