This summer, European national team football reached new heights with a splendid UEFA EURO 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine.
Fresh standards have been set by this successful final round – and the tactical and technical trends are examined in detail in the tournament's technical report, issued this week.
The report has been compiled by the UEFA Technical Team who followed all of the 31 matches in Poland and Ukraine – "In addition to recording factual and statistical information about the tournament," it says, "this report seeks to offer analysis, reflections and debating points which, it is hoped, will give technicians food for thought. By highlighting tendencies in European national team football and relating them to the trends which have become visible in the UEFA Champions League, the objective is also to provide coaches active in the development levels of the game with information to help them develop the qualities that will be needed by the elite performers of the future."
The report identifies the reasons for the positive football at UEFA EURO 2012. "Although the ability to counterattack remained an important weapon in the teams' armouries in Poland and Ukraine, the most successful teams were the ones who were willing and able to take the initiative."
The tournament, the Technical Team says, also showed the importance of keeping possession. Spain's passing game again held sway. "The art of retaining the ball has taken on paramount importance [...] Spain once again provided clear examples of the value of individual technique, the ability to twist and turn away from pressure, and the capacity to make rapid changes of speed in restricted areas."
UEFA EURO 2012 also saw teams responding to compact defensive blocks by trying to go round them. "It could be argued that the increasing preference for peripheral routes towards goal is in response to the declining effectiveness of the counterattack, aimed at beating the block before it is in place," the report said. "At UEFA EURO 2008, 46% of the open-play goals stemmed from fast breaks, but in the interim percentages have been steadily declining in the UEFA Champions League (to 27% in the 2011/12 season).
"This downward trend was underlined at UEFA EURO 2012, where 25% of the open-play goals were derived from counters. This highlighted the efficiency of defensive blocks and the efficacy of counter-the-counter ploys, such as immediate pressure on the ball carrier, the use of 'tactical fouls' to break up counters, or the constant presence of four, five or six players behind the ball as a precautionary measure when a team is attacking."
The report identifies the changing role of the 'screen' players. "UEFA EURO 2012 illustrated how the screening midfielders are evolving away from the label of 'extra defenders' and are now expected to build from the back, make greater creative contributions and support attacks."
The tendency to field 'wrong-footed' wingers was a notable feature of UEFA EURO 2012, the report explains. "The likes of Arjen Robben, David Silva, Andrés Iniesta, Thomas Müller or even Mesut Özil provided clear examples of the type of player prepared to receive in wide positions and then make infield runs aimed at exploiting spaces created by the lone striker, supplying a reverse pass to an overlapping full-back or finding channels for fast combination movements."
Notably, the report highlights the good attitude of players and coaches towards referees, and the deterrent role played by the deployment of additional assistant referees (AARs) to watch for indents in the penalty area.
"If you believe that the most enjoyable discussions are those which cannot be settled by statistical evidence, the subject of the AARs is one to relish," it states. "One of the salient features of UEFA EURO 2012 was that the tournament was played with intensity and commitment but in an atmosphere where the spirit and the attitudes of the players were generally positive. The same applied to the technical area, where the sort of conflicts between coaches and fourth officials which had made news in 2008 were conspicuous by their absence.
"One of the other unquantifiable elements was the impact of the pre-tournament briefing each team received from members of UEFA's Referees Committee, during which advice and instructions were delivered. Forewarned is forearmed?
"At a EURO, the area in and around the penalty box is generally a risk-free zone in terms of foul play, with brain rather than brawn the dominant force. The pre-tournament instructions about simulation, additional assistant referees and foul play, presented to the squads by members of UEFA's Referees Committee, definitely had an effect – 20% fewer fouls than in EURO 2008 offered tangible proof of a change in some players' behaviour."
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