As Nacho Diaz’s last-gasp header flew into the net to equalise against England in the U-17 European Championship final, Jonathan Panzo fell to the grass and put his hands on his head. From there, England were beaten.
The ensuing penalty misses from Rhian Brewster and Joel Latibeaudiere felt like a formality from that moment. England, who had been the best team at the tournament, were beaten. Previously, the Young Lions had won five games on the bounce, with 13 goals scored and just two goals conceded.
Then a Manchester City player, Jadon Sancho was crucial to England’s dominance with five goals and five assists in just 456 minutes of tournament play.
Not to be denied their chance for redemption, the team qualified for the U-17 World Cup due to their runners-up finish at the European Championship. Instantly, road blocks began to emerge for the gifted squad.
The immensely talented Ryan Sessegnon, fresh off a special U-19 European Championship campaign, was denied a release for the tournament by Fulham. While England manager Steve Cooper was aware that this would likely happen, it did not ease the pressure to find a solution for the left-back position that is arguably the weakest point of the squad.
Not only that, the incoming news that his finest performer at the Euros, Jadon Sancho, would only be released by Borussia Dortmund for the group stage matches created new tactical dilemmas.
From the moment England arrived in India though, Cooper’s adjustments have worked to bring the best out of his squad. His tinkering has allowed him to now settle on his preferred starting XI before the final; even if it means big names such as Manchester United’s Angel Gomes have been left on the bench.
Creating a solution for the left-back position meant shifting preferred centre-back Jonathan Panzo out to the left and moving Chelsea’s Marc Guehi into the centre of defence. Tottenham’s Timothy Eyoma was drafted into right-back but quickly found himself usurped by the younger brother of Ryan, Fulham’s Stephen Sessegnon. Sessegnon instantly became a key component of the team working down the right flank in tandem with Manchester City’s Phil Foden.
Further forward, England’s attack was shredding teams to pieces in the group stage. They scored 11 goals in three games against Chile, Mexico and Iraq, with Sancho chief amongst the attackers with three goals and two assists. Phil Foden and Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi also looked spectacular, with this attacking midfield trio providing some scintillating viewing to those tuned in for the group games.
Leading the line, Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster struggled early in the tournament with some finishing woes. However, it seemed like only a matter of time before those chances would start to be buried. Not only that though, he was a strong defensive presence in the attack; he is never content seeing the opposition easily pass out of defence.
With the crucial loss of Sancho though, England were forced into an attacking shuffle that threatened to derail their tournament. Angel Gomes was installed into the central attacking role in England’s 4-2-3-1 for the round of sixteen encounter with Japan and instantly struggled to build chemistry with the attacking players around him.
Increasingly becoming isolated due to England’s insistence on spreading the play wide to their two biggest attacking threats in Hudson-Odoi and Foden, Gomes was withdrawn and replaced by Arsenal’s Emile Smith-Rowe. This substitution sparked England’s revival. Having a less ball dominant figure in that central role helped to bring the two brilliant wingers into the game to more devastating effect. While it was left to Manchester City’s Curtis Anderson to be the hero in the ensuing penalty shoot-out, with a goal and save, Cooper had found a system that he would carry through the rest of the tournament.
Wolves’ Morgan Gibbs-White was drafted into the attacking midfield position for the quarter-final against the United States and England immediately began to dominate. They crushed the Americans in the first-half, isolating the full-backs and putting two superb chances into the path of Brewster. In that game, unlike the previous four, the Liverpool striker had decided to wear his finishing boots. He converted a last-minute penalty he won to secure his hat-trick, while a second-half strike from Gibbs-White closed out the dominant 4-1 victory.
By this stage, a European Championship final rematch was already on the cards, with a brutal match-up against a fancied Brazil side standing in the way of a likely encounter against Spain. With a settled, unchanged line-up though, England looked up for the fight from kick-off. Chelsea’s George McEachran set a lovely tempo throughout the entire match that Brazil seemed disinterested in interrupting.
England simply overran what had previously been the tournament’s best midfield. Foden, the cerebral centrepiece of the team, and Hudson-Odoi both punished Brazil for allowing them space to create in the final third. Twice in this game Foden found himself providing the pre-assist drifting inside from the right and laying off to the overlapping full-back.
It made life easy for Brewster, who scored all three of his goals from within the confines of the six-yard box.
With the chance for redemption now locked in, England will face a Spain team that has gone through a similar trajectory at the tournament and are now playing their best football at the right time. Importantly, Spain’s brilliant striker Abel Ruiz is firing. It will largely be the responsibility of Manchester City’s centre-back Joel Latibeaudiere, who has been superb all tournament, to stop him.
England seem ready to avenge their defeat. They are a squad that is not only technically excellent and tactically well drilled, but they are mentally strong as well. England vs Spain v2.0 promises to not disappoint.