“The priorities in player selection are that they are comfortable in possession, they are willing to take the initiative, are tactically flexible, and have the potential to become future A team players. Behind this team, we have a normal Under-16 team and a second one for late developers and the best Under-15 players.”
This explanation by France coach Bernard Diomède raises a number of fundamentals that were widely discussed by the UEFA technical observers in Baku. The mention of ‘late developers’, though, can be easily broached via statistical evidence.
Of the players selected for the final tournament in Azerbaijan, 20% were born in January 1999. Germany’s squad featured 10 players born in that month. The Serbia squad was alone in featuring none. Almost half of the ‘workforce’ in Baku (47%) was formed by players born in the first three months of the year, headed by Ukraine (13), Germany and Spain (12), France (11), England, Portugal and Sweden (10).
Only 25.7% of the 288 players had birthdays in the second half of the calendar year.
Serbia (10), Netherlands (9) and Azerbaijan (8) accounted for 36% of that total. The Germany and Ukraine squads contained only one player born between July and December, France and Italy only two apiece. On the other hand, Italy (along with Scotland) selected four players born in 2000, with Austria, Azerbaijan, Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, England, Serbia and Spain including one apiece. Of those 15 younger players, ten had dates of birth between January and March.
The statistics from Baku clearly provoked reflection on how best to address the issue of ‘late developers’ at the youth development stages and minimise the risk of allowing July-December talents to slip through the net. As Belgium coach Thierry Siquet commented: “
Our main selection criteria are the quality of technique and match intelligence rather than physical condition, so I was surprised by the number of early developers at the tournament.”
The coaches were quick to acknowledge the educational value of the tournament and to applaud its expansion to 16 teams. But what sort of education did it offer? As one technical observer remarked with a view to prompting discussion: “Was the emphasis on learning to defend or learning to play football?”
The question was posed in the aftermath of a matchday when the teams that had set out to dominate and take the initiative had, by and large, failed to emerge as the winners. Results had favoured the teams focusing on the collective virtues of disciplined defending. This rekindled the longstanding question about the extent to which coaches’ approaches at this age level should be result-orientated. Belgium were among the teams who, while maintaining a commitment to winning, placed the accent on educational aspects by encouraging their players to analyse other teams and to devise strategies for beating them.
“You need to achieve a balance,” said UEFA technical observer John Peacock. “
You don’t want to impose too much of a tactical straitjacket and, if you focus your coaching on defending, you might be doing the players a disservice by not allowing them opportunities to express themselves.” His colleague Dany Ryser added “at this level, I believe that it is also important to educate the players in self-responsibility”.
Although ‘disciplined defending’ was high on the agenda for many of the teams in Baku, the 2016 tournament still registered a significant upsurge in goals in relation to the previous year’s tournament in Bulgaria, where only 59 were scored at a miserly average of 1.79 per match. However, the 2015 event had been coloured by ambitions to qualify for the FIFA U-17 World Cup – and this element was absent from the 2016 equation. Even so, goalscoring continued to be problematical. France and Scotland went home without a single goal to show from four hours of football, while nine other sides averaged one goal or less from their fixtures.
*Additional matches excluded
In 2015, eight goals by Odsonne Edouard had propelled France to the title and, a year later, it was Portugal’s José Gomes who topped the scoring charts with seven. He was one of the rare exceptions to the general rule at a tournament where the technical observers commented on the percentage of target strikers who spent most of their time playing with backs to goal. The emphasis was on hard work in receiving or pursuing direct passing from the back and acting as the first line of defence during attempts to disturb build-ups by the opposition. Of the players who scored more than one goal, only Germany’s Renat Dadashov and Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Benjamin Hadžić readily fitted the ‘striker’ profile. Although wearing the No9 shirt and operating through the centre, Spain’s Abel Ruíz could not be regarded as a target man, while Sweden’s Joel Asoro was also much more about movement and dropping to deep to receive than about acting as a target.
Instead a high percentage of goals came from midfield. They also came from wide players – full-backs included, as the final demonstrated. Tournament statistics revealed that a very slim percentage of goals were derived from combination moves through the middle. Some teams probed along this route – England and Spain providing prime examples, along with Italy, whose use of twin strikers and a midfield diamond promoted narrow attacking through the central area of the final third. Both England and Spain obtained goals from combination play, but Steve Cooper’s team opened the scoring against France with a neat combination on the left following a throw-in, while Spain’s second goal against the Dutch was the result of 15 passes and solo runs, culminating in a rebound off the goalkeeper. In other words, success rates through the middle were minimal – a theory further supported by the fact that only four goals were attributable to forward passes through or over the defence.
The trend can be easily related to team shapes at a tournament where seven coaches adopted a 1-4-2-3-1 structure as their default setting and four set themselves up in 1-4-4-2. Five participants preferred 1-4-3-3 with Azerbaijan (v Scotland) and Germany also using this format on an occasional basis. It meant that 11 of the 16 contestants had two screening midfielders in front of the back four, thereby offering a solid barrier against through-the-middle combinations. Although there was a degree of tactical flexibility, risk management was an important factor with only Sweden gambling on three at the back for the closing minutes of their quarter-final against the Netherlands.
Length and width
With central routes to goal well defended, most of the teams in Azerbaijan set out to find their way around the opposition’s back four. Kees van Wonderen looked to two from Tahith Chong, Che Nunnely and Justin Kluivert, all genuine wingers ready, willing and able to take on opponents in 1 v 1s. Portugal operated with João Filipe and Mesaque Dju in similar fashion. Belgium had Xian Emmers and Thibaud Verlinden, and England one of the tournament’s outstanding wingers in Reiss Nelson. Spain, usually rich in gifted wingers, relied on the pace of Jordi Mboula to penetrate on the right flank, whereas the left wing was territory occupied by midfielders and full-backs.
The general tendency was for wide attacking to be based on partnerships – to the extent that, when short-listing candidates for the UEFA Select Squad, the technical team noted a high number of eye-catching contributions by full-backs. Portugal, attacking almost exclusively through the wide areas, were prepared to throw Diogo Dalot and Rúben Vinagre into attack. Dujon Sterling formed an effective partnership with Nelson on the England right. Navajo Bakboord and Tyrell Malacia supported the Dutch wingers. In other cases, full-backs and wide midfielders alternated in making runs from deep. Meikel Schönewitz did just that with Gian-Luca Itter and Jan-Niklas Beste on the German left. Santi Denia made similar use of Gorka Zabarte and Fran García on Spain’s left flank, successfully introducing the latter into his starting line-up in the knockout games, having prioritised the protection of central areas during the group phase.
Like the Netherlands, France (with six left-footers in their starting line-up against Denmark) included wrong-footed wingers in their attacking armoury. The natural tendency for wrong-footed wingers to cut inside opened natural channels for deep runs by the full-backs. The tournament indicated that the job-description for the modern full-back stipulates that he should not only support attacks but also be prepared to go all the way to the opponents’ byline. Ukraine wrote an interesting footnote to this chapter by fielding a left-footer at right-back.
For teams aiming to play out from the back, the default manoeuvre was for the two centre-backs to spread, for a screening midfielder to drop in close to them to provide central cover, and for the two full-backs to push up into advanced positions. In Azerbaijan, a number of teams (notably Ukraine, Scotland, Bosnia and Herzegovina) opted clearly for rapid defence-to-attack transitions via direct long passing to the front. Others, such as Sweden, often looked for intermediate solutions, buying an amount of time for repositioning by passing at the back or in their own half before seeking to play the penetrating forward pass.
Most teams exerted fierce upfield pressure on the ball-carrier but few indulged in sustained high pressing. “England were one of the teams to press efficiently,” said technical observer Savvas Constantinou. “They regained high possession with four attacking the ball and cutting off the short-passing options, with others close behind. If the high ball win was not feasible, they would quickly drop into a 1-4-4-1-1 defensive block and press from midfield.” His colleague Ghenadie Scurtul added: “Portugal were outstanding in their decision-making when it came to pressing. They were very well coached in the moments when high pressing was the correct solution and when to drop off.”
Unusually, the number of goalkeepers short-listed for the Select Squad reached double figures. That fact speaks volumes for the standards in Azerbaijan. “It’s beyond doubt,” said Peacock, “that goalkeeping has improved dramatically over the last ten years or so and the goalkeeper coaches take credit for that.” There were, however, substantial differences in job descriptions. The keepers of Serbia, Netherlands and, above all, Germany were frequently seen on the fringes of the centre circle – with Germany’s Jan-Christoph Bartels ultimately caught out in the semi-final against Spain. Bartels miscued a pass near the halfway line and was red-carded for bringing down an opponent who had a clear run at goal.
The evident trend is towards keepers who are good enough with their feet to distribute accurately from the back and to play a role in building attacks or counterattacks. The observers wondered whether the trend towards ability with the feet entails a risk of losing sight of the fundamental abilities of shot-saving. At youth development levels, they felt, it is important to maintain the right balance between keeping and sweeping.
The final third
Patterns changed radically in comparison with the 2015 final tournament, where 745 attempts yielded 59 goals at an average of one per 12.63 and only two teams managed more on-target attempts than inaccurate ones. In Azerbaijan, there was a radical drop (15%) to 635 attempts; greater efficiency reflected by one goal per 8.7 attempts; and eight teams with more on-target efforts than those which went wide. This table lists the participants on the basis of goal attempts per game:
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
The dead-ball game
The percentage of goals derived from set plays dropped from 22 to 19.7 in comparison with 2015, with Portugal accounting for five of the 15 dead-ball goals scored in Azerbaijan. Due credit must be given to full-back Rúben Vinagre for excellent left-footed deliveries that represented a constant threat to opposing defences. Portugal were among an over whelming majority of teams who dedicated training-ground time to organising attacking and defending at set plays. Belgium coach Thierry Siquet said: “It’s important at this sort of tournament. We practised seven or eight different variations – but the key is to have a real specialist in execution.”
England coach Steve Cooper was among the many believers in working on the theory and practice of set plays. “There are different ways of doing this and we have introduced a WhatsApp system where the players are sent set plays and then discuss the mechanisms in small groups,” he explained.
Among the moves which paid dividends was a corner by Austria, with two players running over the ball. Andreas Heraf also implemented a ploy at free-kicks whereby his players formed a ‘shadow’ barrier in front of the opponents’ wall with two of them adopting kneeling positions. Unusually at this level, the long throw was among the dead-ball options too, with Alexander Burgstaller (Austria), Andreas Poulsen (Denmark), Thierry Correia (Portugal), Joel Asoro (Sweden) and Tymofiy Sukhar (Ukraine) all capable of delivering the ball from touchline to penalty area.
There was, however, a scant harvest from corners, with 295 yielding six goals at a success rate of 1:49.
The art of defending at corners was exhibited with enormous diversity. One on the near post; two on the posts; none on the posts; fully zonal marking; fully man-to-man marking; mixed systems with four or more marking man-to-man … practically every variation was on show in Azerbaijan. Even so, France provided a striking exception to the general rule by leaving three players up and obliging their opponents to withdraw players from the penalty area in order to combat the counterattacking threat.
How the goals were scored
The scoring chart reflects some of the points raised earlier, with 36% of the open-play goals having their origin in deliveries from the wide areas – 45% if diagonal passes into the box are included and an even greater percentage if the own goals stemming from crosses or cutbacks are taken into account. The chart also underlines the aforementioned scarcity of successful moves based on combinations or through passes in the attacking third. In addition, the number of goals scored from long range indicates that deep defensive blocks can open up shooting opportunities from the area outside the penalty area.
The lack of goals scored directly from free-kicks underscores a debating point to arise from previous seasons – namely, the notable lack of specialists in this department.
Although many of the teams practised fast defence-to-attack transitions, only a handful of goals could be directly attributed to counterattacks. There were, however, spectacular examples of fast breaks. Germany, intercepting an Austrian corner, made it 2-0 when Arne Maier took the ball from his own box into the Austria half and passed it in behind the last defender for Atakan Akkaynak to round off a 70-metre sprint by hitting it into the net. Austria were on the receiving end again during the quarter-final against the Portuguese, who also put 2-0 on the scoreboard with a top-speed counter on the right and a quality cross conclusively headed into the net by José Gomes.
It was one of five goals headed into the net by the Portugal No9 during a tournament where 10 goals were headers. This represented a significant statistic given that, in recent years, the lack of headed goals had raised concerns about the coaching of aerial abilities at youth development levels.
|Corners||Direct from / following a corner||6|
|Free kicks (direct)||Direct from a free-kick||0|
|Free kicks (indirect)||Following a free-kick||4|
|Penalties||Spot kick (or follow-up from a penalty)||5|
|Throw-ins||Following a throw-in||0|
|Combinations||Wall pass / combination move||3|
|Crosses||Cross from the wing||11|
|Cut-backs||Pass back from the by-line||10|
|Diagonals||Diagonal pass into the penalty box||5|
|Running with the ball||Dribble and close-range shot / dribble and pass||9|
|Long-range shots||Direct shot / shot and rebound||8|
|Forward passes||Through-pass or pass over the defence||4|
|Defensive errors||Bad back pass / mistake by the goalkeeper||4|
|Own goals||Goal by opponent||4|
As usual, a majority of goals (a fraction under 58%) were scored after the half-time interval. Yet fatigue factors cannot legitimately be proffered as an explanation during a tournament where the contestants were athletically equipped to cope with 80 minutes of high-intensity play. The UEFA technical observers recognised the high levels of athletic condition but, as Peacock pointed out “the two phases of the tournament had different characteristics. Two of the groups were very tightly fought. But when we came into the knockout rounds, the football tended to be more expansive, with teams trying to carry the game to the opposition and to play attacking football.”