It was Mario Balotelli and Andrea Pirlo last summer, it was the young men of the Azzurini this summer, and once again the English find themselves heading home from a major international tournament wondering when someone will let them in on the secret of success at this level.
The England Under-21s are out the European championship at the group stage level for the third time in three tournaments, last in their group and once again made to look unworldly at the top table of European football. Gareth Southgate’s team were by no means dreadful but, as with the seniors under Roy Hodgson and countless other coaches, they were incapable of navigating the difficult moments that tournament football throws up.
They conceded twice in the space of one calamitous minute in the second half, goals from Andrea Belotti and the first for Marco Benassi, and after that the found themselves marooned – chasing a game against one of the most tactically astute, sharp-witted football nations on the planet.
Let’s not avoid the painful truth, England have been losing games like these for years – coming up short, failing to produce, blowing their chances at senior and junior level. An England Under-21s’ side have not beaten their Italian counterparts since 1997. The seniors have not beaten Italy in a competitive game since 1977. This is not just a trend. Unfortunately for the English Football Association, it is a way of life.
They were not quite outplayed but they were made to look very ordinary when it mattered. Southgate’s contract extends for the cycle of the next 2017 qualification and tournament campaign and he wants to continue. There will be the inevitable debate about whether the likes of Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling, among five senior internationals eligible, should have played. They are senior regulars already. It goes to show the difference between the two nations’ stock of players that not one of Italy’s squad have a senior cap.
The Italians under manager Luigi Di Biagio are also out, a consequence of Sweden’s late equaliser against Portugal that sees both those teams through. A big difference on this night was that Di Biagio’s players are regulars in Serie A teams. Six of Southgate’s side played all or some of last season in the Championship.
As the hope ebbed and England became that more desperate there was a goal from Nathan Redmond but it was all far too late in the day. England have scored just twice in this tournament in three games. Harry Kane has done his best but he has looked tired and isolated.
The goals for Italy came in the space of two minutes, a classically English case of self-destruction as has happened so many times in tournaments of the recent past at junior and senior level. Until then, Southgate’s team had the better of the game. They pressed, they harried and they created chances. Then they collapsed.
The pivotal moment as far as England’s attacking play was concerned came in the 23rd minute when Kane’s beautifully-judged ball first time through the Italy defence sent Danny Ings in on goal. The new Liverpool striker was on his left foot and tried to shape his shot in the near post of Francesco Bardi but struck it wide of the post.
Even at that time, with the score level it looked like a moment that England might come to regret. Just how much so was clear in the space of four minutes. Twice Italy caught England’s defence and midfield on the back foot and unable to anticipate the angle of the opposition’s attacks. In those fateful moments they as good as gave the game away.
The first goal was a pass floated beyond their back line by Domenico Berardi for Belotti to run onto and connect with a volley that took the ball past Jack Butland. Southgate had returned John Stones to the centre of defence - no-one would argue with that - but the Everton man looked short of match sharpness after his break for concussion.
Within a minute Italy scored again. In the typical English fashion of making a bad situation even worse, they allowed the centre-back Daniele Rugani to carry the ball forward until they had retreated to the penalty area. He offloaded a pass to Benassi, another impressive performer, and the midfielder hit a shot that deflected off Ben Gibson and past Butland.
Southgate had picked an attacking team with Ings starting his first game of the championships behind Kane as a No 10. Jake Forster-Caskey got his first game-time alongside Nathaniel Chalobah in midfield. Kane had one excellent first half shot, having made the space cutting in on his right foot, but otherwise England had failed to open Italy up with any consistency.
There was a run and shot from Redmond before the break that was blocked by Bardi. Before the hour, Kane was short of a back post header from a ball flicked on from Stones. But really England never exerted the pressure required to break this Italy team down.
Southgate brought on Ruben Loftus-Cheek for Forster-Caskey but otherwise there were no changes and the manager barely got out of his seat. Lingard pulled a shot wide. Then the third goal came from a cross from Marcello Trotta. Benassi was completely unmarked and headed the ball out of the reach of Butland. This was the heaviest defeat of Southgate’s reign, and the worst for two years for the Under-21s when they lost by the same score to Norway.
Redmond struck a decent shot for his goal. Italy can count themselves very unfortunate to be out. As for England, it was the same old story and at this rate it will be the same for some time to come.
England (4-2-3-1): Butland; Jenkinson, Stones, Gibson, Garbutt; Chalobah, Forster-Caskey (Loftus-Cheek 63); Redmond, Ings, Lingard; Kane.
Subs: Loftus-Cheek/Forster-Caskey 63
Italy (4-3-3): Bardi; Zappacosta (Viviani 85), Rugani, Romagnoli, Biraghi; Benassi, Crisetig, Cataldi; Berardi (Sabelli 62), Belotti, Trotta (Verdi 74).
Referee S Karasev (Russia).
Man of the match Benassi
Match rating 6/10Reuse content