"We have to think more about ourselves than the opposition. We want to play possession based game, attractive football and work hard. If you change from game to game that means you don't have a plan. But we do have a plan."
If these words from England U-17 coach Steve Cooper stood out among his pre-match comments ahead of the semi-final against Brazil, it were certified by his players who went full throttle in booking a place in Saturday's final.
England's win over an equally gifted Brazilian side wasn't a case of one team outplaying the other with champagne football. But it was about knowing and understanding the need of the game and putting the best foot forward.
The start of the game was tough for England, who found it hard to get their possession-based play going. Brazil cheered on by the 60,000-odd spectators at the Vivekanand Yubab Bharati Krinangan, were chasing everything down as if there was no end. Such was the intense press from the South Americans in the opening exchanges, that the English goalkeeper Curtis Anderson was almost caught out while dealing with a back pass.
The Young Lions were forced to sit back without the ball, something which Steve Cooper's side hadn't done in this tournament before. However, eventhough a bit scratchily at times, England presented a good defensive block to quash the energetic Brazilian forays into their box.
In the tenth minute, when the ball first reached Rhian Brewster in a meaningful attacking position in the Brazil half, he released Phil Foden in space down Brazil's left flank that was vacated by their adventurous full-back joining the forward in attack. Foden who's known for his trickery and close control scooted to the line before cutting back for Brewster, who by then had made it to the six-yard area. But the cut back from Foden was behind his team-mate and Brazil were able to clear the danger. That was the first and the last time Foden misplaced a pass in the final third. Perhaps that cut-back helped him shrug off any rust that he might have carried into the game.
It was then when England showcased first signs of the faith they had in their own abilities and in their style of play. Despite being under pressure from Brazil, the England players weren't afraid to play the ball out from the back. They weren't worried about being caught out for throwing numbers forward. The approach was single-minded -- just follow the philosophy, and go by the stuff taught to them during training drills over the years.
"It's about playing our way. You have seen that in every game we have been quite identifiable. We want to play with purpose, dominate possession, play forward and get the ball back as quick as we can. That's always our plan. Any good team (will) stick to their plan. It's just another example today," Cooper said after the game, highlighting how his team stuck to their guns despite being put under pressure by Brazil.
Despite having better possession and more attempts on goal, the biggest problem that Brazil had throughout the ninety minutes was stopping England transitioning from defence to attack. The English players managed to do so seamlessly all evening. While the technique, skill, desire and efforts of their players had a big part to play in making those successful transitions, it was the 'plan' that Cooper stressed so much on during the pre-match press conference that was key.
“It is about criteria in all areas of the pitch. For example, In defence, we’re going to play out from the back and the back four are going to split, we’ll get out there, there and there. And, if we’re going to have criteria when we play out from the back, then we’ll have criteria in midfield as well and at the top of the pitch.” Cooper had told Guardian in an interview earlier in the year.
The idea is to have basic set patterns of play to achieve a desired result. There are variations of course depending upon the strategy of the opponent and the positioning of their players. But the key element is to retain this style of play, as if executed properly, it's certain to deliver the desired result.
It was this clarity in strategy that helped England be more efficient than their opponents, despite seeing less of the ball and creating lesser opportunities than Brazil. The similarity in England's second and third goals says a lot about how well the players understand the system they play in.
For the second goal, Foden found right back Steven Sessegnon with a delightful pass who made the darting run into the box before cutting it back for Brewster to score. For the third goal, Foden teed up substitute Emil Smith Rowe, who replaced Sessegnon at right back, to set up Brewster for another far post finish.
While the goals weren't exactly similar, the pattern of play was. That, despite a change in personnel.
It wasn't all smooth sailing for England, and not always, could the Young Lions play expansive football throughout the ninety minutes. That was the second aspect of their play that was particularly admirable -- the ability to adjust proactively.
In the second half as Brazil chased the game, England made it slow. They were content in keeping the ball and wait patiently for an opening to appear. Without the ball, the two central midfielders shielded the defence and took up good positions on the pitch to break Brazil's attack and thereafter initiate attacks.
"Today we had to make adjustments. It was not easy. I am very pleased the boys recognised that on the pitch and made the changes, tweaked the positioning. I think that helped us to achieve what we wanted to achieve," Cooper said after the game.
For England it was pretty much a complete performance with all the necessary boxes ticked. Their ability to execute a game plan, adjust to match situations and have the necessary belief in their own selves stood out against a side like Brazil with unique qualities of their own.
"I am really pleased with the boys, the character, the mentality they showed. I am really proud of that." the Englishman said when asked to sum up his side's assured play on Wednesday.
England have displayed abilities and understanding far beyond their age at this World Cup, now they will look to make this a truly memorable one on Saturday, just like how the U-20s did earlier in the year.
Updated Date: Oct 26, 2017 19:59:49 IST