The final

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The final

The final
Netherlands (2018 UEFA European Under-17 Championship winners) ©Getty Images

The final

“Stay with it and execute”

The dictionary definition of tactics as a “strategy carefully planned to achieve a specific end” might be perfectly applicable to football, were there only one team on the field. On a sunny evening in Rotherham, Kees van Wonderen and Carmine Nunziata both had reasons to feel satisfied with their strategy. Achieving the specific end, however, proved to be more about luck than design.

The sunshine that had blessed the tournament cast a warm glow on the immaculate playing surface at the New York Stadium as the teams lined up for the anthems: the Dutch in all-orange finery; Italy in their equally traditional blue-and-white, with goalkeeper Alessandro Russo provoking the odd wry smile with his choice of orange gloves. But it was worth looking down for a moment at the teamsheets. The Netherlands coach had remained faithful to his policy of sharing opportunities around the squad, drafting Ryan Gravenbach into midfield and starting Elayis Tavsan wide on the right. Nunziata had preferred Jean Freddi Greco to Nicolò Fagioli at the apex of his midfield diamond – a tilted diamond, as usual, with the leading arrow pointing towards the left corner flag. As usual, attacks were preferentially launched towards the left, where Alessio Riccardi used his pace and assured first touch to steer Italy’s offensive weapons towards their target, aided and abetted by Greco and Samuele Ricci, both pushing up to create overloads, sometimes incremented by the onrushing full-back, Giorgio Brogni. As usual, Italy’s right flank was left relatively unmanned, with Emmanuel Gyabuaa acting as traffic controller with only sporadic support from right-back Alberto Barazetta, too preoccupied with the Dutch winger to switch into attacking mode.

During the opening skirmishes, Dutch strategy seemed more likely to achieve the specific end, with controlling midfielder Wouter Burger hitting accurate diagonals for Mohammed Ihatteren to showcase his 1 v 1 skills and conspire fluently with the two Timbers – even though right-back Jurriën and attack-minded central midfielder Quinten both appeared as ‘Maduro’ on the official teamsheet. Early warning shots were fired from that flank with Gravenberch hitting the bar and then forcing a save from Russo after a ball-loss by Riccardi. With Ricci forward to support his captain on the left, the scene was set for a fast counter and a cut-back by Jurriën Timber. Ihatteren’s free-kick was then parried by Russo, only for Gravenberch’s reflex reaction to send the ball over the bar. During the opening 20 minutes, Italian territory was dotted with orange – often obliging all the blue shirts to drop deep to maintain, at least, a semblance of equality.

But Nunziata’s team gradually grew into the game, competing more effectively for the second ball and building on situations of numerical advantage in a saturated midfield. Symptoms of improvement came when a cross from the right surprisingly left Ricci face-to-face with Dutch keeper Joey Koorevaar – the latter reacting with a valiant block – and a deflected lob which obliged him to scurry back and tip the ball over the bar. But, with the cake sliced into tiny segments by 39 fouls (many of them to pre-empt opposition counters), the scores were still level when the Turkish referee blew his whistle for the umpteenth time to signal the end of the first half.

Pressure prevailed as the second half was acted out. To deter goalkeepers from initiating construction by playing short, both teams positioned a high front line of three. As a result, long distribution from the back sowed the seeds for second-ball qualities to prevail. At one end, the Netherlands were superior in aerial power; at the other Italy’s centre-backs held their own and were generally quicker to the second ball. But Nunziata’s side increasingly found room to manoeuvre in midfield – largely thanks to determined ball-winning by Gyabuaa – allowing Riccardi to roam more widely across the attack, even though his relationship with reference striker Edoardo Vergani was not designed as the sort of close partnership normally associated with the classic 1-4-4-2.

Yet it took barely six minutes of the second half for the Dutch to break the deadlock. A brilliant 40-second, 15-pass combination on the right allowed Daishawn Redan to touch the ball to Jurriën Timber, whose shot looped into the net from medium range. At this juncture, the evidence suggested that Italy would struggle to find a way back. Nunziata, evidently agreeing, made a shrewd tactical adjustment, withdrawing screening midfielder Giuseppe Leone; dropping Greco into his position; and injecting Nicolò Fagioli at the cutting edge of the midfield diamond, where he immediately began to find and exploit pockets of space between the holding midfielders and the back four.

Within minutes, the ploy produced dramatic results. Attacking through the middle, Fagioli cut an incisive reverse pass to Ricci, who turned and defeated Koorevaar at his top-right corner. Within seconds, with the Dutch pushing forward to restore their advantage, a fast counter allowed Fagioli to deliver an early pass to Riccardi who, moving in from his habitual territory wide on the left, directed a powerful inswinging right-footed shot into the far corner.

©Getty Images

The Netherlands' 'super sub' Brian Brobbey

The pendulum had swung so steeply that Italy, now composed in possession, seemed poised to play out the remaining 17 minutes with a degree of control and aplomb. However, Kees van Wonderen responded with a double change which proved to be just as astute as his colleague’s. The livewire Crysencio Summerville began to create scenes of chaos with mazy runs on the right, while Brian Brobbey’s physical presence beefed-up the direct-attacking option. With six minutes remaining, the latter diverted a long diagonal from centre-back Liam van Gelderen to Ihatteren, who turned past two defenders high on the left and crossed low between the keeper and a strangely static defence. Brobbey’s run to the far post allowed him to tap in from point-blank range.

For the third consecutive year and for the sixth time in the last seven seasons, the title was to be decided by a penalty shoot-out – and the Netherlands were involved for the third time in as many games. Kees van Wonderen made no secret of his formula: “We practise a lot. We stick to the routine: take your time, make your choice, stay with it and execute.” Koorevaar immediately emerged as the executioner, saving the first two Italy penalties in a shoot-out where all four left-footers scored and two of the three right-footers did not. The exception was the fifth, when Russo got both orange gloves on the right-footer by Jurriën Timber, only for the ball to squirm into the net. Only two more kicks were required and when Ramon Hendriks made it 4-1, the orange shirts swarmed on to the pitch to engulf Koorevaar alongside the goalposts, while Russo threw down his orange gloves in disgust and joined his team-mates in the tear-laden dejection associated with losers who feel they have deserved better.

After the Netherlands had lifted the trophy for the third time in eight years, Kees van Wonderen mused: “My first reaction is unbelievable happiness. We worked from start to finish, we learned all the way and gave the players chances to be in environments against different sort of opponents. To the end they fought for the result, for Dutch football and for themselves.”