FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017: England tearing Iraq apart even at half strength augurs really well for road ahead

“We need to clearly define ourselves tactically and technically – also socially and psychologically what our players should be like,” Matt Crocker, the English FA’s head of coach and player development was quoted in the recent past. He was speaking about the ambitious ‘England DNA’ project which was unveiled back in 2014, keeping an eye on the 2022 FIFA World Cup and has already started to bear fruit at the junior levels.

England, for all their footballing culture and the annually-growing Premier League viewership, have struggled to make an impression on the international stage for the entirety of the last decade. That ignominy could change soon, as the Young Lions keep building up their credentials in India.

Action between England and Iraq at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 in Kolkata. Twitter/ @FIFAcom

Action between England and Iraq at the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 in Kolkata. Twitter/ @FIFAcom

Having already qualified for the knock-outs with their well-deserved wins in their first two group matches, England only needed a point to top Group F. Steve Cooper, in view of the tight scheduling, rested all his key players, apart from Jadon Sancho, who is likely to be recalled by Borussia Dortmund after this week.

Angel Gomes made his first start of the competition and found himself on the scoresheet pretty much against run of play. Iraq had threatened to draw the first blood, starting strongly and punishing the second string English side’s inexperience in the midfield with high pressing up the field, but Gomes’s tap in from close quarters off Nya Kirby’s dangerous low cross turned the tide in England’s favour.

Iraq’s attempts to unleash an attacking brand of football were completely overrun by Gomes and Kirby as the two youngsters proceeded to dominate the midfield channels for most of the game. Sancho had a rare bad day – playing in India’s humid conditions is far from easy for the Europeans, and this was the youngster’s third straight start in less than a week.

Unlike his performances against Chile and Mexico when Sancho completely unravelled the opposition defence, he was far quieter against Iraq, occasionally losing the ball in the final third and even missing his penalty.

England, however, continued to threaten Ali Ibadi’s goal. The Iraq custodian had a surprisingly poor night below the bar. Emil Smith-Rowe, making his first World Cup start, is a testament to the attacking quality coming through the youth ranks for the Three Lions. A pacy winger who can play on either flank, Smith-Rowe regularly found space behind the Iraqi defenders who had been pulled away from their natural positions by clever, fluid movement of England’s front three.

Smith-Rowe may be behind the likes of Sancho, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Rhian Brewster and even Morgan Gibbs-White in pecking order for the Young Lions, but he grabbed the rare opportunity he got on Saturday – winning a penalty and even scoring England’s second goal with a fine strike.

There were moments when it seemed he may not have Sancho’s charisma, Hudson-Odoi’s composure or Gibbs White’s guile, but the Arsenal academy product’s persistence eventually paid off, and he could very well be an impact substitute in the later stages of the competition, especially with the creative George McEachrahn and Phil Foden feeding him down the channels. Daniel Loader, playing instead of the skilful Foden, announced himself with a second-half brace as well, once again attesting the depth of Cooper’s squad.

There is a casual flair to this England side that they easily tore apart a strong Iraq outfit even at half strength and playing in second gear for most of the game. Iraq, who came into the final game without any pressure, lost big time and it wasn’t just due to the scoreline.

The otherwise pragmatic Qahtan Jathir attempted to display Iraq’s firepower by introducing Mohammed Dawood in the second half, but Iraq’s talismanic striker picked up his second booking of the tournament and will now be suspended for their Round of 16 fixture against Mali.

Iraq must also travel to the opposite coast of India to play against the Group B runners-up, who had an extra day of rest, with a fatigued starting XI, for Jathir did not rotate his side enough. For a coach with extensive experience at this level, it could well be this strategic error which costs Iraq dearly in the knock-outs.

England, on the contrary, will believe they have a home advantage against Japan at the Vivekananda Yuva Bharati Krirangan where they have played all their three group-stage matches. Cooper’s boys have been ruthless whenever they have been on the pitch, but their real test begins now, for not only are the Young Lions chasing a successful FIFA U-17 World Cup campaign, their nation looks at them with hope and eagerness that it will be the birth of an English side which in near future can finally vanquish the demons of the past.

Updated Date: Oct 15, 2017 16:57 PM

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