Risk-averse teenagers create need for speed

Talking point
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If the youngsters are any guide football is increasingly becoming a game in which the avoidance of risk is paramount, the consequence of which is a growing emphasis on speed, of thought and movement.

That is one of the key conclusions from Uefa's technical report on the European Under-21 championships, which was published this week. The eight-team tournament was held in Sweden in the summer, with Stuart Pearce's England team reaching the final, only to be well beaten by Germany.

Uefa note that every team played a back four with the central defenders rigidly holding their position – there were no budding Franz Beckenbauer's gliding forward from the back. Moreover, they tended to pass square with the full-backs playing the ball forward. Protection was provided by at least one, often two, screening midfielders – with England's Fabrice Muamba, of Bolton, earning a mention in dispatches for his expertise in the role.

The best way to break down such defences is to strike before they are organised through swift counter-attacks. This is especially so after set-pieces, when defenders have often gone forward. Goalkeepers were thus attacking agents. In 15 games there were more than 40 passes of 30 metres or more per match – and in international football this means a quick throw as much as a long punt.

Admittedly only 42 per cent were successful, but 11 of the 21 goals scored in open play were from counter-attacks. In a further indication of the trend only two matches were won by the team which had the bulk of possession. The final, in which England had 62 per cent of the ball, but lost 4-0, was typical.

Of course, Barcelona and Spain, European champions at senior level, based their success on ball retention. But if your team lacks players of the calibre of Xavi and Andreas Iniesta, sit deep, and break quickly.