NORWAY'S HIGH PRESSING: EFFECTIVE ATTACKING FROM SOLID DEFENSIVE FOUNDATIONS
Norway's high pressing was one of the key features of the Nordic nation's play in Switzerland, illustrating how a good team organisation when seeking possession is an important prerequisite for attacking well. UEFA's technical observer Monika Staab analysed their performances in Group A in order to explain how their tactical approach succeeded.
Up front, Norway's three attacking players were preventing their opponents from building up from the 18-yard box and forcing them to play long balls forward. This could be perceived as a risky tactic, since three players were always committed to pressing high, but with good organisation – as Norway had, with the whole team moving as a unit – it can prove to be particularly effective. Just see, for example, how many interceptions they had in their opponents' half.
"The whole team is moving all the time and running long distances," explained Monika Staab. "The Norway game demands a great physical endurance and has high intensity – every team player is supporting each other and nobody is doing any actions alone. They work together as a team and stay focused at any time in the game."
Below, you can see how organised the Norway players were in their game against France. Every player knew their roles and they stick to it with great discipline, responding immediately to commands when to shift, which came from the bench.
In the midfield the six more defensive Norwegian players were willing and able to cover great distances at a high pace and put pressure on their opponents, who were often forced to play the ball back to their goalkeeper, whose only option was to play the ball long. Given Norway's defensive organisation, and strength in the 1v1s, they were consequently soon back in possession and ready to transition quickly from defence to attack.
"Norway's quality of defending is very high," noted Monika Staab. "They have all the right tools and the right behaviour and that's made them so strong because they didn't make many mistakes in defence." Their playing style was perfectly tailor-made for the physically strong, tall players they had in their squad.
This illustration shows where Norway won possession back off Spain in the first half of their opening game, which they won 2-0 against the eventual tournament winners. In that game, they became the first and only nation in the entire tournament – qualifying to final – to score past the Iberians. They did this with an effective high pressing, often winning the ball back in their opponents' half.
"There is a trend of higher pressing and you need strong physical players for this," explained Monika Staab. "Spain are wanting the ball back, but they could not play against Norway the way they did against Switzerland – they couldn't play their game, which is unusual for Spain. From Norways's number one, who was giving instructions from the back, each of the players really knew what their duties are, and they stuck to these for 90 minutes."
Against France, Norway's high pressing also led to Les Bleuettes often ceding possession in their own half or close to the halfway line, with possession changing hands most frequently in this central area of the field.
France lost the ball to Norway most frequently close to the halfway line: 37 times just inside the Norway half, but a combined 13 times inside their own half. Norway's only goal in their 1-0 win was an excellent team move, starting just inside the centre circle.
In the transition from attack to defence, one full-back who is on the side where the opponent had the ball, was involved in the pressing action while the opposite full-back would tuck quickly into a four-player defence. When both full-backs were back, Norway were defending with five defenders and this was very difficult for their attacking opponents to break through.
In addition, Norway knew when to go and how to go, so they were able to do so economically within their system, which could be a blueprint for other nations looking to attack effectively from solid defensive foundations.
SET PIECE SUPREMACY
Fifteen of the 33 goals in Switzerland came directly or indirectly from set pieces, including the direct free-kick which sealed victory in the final for Spain. With the Iberians finding all other routes to goal barred by a well organised Germany defence in the showpiece, it is hardly surprising that a set-piece clinched them the title, and this fact alone underlines once again how important such situations are.
Almost all of the participating nations confirmed to UEFA's technical observers that they dedicated a significant amount of time to set pieces in training, with between 20 and 25% the most common response given. The Netherlands' coach Jessica Torny said: "We had ten days before we came here and we said 'we have good headers of the ball and good takers of set pieces', so we thought we had to dedicate more time to this – and we saw that work in the first game. We put a bit more time into this." It was work which paid off with three of their five goals coming from dead ball situations.
Considering two goals in open play came following throw-ins, the percentage of goals from dead ball situations edges even closer to 50%. Getting into such advanced situations is a prerequisite for earning dangerous set-pieces, though, and it was noted how many of the fouls which led to free-kicks or attacks which resulted in corners had originated from quick transitions and counter-attacks, with opponents out of position or reorganising their defence and, consequently, being more prone to committing fouls. This also suggests why the transitions were so important: to break the balance of otherwise solid, organised defensive units.
AN UNSEASONAL GOAL DROUGHT
There were 26 different scorers of the 33 goals in Switzerland, with Spain winning the title having netted just six in total – one more than beaten finalists Germany, while the hosts and the Netherlands also scored five but failed to proceed from the group stage. Furthermore, no single player scored more than two goals, with seven sharing the top-scorer's prize.
This spread of goals can be interpreted in many ways, but there can be no hiding from the fact there was a dearth of deadly goal-getters and those standout players who can decide a game with a flash of genius. "It's one thing I'm lacking," said Béatrice von Siebenthal. "We are no longer seeing the natural dribblers; those with a talent for taking on their opponents, for whatever reason it may be."
It could be down to the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup (see topic below) which deprived half of the finalists of questionably some of their best players, or perhaps it was the strength of the hosts which ensured eight equally strong nations, all on a level playing field.
Generally, however, the lack of goals can be attributed to an array of robust rearguards. "Defending is better than before – in open play, scoring goals is more complicated," noted Béatrice von Siebenthal. "It is increasingly difficult to break through the defence."
So how did the teams score their goals in Switzerland? Nine were scored by wingers, although the width was not used as effectively as it perhaps could have been. "There were not many full-backs overlapping," added Béatrice von Siebenthal. "I remember in the past Germany had these full-backs running all the way up, but the defending style, for instance with Norway, was preventing the full-backs from going all the way up." As a result, wingers were squeezing inside and the majority of goals came through the centre.
While counter-attacking was "a good moment to score", according to Béatrice von Siebenthal, "you still need that quick player and there were not so many in this tournament." Seven goals came directly from counter-attacks, with Germany the masters in this with three of their five tournament goals coming on the break. A further three goals were the result of building effectively from the back and three more from long passes from deep. Ten goals were supplied by midfielders, eight by centre-forwards, one from a central defender and two from attacking midfielders, with a further three coming from full-backs.
In spite of the second-lowest number of goals in a Women's Under-19s final tournament, and lowest ever in the knockout stage, there were no goalless draws. "All the teams played to win, even if they started in a 'wait-and-see' manner," said Béatrice von Siebenthal, alluding once again to the word 'caution', which characterised much of the action and ensured that, all told, only one goal was scored following a misplaced pass in midfield. "You cannot wait for your opponent to make a mistake and give you the goal – you need to find a way to do it," von Siebenthal added.
BALANCING THE U19S WITH THE U20S WORLD CUP
With the FIFA U-20 Women's World Cup France 2018 due to commence less than a week after the conclusion of the UEFA European Women's Under-19 Championship final, the four nations participating in both tournaments had a dilemma to resolve. Spain, Germany, France and the Netherlands all took different approaches to picking their respective squads, in view of what was the shortest gap ever between the two events.
Players born between 1 January 1999 and 31 December 2002 were eligible to play in Switzerland, but it was particularly noteworthy how many players in the latter half of that three-year period were present - in particular in the final. Indeed, it was almost an Under-18 showpiece between Spain and Germany with only five players from the combined squads, totalling 40 girls, too old to return in 2019.
"For us it was clear from the beginning that the girls would play only one tournament, so we got the 1998s and 1999s quickly into the Under-20s," explained Germany's assistant coach Bettina Wiegmann who, like head coach Maren Meinert, has been coaching both selections since last autumn and will also be on the touchline in France. "We brought the two teams through together and have held combined training camps."
After the Elite Round, in which only five members of Germany's Under-20 squad – including Lena Oberdorf and Sjoeke Nüsken, who could even have been picked in Germany's Under-17 squad in May – were involved, the two respective squads became clearly delineated.
Spain came through qualifying with more members of their final Under-20 squad than their final Under-19 squad, which meant coach Jorge Vilda drafted in some younger players who made their debuts in Switzerland. However, they took a different approach in terms of their coaching staff with Vilda, who was in June appointed as the Spanish Football Association's technical director for women's football, in addition to his role as their senior head coach, standing in for Pedro López, who was coaching the Under-20s. He brought with him his entire backroom staff from the senior team, allowing López to work with the colleagues he had from their successful 2017 Under-19 campaign.
With player development in mind, the Netherlands took a similar approach to Spain, picking their best players without restrictions for the Elite Round and then deciding on who would fit into the respective squads. "We thought the best ones should go to the Under-20s, but we also had to think about not sending too young players there who would just sit on the bench," their coach Jessica Torny explained this strategy, adding that they had nevertheless kept a broad idea of who would be involved in which tournament over the course of the year. "We had to qualify for the Under-19s first and when we did that, we looked at how many players we had and who would play where."
"It's great for them to play at a World Cup, but it is also important for them to develop," Torny continued. "We don't want two players for one position and then one who doesn't play – if that was the case, we'd get the 2000 girl here and the 1999 one would go to the U20s."
France followed the Spain method in substituting their Under-19 coach Gilles Eyquem, who is also in charge of their Under-20s, with regular Under-18 coach Gaëlle Dumas, who admitted that her eight best players were in the senior selection.
As a result, as the table illustrates, this led to the absence in Switzerland of 51 players born between 1999 and 2001 who would have been eligible, but were instead selected for the World Cup.
FOCUSED MATCH PREPARATION AND MATCH ANALYSIS
Match preparation and match analysis are playing increasingly important roles in women's football, including at Under-19 level, and it was interesting to see how each of the nations approached this.
A video analyst is now common among the final participants, with many confirming that they also had such assistance during the group stages. Denmark were the exception as they had the smallest backroom staff at the finals – although that is not to say they did not dedicate significant time to scouting their opponents and ensuring their players knew what to expect.
"The coach and assistant coach are seeing the big picture and our head of women's football is with us, while the assistant coach watches the other games," said their coach Søren Randa-Boldt, who provided more details of how data is collected and then shared with the players. "We do a group analysis – we get individual clips [from an external provider] and the players can come to me and my assistants and we discuss them – the players watch them and come to talk to us about that. They start this from the Under-17s. At that age, they see the next opponents and can get the individual clips."
The onus being placed on a more interactive match preparation was also an interesting observation, with players showing a greater understanding of the game and tactics.
"The work of the coaches was good," recognised Béatrice von Siebenthal. "They were able to prepare better and mark their key opponents out of the game; prevent them from having an impact." This could have been down to a greater involvement of the players in adapting and evolving tactics. "Italy are usually tactically well prepared, as are Germany and Denmark, who both progressed in the tournament after preparing well for their opponents."
Italy may not have got out of the group stage, but that was not for the lack of preparation. Their coach Enrico Sbardella gave UEFA technical observer Béatrice von Siebenthal insight into the level of data they have on their own players, and how this is used. "We send all the GPS data to the girls via WhatsApp and they discuss it and we talk about it together," said Sbardella, who explained how an examination of the intensity and speed of runs was more important than the basic data, such as distance covered, as this is what made a greater difference: knowing when and where to make sprints rather than just clocking up the miles ineffectively.
"We speak with the girls in the afternoon and send them away to talk among themselves, then we meet again three hours later to decide our strategy," continued Sbardella, who also favoured an interactive approach to match analysis and preparation with his players.
"Nowadays everybody is doing match analysis it and this is something other nations need to do if they want to raise their levels," stressed Béatrice von Siebenthal.
Further examples of the depth of analysis being undertaken came from Germany and France, who also took an interactive approach. "We have certain aspects that we notice – good and bad – and we make categories and our video analyst focuses on these," explained Germany's assistant coach Bettina Wiegmann. "We put things into categories and these get summarised. We then present the scenes to the players and discuss it with them. Our video analyst can then cut and give them individual clips."
Getting the input from the players, while making the most of modern technology, is an integral part of France's match analysis and preparation. "We do it individually and collectively," said Gaëlle Dumas. "They can then consult them on their smartphones or laptops. The players analyse their own performances and we talk to them about how they analysed it and what they thought, so that we can discuss our own thoughts with them and collaborate – it is important that they are also thinking of these things."
FROM THE SURVEYS
Each year, the coaches of the participating nations are given a questionnaire to outline their tournament preparation, express any issues or concerns they have about the tournament and to offer their opinions and make suggestions. For this report, we have decided to share an overview of some of the answers since it was precisely this which many coaches have been asking for in previous questionnaires.
There was a variety of different approaches to preparing for the tournament, but it was not always down to choice. "We had approximately eight days together preparing because it was also the post-exams period so we didn't have much time to prepare for the elite round and it was unfortunately not easy to play friendlies in this period either," said Italy coach Enrico Sbardella. Norway's players were together for a shorter period – just five days – but there was a good reason for that, according to their coach Nils Lexerød: "All players are in the middle of league play in the domestic season in Scandinavia and are therefore match fit!"
The Netherlands split their preparation into three separate camps – one of three days, one of five days including two matches, and a final two-day get-together, while eventual champions Spain congregated a full two weeks before the tournament commenced. Finally, France were able to fit in a total of 19 training sessions before the ball got rolling in Switzerland.
The subject of injuries, and in particular anterior cruciate ligament damage, was a recurring theme in the questionnaires. "We've had three cruciate ligament injuries this year," reported Denmark coach Søren Randa-Boldt. "It's very bad because we got a big focus on this injury." Three was not a magic number for Italy or Norway either, with Sbardella confirming he had "three girls who are out injured due to ACL compared to the elite round" and Nils Lexerød stating that he too had three players missing "due to recent injuries."
There does not appear to be one fixed mould for national teams at Under-19 level to follow, although most coaches said they did have a certain DNA or guidelines to work within. "The system depends on the characteristics of the players we have available," said France coach Gaëlle Dumas. "It is paramount at this age to anticipate using several different systems of play." Nils Lexerød said: "All our national teams share the same basic training and playing system, as well as methodology, but the team structure and formation is decided by each individual coach - we tend to teach the young players the ability to play in more than one given formation."
For the champions Spain, coach Jorge Vilda – who is now the Spanish FA's technical director for women's football – each coach has their own system of play. "We don't always use the same playing style," he said. Germany work on the basis of a 4-2-3-1 formation from Under-15s through to the senior level, although their experienced coach Maren Meinert confirmed that "nowadays, we are a little more flexible."
Indeed, rather than teaching a particular system or style, the focus is more on training the players in a holistic manner. "We've got three or four basic principles," said Enrico Sbardella. "These are intensity, quality of passing, of receiving the ball and the attitude which we must have on the field, which must always be attacking rather than defending." Maren Meintert added: "We put a lot of emphasis on the individual fundamentals, like how to conduct yourself in a tackle, how to defend, how to behave in one-on-one attacking situations."
Training and playing with boys
There are different limits for playing with boys from country to country, but there was a consensus that the longer girls can play in mixed teams, the better it is for their development. "In this age group, girls are playing exclusively in all-girls' teams, but we always tell them to train as much as they can in boys' teams," said Maren Meinert.
Similar advice is given in Norway, with Nils Lexerød saying: "Some of our players have in the past trained and even played with boys, but at this age group they tend to have stopped doing so. Some teams invite a number of boys to participate in club [training] sessions." Four members of the Denmark squad still trained with boys, but that was not a possibility in France, where you can only play in mixed teams up to the age of Under-15s.
COACH DEVELOPMENT OPPORTUNITY
The opportunity was once again taken by UEFA, in collaboration with the Swiss FA, to use this final tournament as an opportunity to stage a workshop for coaches. A group of 15 club and national team coaches or instructors of girls, boys, women's and men's teams from Switzerland and Liechtenstein, holding a range of licences from C to A, took part in the workshop led by UEFA technical instructor Anna Signeul.
The agenda included match observation and the development of personality. Attendees observed the Norway vs. France and Switzerland vs. Spain matches, where a focus was placed on analysing the attacking and defending elements of the teams. Discussions were held with Anna Signeul lending her expertise to help the attendees in their own personal coaching development, the final tournament once again proving to be a perfect stage for such a beneficial workshop.