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We at OOTB have introduced a new special feature for the U21 European Championship. Many of the players from these tournaments go onto bigger and better things in the future. With the plethora of young talent on show, we will try to compile lists of the best players from each game, to help you keep a better track of the stars of tomorrow. These reports will be detailed Tactical Player Reports to give you a better sense of how these players perform on a football pitch. For more detailed Scout Reports on the best young footballers, click here.
The Spaniards came into this semi-final as clear favourites as they made their attempt to retain their U21 European Championship crown. Norway were the surprise package of the tournament, undefeated in the Group Stage (only side along with Spain & Italy to do so) including impressive results against the English and the Italians. Spain knew they couldn’t be complacent despite their apparent superiority.
As they have with all their other games, Spain took control right from kick-off and dominated proceedings from thereon. 26 shots (to Norway’s 5) and a 67% possession rate is a testament of their dominance, not just on the night, but the entire tournament itself. Complete control from the start to finish, with Norwegian’s pegged back, it was a surprise that it took until first half stoppage time for Spain to open the scoring. Norway had half-decent chances, but nothing concrete. Spain flirted with another goal throughout, it only arrived in the 87th minute, Isco with one of the most beautiful finishes of the tournament. Tournament’s top scorer (and one of our players to watch- see link below), Alvaro Morata, scored yet another goal in stoppage time to make it 4 goals in 4 games (3 as a substitute).
Often when an analysis is prepared on the best players, those who fail to score a goal or effectively contribute in attack are overlooked, especially at the U21 level. Searching for mature talent at an U21 Championship is a Scout’s haven. Atletico’s 21-year-old midfielder, Koke, is one such silent performer whose contribution is often overlooked. His team-mate, Asier Illaramendi, has taken the plaudits in midfield at the Championships in Israel, but Koke once again proved what an integral part he is to the Spanish U21 set-up.
Primarily employed in a deep role to control the game, Koke naturally ventured forward as Norway were pegged back and unable to advance forward. Koke’s physical strength going forward made him difficult to play against. His late runs into the box often went unmarked as Norway’s hard-working defence was occupied with marking the plethora of attackers in the side. It was on one such run forward that Koke made his attempt on goal, a well executed volley for a cross from the right which was deflected out for a corner.
Koke’s most effective performances are from a deeper role. It is here that he seems most comfortable, constantly dropping deep into space to collect the ball and get the play moving. Spain rarely play long balls from the back, preferring to play shorter passes to the closest team-mate. When the defence is on the ball, the most frequent passes are made to Koke and Illarramendi. Playing from the back is a crucial part of their philosophy, and Koke provides this avenue.
Koke created 3 goal-scoring opportunities against Norway; only the wonderful Isco had more. 2 successful tackles in midfield also show how he can combine his physical strength and defensive mind-set.
Another silent, but effective, performer in the Spanish side is 22-year-old full-back— Martin Montoya. The Barcelona youngster has arguably been the best right-back this tournament. It isn’t just his strength going forward or his effectiveness at the back that make him important. It’s a combination of both and his ability to balance both duties out that make him so crucial; you wouldn’t know he’s still only 22.
Learning his football education at the La Masia is obviously helpful to his career, but it’s the smartness that he plays with on the football field which is quite surprising. He could easily pass off for an experienced full-back.
Montoya is constantly seen on the right-hand side of the defence (at the half way line), looking up and looking for passing options. He commonly looks to play a one-two with a retreating attacker and advancing forward with the return pass. He doesn’t have too many tricks in store but rather a more conservative run forward, much like a traditional full-back. He doesn’t attempt any extraordinary moves in attacking areas, choosing rather to play a cross into the box. Although none resulted in anything meaningful, Montoya attempted 3 crosses from the wide areas, more than any player from that part of the pitch.
When he does receive the ball near the half-way line and is unable to conjure up a quick one-two, he cuts inside to free himself from the markers up ahead and moves to a more central midfield position. This however isn’t very effective in an attacking sense, but it helps in distribution of the ball and is in tandem with Spain’s need for constant movement of both the ball & the player.
Defensively, Montoya is solid as well. His smartness is evident here again; his positioning against the attackers, tracking back and marking those advancing forward make him a solid part of the side. His maturity is shown here again as Montoya never commits himself into tackles he can’t win. He doesn’t lunge in or attempt unnecessary sliding tackles choosing rather to stay on his feet and nick the ball of the opposing player. In the game against Norway, Montoya had an incredible 7 successful tackles, that’s the highest on the pitch, more than the entire Norwegian side and more than the rest of the Spanish side as well.
Although Norway didn’t have the strongest side compared to Spain, they were lacking some of their important players. The likes of Havard Nordveit, Harmeet Singh & Valon Berisha were away on senior duty with the Norway national team and were unable to make a telling contribution to the U21 side. They were sorely missed against the Spaniards, and although the game may have not gone that differently, these players could have made a stronger case for the Scandinavian country.
Irrespective of the lack of first-team players, Norway were always going to be on the back foot. This was about a hard-working defence and a quick counter attack for the Norwegians. The defence needed to be solid to play against the bursts of class in the defending champions. Up stepped Stefan Strandberg, Norway’s U21 captain, who despite the scoreline put in an inspirational shift; not just this game but throughout the tournament.
Strandberg showed immense maturity to come up in this semi-final, he was solid at the back and was crucial in winning the aerial battles. He was constantly vocal in organising his defence. Usually against a dominating side like Spain, the opposition start off with an organised defensive formation, but one ill-informed lunge forward to press the opposing player wrecks havoc in the organised set-up. Strandberg was crucial in this sense, he ensured the shape of the defense was maintained, and didn’t make unnecessary dashes forward. He maintained the organisation, inviting the Spanish forward before closing down the space.