By Dan Billingham
England under-17 head coach Steve Cooper promised his side will stick to their principles heading into a make-or-break final group stage match at the European Championship in Ireland against Sweden, despite suffering a hefty 5-2 defeat to a formidable Netherlands side on Monday.
Cooper’s youngsters use a common playing style the FA has been working to establish across all young England sides up to the full national side – of “playing with the ball, building from the back, allowing players to really go for it and winning the ball back as quickly as possible when we lose it” in his words.
He said shortly after the defeat on Monday that “there’s no massive drama, we aren’t going to change our plan just because a result hasn’t gone our way. We’ll recover properly and look forward to another game against Sweden.”
England will be regarded as strong favourites to beat the Swedes, who have lost both of their matches thus far and understand already they are to head home from Ireland after the encounter. The Young Lions need the Netherlands to also beat a robust France side though, with England also needing to make up a five-goal variation in goal difference against the French to make the last eight – something England must do to do keep alive their chance of retaining the U17 World Cup they won in 2017 (as the five best-placed European teams in this tournament qualify for this year’s World Cup).
A modest crowd of 2,400 came to Tolka Park in North Dublin on Monday, among them, Irish national team assistant manager Robbie Keane, and they were treated to a high-scoring battle that saw England Under-17s take the lead twice in the first half before being quickly pegged back on both occasions.
West Brom’s Morgan Rogers, who was England’s trickiest attacker throughout the game, won a corner after a fluent England move in the sixth minute. The young English side demonstrated that the full national team’s effectiveness from set pieces has also filtered down as Arsenal youngster Miguel Azeez whipped the corner in and captain Taylor Harwood-Bellis headed in.
England’s ethos of seeking to pass and press at every opportunity was always likely to be difficult against a Dutch side brimming with quality and with an additional tactical ace up their sleeves in Brian Brobbey; The young Ajax striker was a constant menace for the England defence with his incredible hold-up play that made the Dutch happy to play long balls at times and let Brobbey take it down to start some neat interplay among the rest of their attacking talents.
England had enjoyed their lead for a mere three minutes when Brobbey charged through the defence and fired the young Oranje level. The two sides keenly contested possession for much of the first half and England edged ahead again when Sam Greenwood converted his second penalty of the tournament in the 34th minute.
There was even less time to enjoy the lead the next time around as Bannis slotted the ball in after Maatsen hit the post in another clever Dutch attack a minute later. In a crucial end to the first half, Gelhardt fired over for England after some more wonderful flank play from Rogers before Sontje Hansen, another Ajax talent who was a real creative livewire, drove the ball in from the edge of the box in stoppage time to leave the Dutch 3-2 ahead at the break.
An unfortunate penalty from an England perspective, as the ball struck Jensen Weir’s arm from a cross, allowed Brobbey to knock in his second goal of the game in the 58th minute and put the Netherlands in command. There looked to be no way back for England two minutes after that as Naci Ünüvar – yet another Ajax starlet – scored the best goal of the encounter, turning in from the left flank to race across and fire into the bottom right of the net.
England, to their credit, continued to try to combine and play the ball forward, but with their confidence bowed found it tough against a side with as many swift forwards as the Dutch. The English were dispossessed several times in the final stages as the Netherlands had several chances to add to their goals tally, with Brobbey missing a couple of decent opportunities to complete a hat-trick.
Cooper remained optimistic after the match, saying: “I really liked our performance for large spells, I thought we played some good football and some players looked really good. We struggled with our game management though, twice conceding straight after scoring and not doing some of the basics right defensively.”
The win secured the Netherlands’ spot in the last eight, and it would take an impressive effort to prevent them taking their second successive U17 European title later this month on the basis of this showing.