At the first FIFA under-16 World Tournament in China 32 years ago, the precursor to the under-17 World Cup, there was an observation in the Chinese Organising Committee technical report which stays true to the day — “The youth players seem keener to attack than the adult players.”
The inaugural championship finished with 91 goals in 32 matches, an average of 2.84 per game. Those numbers have long been surpassed. But the 17th edition of the under-17 World Cup has touched newer heights. 183 goals in 52 matches has set the record for the most number of goals in the tournament’s history. Although the average of 3.52 goals per match is not the highest ever — that honours stays with the 2003 championship in Finland — it is an incredible tally.
Former England defender Sol Campbell, part of FIFA’s Technical Study Group for the under-17 World Cup in India, alluded to this fact while discussing the tournament in an interview to FIFA.com . “The games moved quickly from defence to attack and there was often some high pressing to go with that. There’s a lot of energy on show, teams demand to have the ball and place a lot of importance on possession.”
This was an observation one could make about most teams which reached the latter stages of the competition. Sides which prioritised possession and pace performed better at this World Cup. 4-2-3-1 was a nearly ubiquitous formation, with teams looking to keep the ball and hurt the opposition during transitions. Wide forwards, ball on the ground, quick interchange of positions — the style we have come to appreciate in senior football over the past few years was evident throughout in India.
In the same interview, Sol Campbell agreed that players usually displayed advanced tactical awareness. This is a by-product of the intense focus on youth football in the 21st century. There has been a clear shift at the under-17 level where teams seem closer to the standard that is witnessed in senior football.
Yet, differences exist. Younger players are prone to go into one-on-one situations; consequently, there is a relative uptick in attempts to dribble at this level. As they are still internalising the responsibilities of playing within a side, the teenagers are prone to taking charge of things themselves rather than looking for a passing option. At this age, though, it would be unreasonable to expect them to be finished products.
READ: U-17 in numbers
Another thing which stands out in under-17 football is the relatively lower level of fitness among the players. The situation was exacerbated by playing in hot and humid conditions across India and the high pollution level in the megacities. Many games petered out in the final half-hour as players were running on low energy or sought to conserve themselves for the games ahead.
But in the time that all sides played on full tilt, interesting tactical points emerged. A look at the semifinalists provides an insight into the strategic systems which succeeded better than others.
England’s success was built on a style which the senior national side has only aspired to possess in recent years. Coach Steve Cooper, part of a line of coaches who have bought into the Football Association’s ‘DNA’ project, has led the side towards a pressing, high-intensity approach which starts from the number nine. With an insistence on possession and vertical passing, England seeks to exploit the transitional phases. Gone are the days of reactive, counter-attacking English teams.
But like it always happens, England is getting to this point years after the traditional heavyweights have. Not that it hurt the side at this World Cup. But it is a process with which Spain and Germany, particularly, are familiar. All age-group national teams play a certain way to ensure that players are ready to play senior football in a few years’ time. England’s Phil Foden in attack and the skipper Joel Latibeaudiere at the back were representative of the model player that the FA is trying to nurture.
Germany under-17 coach Christian Wueck, whose side’s style was arguably the closest to England, openly admitted that junior national teams in his country are not under massive pressure to win trophies. The focus, instead, is on player development. However, the lack of silverware has been a distinct motivation for the English in a year where their age-group sides have performed exceptionally well.
Spain, with its three runner-up appearances at the under-17 World Cup before this tournament, was also looking to set the record straight. Although its tactical setup was not very different from England, there was a greater focus on circulating the ball through the central areas. Much of the play went through the midfielders Cesar Gelabert and Mohamed Moukhliss. Spain did not look to spread the ball out as much as England. However, with four players each from FC Barcelona and Real Madrid in the preferred starting XI, the side flourished on account of the team members’ familiarity with each other.
As for Brazil, there was the usual dependence on a few names to showcase their individual gifts. While the likes of Paulino, Brenner and Alan provided the direct running and incisive movement, the side needed Victor Bobsin to screen its defence as full-backs Wesley and Weverson frequently bombed forward. Their exuberance, though, eventually cost Brazil; unlike the current senior national side, it came with an element of reckless adventure.
Mali was the outlier among the four. Although it was setup in a conventional 4-2-3-1 formation, the key feature of the side was its ability to compress space. At times, no more than 30 metres separated the forward Lassana N’Diaye and the defence. Although often wasteful, the Malian boys were able to quickly exchange passes and hit the opposition during transitions. However, their style came unstuck against a more efficient Spanish side.
In a World Cup where a record number of goals were scored, it was not surprising to see the strikers reign supreme. Subtle differences, though, separated the best goal-getters. Among the semifinalists, only Brazil’s Lincoln was not his side’s obvious source for goals.
England’s Rhian Brewster was the undisputed star. His athletic frame allowed him to beat defenders for pace while his finishing was defined by composure. Brewster’s pressing only added to his threat.
Abel Ruiz, of the same height, does not possess as much pace as Brewster but his role in involving his teammates in the final third was key to his contribution. By dropping into empty spaces on the flanks, the Barcelona forward was able to bring the wide forwards or playmakers into the box.
Mali’s N’Diaye, despite his shorter figure, stood out thanks to his left foot and muscular frame. His goal against Spain in the semi-final was a magnificent representation of all that makes him tick. He brushed past a defender before approaching the goal and shooting from close range with a left-footed shot. N’Diaye does not score spectacular goals but he ensures there are no bad misses either.
Jann-Fiete Arp is another striker worth a mention. In a long line of quintessentially German forwards, the Hamburg player is six feet three inches tall. Along with his aerial gifts, he possesses a powerful shot and a strong physical presence.
These differences are vital to emphasise. Most teams played with a lone striker but none of the successful goal scorers were like the others. Each central striker brought something different to the World Cup.
There was the odd team, like Colombia, which employed three defenders at the back but even then, it was rare to see two strikers play together. A back four, though, was the preferred setup for most coaches, with England’s organisation standing out. Cooper’s boys finished the tournament with the most number of goals scored and the least conceded.
As the first all-European final produced a winner from the continent for only the third time, it became clear that youth football has imbibed much of the coaching practices and conditioning that is de rigueur for senior teams. Perhaps, European sides will improve their under-17 World Cup record in future editions.
However, for now, that remains a speculative possibility. But this World Cup has made it evident that, like the under-20 event, under-17 football is closer to the practices at the senior level than ever before. The trend is likely to sustain. As football gets more standardised globally, perhaps the traditional heavyweights will leave a deeper stamp on the under-17 stage.