Respect and results
"We rely on the players’ understanding of good values." The quote from Italy coach Alessandro Dal Canto needs to be accompanied by an apology for using it out of context, as he pronounced the words in response to a question about the players’ use of social media. But the sentence provokes reflections about the need to promote ‘good values’ among players at this stage of their development. At the U17 level, there is frequent debate about the balance between a result-orientated approach and the longer-term prospects related to the development of the player and the person.
In Azerbaijan, educational aspects featured prominently in tournament diaries. Squads brought teachers with them; hours were assigned to academic work; and the Dutch, for example, arranged for players to sit their state exams at the embassy in Baku. It served as a reminder that these were teenagers in their formative years.
The provocative question is to what extent the coaches are responsible for promoting what Dal Canto described as the “understanding of good values”. The technical observers frowned at some of the simulation, the screams of ‘agony’ and the writhing on the ground. There were also specific incidents which gave rise to discussion.
Scenario 1: with a result in the pocket and the prospect of important future fixtures looming large, the coach, probably aware that the match officials are not proficient in his language, starts to shout at two of his players. He instructs them to pick up yellow cards with a view to clearing a suspension out of the way and making sure they are available for the knockout rounds. In the final two of the 80 minutes, both are booked for, as the referee’s report put it, “delaying the restart of play”. In other words, time-wasting. The players are duly suspended from a match of lesser importance.
Scenario 2: a team has taken the lead by scoring in the closing minutes. While the players head off to a corner to celebrate, the opponents reassemble and place the ball in the centre circle for the restart. A central defender from the team that has scored has stayed back. He walks into the centre circle and kicks the ball away. When the players of the other team reposition the ball, he walks up with the obvious intention to kick the ball away again. This time, his opponents see him coming and a moment of friction arises. With the focus on the celebrations elsewhere on the pitch, his action goes unnoticed.
The incidents in themselves are past history. But their value is to provoke debate about the role of the coach at this development level. There can be no question that, if he has led his team into the final tournament, the coach will aim to create a competitive winning mentality among his squad members and do his utmost to help them to obtain good results and to progress as far as possible in the competition. Sometimes, it can be argued, the coach is prompted by pressure from above to adopt a result-orientated policy. The question worth asking is whether he also has a duty to develop principles of respect and fair play among players in their formative years. In short, to what extent is the coach responsible for this?
1-0 = game over?
Spain’s 2-1 success against Germany in the semi-final was significant. It was a second victory for the team conceding the first goal. And, even then, there was a conditioning factor: Germany came from behind against Bosnia and Herzegovina after their opponents were reduced to ten at the beginning of the second half (Germany having previously made it 1-1 from a penalty). Statistics at a tournament of limited dimensions can easily be misleading. But the fact that just 6.45% of games were won by the team conceding the first goal was, significantly, in line with figures from other UEFA competitions. UEFA EURO 2012, for instance, produced an identical statistic: 6.45% of games were won by the team that went 0-1 down (Ukraine bouncing back to beat Sweden, and Portugal to beat the Netherlands). In the much bigger 2014/15 UEFA Champions League campaign, the figure was 4.27%, with 80% of the matches that produced goals won by the side scoring first. In Azerbaijan, the figure was 79%. In Bulgaria a year earlier, no team had come back to win after conceding first.
The question debated by the technical observers was, quite simply, why? The question, however, was simpler than the answer. Can it be argued, for example, that players in the U17 age group are less equipped to rebound in adverse situations? Does anxiety – not to say panic – become a conditioning factor? But is youthful inexperience a plausible explanation when the parameters in the senior game are practically identical? The technical observers, experienced coaches, led themselves into self-appraisal: had the coaches reacted positively enough in situations where a comeback was required? Had there been a reluctance to take risks?
The debate was then carried a stage further. If the lack of rebound capacity is an epidemic that runs through the European game at all levels, is there educational work to be done during this early development phase of the players’ careers? Can a ‘rebound mentality’ be taught or developed? If so, how and when? Is this a question to be addressed by sport psychologists? Or can reasons be detected on the pitch or at the training ground?
Coach development tournaments
In Azerbaijan, nine of the 16 contestants had been in Bulgaria a year earlier – but only two of their coaches: Scotland’s Scot Gemmill and Spain’s Santi Denia. The fact may raise the odd eyebrow but this type of turnover can frequently be explained by logical policies of continuity within a national association. Many of the coaches had been working with the same group of players from U15 level or even earlier and it was therefore coherent for them to stay at the helm for the voyage to Azerbaijan.
Although much is said about the teams who appear as debutants, silence generally surrounds the coaches who are gaining their first taste of a UEFA final tournament. In Baku, there was a diversity in terms of support for the coaches who were making their debut. In some cases, they were backed by the national association’s technical or coach-education director. In other cases, a more experienced coach was at the event with a dual role of scouting the next or potential opponents and discreetly acting as mentor to the less experienced coach who was leading the team. Others were simply left to their own devices.
In Azerbaijan, there were enough new faces to prompt talk of a ‘new generation’ of U17 coaches, even though the final was disputed by two experienced campaigners. Coincidence? John Peacock, one of UEFA’s technical team and winner of this competition with England in 2010 and 2014, said: “
If we are bringing young coaches into a final tournament, I think that it is vital to provide them with support.” How appropriate is it for national associations to appreciate a need for mentors? How important is it to think of coaching the coaches? Are final tournaments at U17 level being given their just due as prime opportunities for coach as well as player development?