The Sweeper: Is Women’s Football on Fast-Forward?

Platini presents the Euro 2009 trophy to Germany

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UEFA held its Women’s National Team Coaches Conference last November (“the first of its kind”, UEFA says), and the extensive report on it in their “Technician” publication (PDF) makes for very interesting reading.

It’s notable that the report, whose focus is on the technical side of the game, opens up by touting impressive viewing figures for the 2009 UEFA Women’s European Championship: expanded to twelve teams, the report says it “attracted unprecedented TV audiences which highlighted a spectacular growth in the popularity of the women’s game.”

To prove the point, UEFA notes that “almost 40% of the viewing public” in the Netherlands watched their country’s semi-final game, with 1.5 million in the UK and 7 million in Germany tuning in to the final, won by latter for (and this fact probably isn’t so good for the women’s game) the fifth successive time.

The twelve team format was the subject of some debate at the conference; it prompted some teams to play for draws, but the chances of the format changing seem low:

As Giorgio Marchetti [UEFA's Competitions Director] pointed out, finals with 8 or 16 teams might be fairer in sporting terms but the former would be seen as a retrograde step and the second option, although it would provide greater incentives, might create a tournament which would be difficult to host and to finance.

Team shape and structure was discussed; the report emphasised the growing tactical innovation on view:

As Andy Roxburgh commented at the conference, “top teams again proved that shape mattered. A disciplined defensive structure and a framework for attacking fluidity and creativity was important.” As recently as the 2001 finals, the most frequent team shape was a classic 4-4-2. In Finland, however, the trend was towards a 4-2-3-1 with two screening midfielders operating in front of a zonal back four.

The pace of the game and the ability of teams to shift tactics during games was praised as an advance on previous tournaments. Germany’s winning coach Silvia Neid commented that “I would say that the difference in terms of coaching, positional play and tactics in comparison with the 1997 finals, for example, was simply incredible.”

Importantly, it was felt that even the eliminated teams showed quality, and none were embarrassed, this despite the tournament’s expansion. “What most struck me,” Norway’s coach Bjarne Berntsen said, “was that teams were so well organised and played at a higher tempo than in the past. I think we are seeing the results of girls starting to play their football at earlier ages and, in the case of the Nordic countries, the benefits of being able to train and play on artificial surfaces. It means that the level of skill is progressively increasing as the young girls come through.”

The goal average, at 3.00 per game, was down slightly from 2005, but still well up from 2001 and 1997.

The overall positive tone of the report hits an interesting snag with regard to the continued dominance of Germany. There’s no doubt the exceptional quality of the athletes Germany continue to produce sets a standard in European and even world football, and raises the level of the women’s game. At the same time, the gulf between that country and the rest of Europe was once again well-illustrated, including in the final, as they swatted away England’s cinderella dreams with relative ease.

England’s coach Hope Powell was honest and straightforward about the German team’s quality:

“The players on the German bench would be starters in other teams. Their other strengths are a clear playing style, strength, power and direct attacking. In the final, we tried to take the game to them and we managed to force them on to the back foot for certain periods. But they are always dangerous and one of their other strengths is the belief that they can always score goals.”

How can the level of the game be raised continent-wide to match the Germans? The conclusion to the report notes the need for better training of coaches up and down the game, as Silvia Neid put it: “We are at risk of letting enthusiastic young players work with coaches who haven’t really got enough tactical know-how.”

Others commented on the need for infrastructure investment, and for football’s authorities to take the women’s game more seriously. As Hope Powell summed up, “women’s football needs to continue to make efforts to attract investors and governments need to be persuaded to fully embrace the women’s game and not just make token gestures.”

Quick Hits

  • The Premier League has decided to table discussion of a possible play-off for England’s fourth Champions League spot; the Daily Mail and ESPN Soccernet are both reporting “fixture congestion”, along with opposition from the biggest clubs, as the main factors in the decision by club chairmen.
  • Paul Doyle looks at an odd afternoon in west London, as South Korea take on the Ivory Coast in the middle of a weekday afternoon, with a “a decidedly Spinal Tap quality to formalities.”
  • It’s the end of an era at a ground in Scotland, as Hibernian’s East terrace is torn down.

The Sweeper appears daily. For more rambling and links throughout the day every day, follow your editor Tom Dunmore @pitchinvasion on Twitter.

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