IMPACT OF THE FIFA UNDER-20 WOMEN'S WORLD CUP
With the FIFA Under-20 Women's World Cup on the horizon, the approach taken to the UEFA Women's European Under-19 Championship by three of Europe's participants in that event was interesting, and rather contrasting.
With many of the France, Spain and Germany players in Slovakia also strong candidates for their countries' respective under-20 selections heading to Papua New Guinea between 13 November and 3 December, that event had a palpable impact on how teams prepared for and indeed viewed the WU19 finals.
"There was a big difference between Germany, Spain and France," observed Patricia González. "
For Germany, this tournament was a big preparation for the Under-20 World Cup. All their preparations were focused on that, whereas Spain and France were preparing for this tournament, and then after they would turn their attention to the World Cup."
Germany coach Maren Meinert confirmed as much. "We decided on a short preparation for this as we will be going to the Under-20 World Cup and we want to be ready for that, which is the main event for us," she said. "It's important that we are ready to play in November. If we prepared more for this, then we might be tired in November, although that is not an excuse."
France and Spain, on the other hand, ensured a sharp focus was maintained on the WU19s and this was reflected in their performances in reaching the showpiece.
CONTINUATION: THE WAY FORWARD
With several players taking part in a record fifth UEFA final tournament at youth level, progression and continuation are burning issues. The step beyond under-19 level is the biggest of them all, but the experience gained in Slovakia and on previous youth tournaments certainly stands many of the protagonists in good stead.
"Some players have already appeared in five youth tournaments, while some have also played in World Cups, so you don't need too much to bridge the gap for them to the senior national teams," commented Jarmo Matikainen. "It is a very clear indication of how important this structure is."
Indeed, UEFA's Under-17 and Under-19 tournaments can be viewed as key stepping stones in the career of any young female footballer. They represent ideal events for player development and the continuation seen between, for example, the under-17s of 2015 and this year's under-19s – with France, Spain, Switzerland and Germany semi-finalists in the younger category in Iceland in 2015 �� is a clear indication of this progress.
"There's a big continuation for the final tournaments," noted Matikainen, who also explained how the last under-17 tournament prior to Iceland had been held in England in late 2013 and the intervening time thus represented a "big window for the development of other players". Nevertheless, 39 players involved in that tournament – including nine from finalists of both events, Spain – successfully made the step up a level in Slovakia.
This rate of progression and the corresponding introduction of new players who did not feature at under-17 level could also be explained on a more individual level with reference to how some "new talents just grow later than others," according to González. "Particularly for Spain, there are many players developing between these two tournaments and a lot of new talent emerging."
THE TEAM BEHIND THE TEAM
Preparations for this year's Women's European Under-19 Championship were some of the most sophisticated to date with the participating nations not leaving any stone unturned in their quest for glory. While video analysts and sports psychologists have become permanent members of senior squads, it was interesting to see how these additional components are becoming common place also at this level, with the expertise filtering down through the age categories.
Winners France were not alone in having an observer and a video analyst, while Switzerland and Austria both brought 12 backroom staff members with them, including an observer and video analyst, and in the case of Austria also a sports psychologist. "Some teams have one member of staff per player nowadays," remarked Jarmo Matikainen. "It's about being the best prepared and you can definitely say that it's very professional. We could see it also last year with the under-17s. All teams highlighted the fact that they did have a lot of information about their opponents."
Norway arrived with the former head coach of their senior team Even Pellerud, assisting a video analyst in support of head coach Nils Lexerød. Likewise, Spain's congregation included the senior team head coach Jorge Vilda as well as María Antonia Is, whose under-17s were beaten finalists in their age category in Belarus earlier this year.
The end result was an enhanced level of preparation which was reflected out on the field. "There has been a lot of flexibility in the tactical plans and that comes from greater analysis of the teams and preparations," said González. "Teams like Switzerland were able to play three different plans, switching during games. France also, and this strength of adaptation has been very important in their progression through the tournament.
"Many teams came with video analysts and scouts and they are preparing more."
Further preparation is coming from outside the national team environment – on a club level. As the following table shows, many of the players in Slovakia already have a wealth of experience playing at the highest league level in their respective countries.
"You can feel there is a lot of maturity in the teams," said González "They have big personalities and very good mental preparation, showing great ability to recover from being behind and this could be down to the large number of players in the top divisions. "Many have also played in the UEFA Women's Champions League this year. Having over half of your squad playing in the top league is good for mental strength."
|Players in top division||11||11||14||11||16||8||18||5|
As for Germany, where the actual figure of those playing regularly in the Bundesliga is five, with a further three belonging regularly to the first-team squad of top-flight clubs, the strength of the league and its structure is an important factor in explaining why that number is not any higher. Indeed, with a reserve league on a par with many other top divisions in Europe, and a second division also offering a high level of quality, those members of Maren Meinert's squad who are not playing regular Bundesliga football are nevertheless performing to a high standard within the German league structure, where there are also a great number of foreign players plying their trade, further limiting the opportunities for younger players.
Formation of the players is not purely a didactic discipline, as two examples in Slovakia confirmed. Both the Swiss and the Dutch employed innovative approaches to their match preparation, as the respective head coaches explained.
"We had the players hold the team meetings before games," revealed Switzerland coach Nora Häuptle. It may have saved Häuptle a task, but more importantly it was an extremely useful and informative exercise. "Sometimes they have some really good ideas, or they help you to realise why they are doing certain things in certain ways," she continued. "It is interesting to see what they are seeing of themselves, when they are talking to each other. They are not stupid, they are highly intelligent."
Intelligent and innovative, as Dutch head coach Jessica Torny discovered. She allowed her players to prepare their set-pieces, with remarkable results. "They were the team who had the greater variety in their set plays," noted González. Prior to their final group fixture against France, Torny and her team held group discussions about how to be effective with set pieces. "We looked at how France defend and it was the girls who were analysing and deciding our approach," Torny revealed.