To give some perspective on the last time England Under-21s were European champions in 1984, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain’s father, Mark, was a member of the team and Mark Hateley was voted player of the tournament.
Since then, Italy have won the Under-21s Euros five times, Spain four, Holland twice and the French and Germans once each. In the same period, those nations have 10 appearances in the final of the World Cup between them.
The competition is clearly a pathway to producing players who can reach the business end of the big senior tournaments. So how can England, eliminated on Wednesday at the group stage of the Under-21s Euros, do better?
Pick eligible players even if they have senior caps
England’s group elimination was the third successive Under-21s Euros tournament they have gone out at that stage. Yet they have qualified five tournaments in a row, a record. Gareth Southgate was unwilling to ditch the players that had got him there. However, the evidence suggests better players are needed to advance at the tournament and that the experience of winning is beneficial, even for those with senior caps.
Southgate admitted that he should have taken Ross Barkley. Oxlade‑Chamberlain should have gone, too. It would have been difficult to take Jack Wilshere and Raheem Sterling, given how well-established they are as senior players. Italy (Marco Verratti), Germany (Mario Gotze and Julian Draxler) and Denmark (Christian Eriksen) also left eligible players behind.
Play to England’s strengths
The cool summer temperatures in the Czech Republic would have suited a more aggressive English approach. The emphasis on passing advocated by Dan Ashworth’s England DNA plan has merit but England were at their best for the short period when they pressed hard and attacked quickly, as in the first 20 minutes against Italy.
Ashworth wants England players to be “comfortable on the ball” but as Southgate pointed out, he is trying to develop this style while, in a tournament situation, his players were being judged “as if they were the seniors”. England had 59 per cent possession and completed 444 passes to Italy’s 277 in their 3-1 defeat. In that instance, the question has to be asked whether English players know how to make all that possession count.
In both their defeats, England showed themselves incapable of managing games when the pressure was on. That too has to change.
Turn down the paranoia around England
One small triumph for the Under-21s was that they proved good tourists in the Czech Republic. Their hotel was open to family and media and the old FA paranoia around the senior team, where players’ areas are roped off and guarded by security, was notably absent. The Under-21s trained on an open pitch behind their hotel. They used a gym in a public sports centre. This was far more preferable to the circus that follows the seniors.
A braver new generation
There are only three in the England development sides but it is interesting that certain young English players are doing their football education abroad. Taylor Moore, 18, in the Under-18s was born in Walthamstow, moved to France with his family as a child and is now at Lens’ academy. Danny Collinge, 17, is at Stuttgart. Mandela Egbo, 17, in the Under-17s European championships-winning side last year, has recently joined Borussia Monchengladbach.
It is not for every player but a diversity of experience and exposure to new football cultures will surely help.
It is not as if English isolationism has produced a team of world champions. Owen Hargreaves, and more recently Eric Dier, have demonstrated that the emigrant families of modern British society can deliver the English FA ready-made footballers developed outside the country.
Let’s be honest, the FA need every bit of help they can get.Reuse content