"Do you feel you beat Spain at their own game?" A journalist asked England U-17 coach Steve Cooper after his team played Spain off the park in a 5-2 comeback win in the final of the FIFA U-17 World Cup 2017 in Kolkata on Saturday.
Cooper replied saying: "We beat Spain playing our own game. We thought this is how we want to play. So if it's similar to the Spanish game, it's great as they have been successful. But this is us doing our thing our way."
England have, throughout this World Cup, played a possession-based game and used the flanks to devastating effect, and on Saturday against Spain — who are known for their very own brand of attractive football, the case was no different. However, what stood out was the team's willingness to stick to their philosophy and game plan at a time when it was rendered ineffective by the disciplined and clinical Spanish side.
Oozing confidence after beating Brazil in the semi-final, England came out of the blocks quickly. They forced a save out of Spanish goalkeeper Alvaro Fernandez in the very first minute with a move that characterised the kind of football they've played throughout the campaign.
Phil Foden, England's creator-in-chief received the ball. He wasn't closed down quickly allowing him to find Morgan Gibbs-White in space at the edge of the box with a pass that split the midfield three of Spain. Gibbs-White then turned smartly to take one of the Spanish defender out of the game and expose the rest of the Spanish defence.
He was quick to feed England's top scorer in the competition Rhian Brewster who made a diagonal run in between two defenders. However, he Spanish centre-back read it and followed the Liverpool striker, thus, affording him no room to take a first-time shot on goal. But Brewster didn't panic. He held the ball till Gibbs-White made his run to the centre of the box and found him with a simple square pass. The Wolves midfielder fired it on goal, but Fernandez made the save. Spain were let off the hook, but the alarm bells were ringing.
The move in the first minute showed just how much at home the English players felt playing that system. It also showed the calm heads on these young men's shoulders. In a World Cup final, these players didn't even require a minute to click into gear. They had no nerves. Such was conviction in their play, that it felt routine for them.
Minutes later, England brought their wing-play into effect as Foden who drifted wide sent in a drilled shot acros the face of the Spanish goal. Brewster, who was forever lurking around the area, was inches away from making a telling connection. Spain were wobbling.
But being European champions, they come with their own set of skill. Sensing that England could get away, Spain tweaked their shape and made themselves more compact. They defended with two banks of four, congesting the space through the centre where England play their intricate stuff.
Buoyed by their quick start, England over-committed men forward leaving spaces for the Spanish forwards to exploit. This is where Spain's talismanic captain Abel Ruiz came into play. Once Spain started winning the ball, they darted passes into Ruiz who held up the ball. It signalled to the Spanish midfielders that they should burst forward behind Ruiz who linked up with them to cause England problems.
In the 10th minute, England were opened up by the razor-sharp movement of the Spanish attackers and the early momentum was sucked out of their game. The likes of Foden and Callum Hudson-Odoi who tried to drift inside from their wider position, struggled to affect the game. More often than not they ran into the two walls of Spanish defenders, who then launched a quick counter attack.
In the 21st minute, Spain should have doubled their lead when Mohamed Moukhliss was clear on goal after Spain broke an England attack. There were no English defenders in their own half, but Moukhliss' poor first touch allowed Curtis Anderson to save the day.
However, it wasn't long before England were punished again. Another crisp counter-attack left England light at the back, allowing Sergio Gomez to fire an incredible half-volley into the English net.
The Young Lions had a mountain to climb. They had enough time to change the result, but no wind in their sails. All winds blew against them, and there was fear that it may blow them away. The fear though was perhaps among English fans in the stands or back home, nit in the players' minds.
"We knew we are capable of coming back. So we just stayed calm and played our own football. We did not get off to the best of starts but going into the half time, we knew the team's caliber," Foden told reporters after the game.
England kept on probing and working the Spanish defence. They gambled a bit by pushing their defence further forward, reducing the space between their back line and midfield where the Spanish forwards initiated their attacks. With Tashan Oakley-Boothe and George McEachran providing a cover for the defence, full-backs Steven Sessegnon and Jonathan Panzo started bombing forward to provide England the width that was lacking.
With Foden and Hudson-Odoi tucked in at times, Spain had plenty of English bodies to deal with. The Foden-Sessegnon combination that worked so well against Brazil in the semi-final began causing Spain a few problems. The Euopean champions now had to cover more ground to prevent the English full-backs from firing crosses into the box, and thus lost their edge in the game.
To England's credit, the fear of being caught in the counter-attack never surfaced in their minds. They kept on playing their football. They had tremendous belief in their abilities of breaching the Spanish rearguard and moments before half time they did just that.
Foden typically fed Sessesgnon in wide areas who sent a peach of a cross for Brewster to head home. England had found a window back into the game, they had wind in their sails once again, apart from the hope and beleief that they always had.
Half time came at a wrong time for the Young Lions, but they had done the hard bit. England took off in the second half from exactly where they left the first half. They stretched Spain through their full-backs, especially Sessegnon on the right. That allowed Foden and Co the space in the centre to affect the game.
What England did differently from the first half was close down the Spanish forward who received the first ball of the counter-attack. They got tight to the attacker and didn't allow him to turn or find a pass.
Panzo who played on the left curbed his instincts of going forward, while his Chelsea team-mate Hudson-Odoi occupied the wide position. With England overloading the right hand side with Sessegnon, Hudson-Odoi was left in acres of space on the left. In a one-on-one situation with the Spanish right back Mateu Jaume, the Chelsea winger ran riot.
He got Jaume guessing with his trickery and pace and the Spanish full-back couldn't come to terms with him. Foden and Sessegnon combined once again to pull England level, before Hudson-Odoi ran Jaume ragged to set up Foden to score England's third. The comeback was complete, but not the rout.
"England took a step forward by pressuring us up front that forced us to play possession game and they are very good at transition game. We had open spaces at the back and we did have some chances. But we did not have as much control as we would have liked," Spanish coach Santi Denia said after the game, admitting his team lost to a better team.
Spain were deflated and drained both physically and mentally. They had a chance on a set-piece to level matters, but they missed agonisingly. That was the last bit of Spain on the front foot in the game as the rampant English took over.
Marc Guehi got on the scoresheet after he turned home a cushioned header from Joel Latibeaudiere's cross to make the game safe. Once again the cross came from the boots of Hudson-Odoi, who ran the English show in the second half.
The final goal was the best of the lot, and also involved England's best players on the night. Hudson-Odoi pounced on some sloppy and tired piece of play from Spain to launch a counter-attack. When everyone expected Hudson-Odoi to get on his bike and run for the heart of the Spanish defence, he brought out another array of his skills.
From the half-way line, the Chelsea youngster found Foden with a delightful cross-field diagonal. The Manchester City prodigy did the rest. The control and finish were top class, so were England.
The Young Lions stuck to their guns, kept on probing with a self-belief that was unperturbed by the early Spanish blows. In the end, Spain were worn down by English players' superior skills, clear knowledge of their system and an unrelenting self-belief.
"We were even in control of the game being 2-0 down. We stuck to our plan. The half-time talk was positive and we played good football without that cutting edge. I urged the players to make that killer final pass, add that bit of quality to our play and they did it. To be 2-0 down in a World Cup (final) and in my opinion against the run of play... To come back and win 5-2 tells you everything about the character of English players," Cooper asserted.
Being holders of the U-17 and U-20 World Cup means very little if the success is not replicated at the senior level, but if England can further hone the skills of these talented footballers and keep their self-belief intact, the future will be bright for the Three Lions. It's another generation for England, and they must make this golden opportunity count.
Updated Date: Oct 29, 2017 11:39 AM