Whatever formula Stuart Pearce and his coaches have devised for the latest collision between English and Spanish footballing culture in Denmark tonight is being kept close to the three lions on their chest. Were Jack Wilshere here, there might be a clue, for the most gifted player of his generation recently advised Manchester Unitedthat from his own experiences with Arsenal against Barcelona, the answer was to "get in their faces".
Alas, Wilshere was persuaded by his club that taking part in the Euro-pean Under-21 Championship could damage his health, diminishing England's chances of only a third successin more than 100 official Uefa and Fifa tournaments. Whether United ever intended to implement his proposal was not clear either, since after a promising start in the Champions' League final, their problem lay in coming within anything like tacklingdistance of a Barcelona player.
Such hints as have been dropped, however, suggest a broadly counterattacking approach with lessons learnt about not giving the ball away cheaply, as well as relying on more traditional virtues such as set-plays and physical power.
"To try to ask an individual to play a Spanish style or an Italian style, or even an Italian player to play an English way, is not workable," Pearce said after a training session in Herning yesterday. "You have to understand the strengths that you have within your squad and that's what we've continually tried to do. That's why we're ranked number one in Europe, because the players are comfortable in the team shape, and they also see a benefit for themselves, both in their performance and pushingon to the senior England side."
Pearce's popular image does not do him justice. The emotionally charged celebration after his successful penaltyin the shoot-out against the Spanish at Euro '96 and the very nickname "Psycho" obscure a thoughtful approach to coaching and preparation. On the other hand, that approach has not convinced him that an international manager can or should change the essential attributes of the group under his wing in the limited time available. The other relevant point at this level is that the physical strength and athletic ability of hardened young British players can often count for more than in the senior game.
So it was significant that after mentioning yesterday how much he admired Spanish football, Pearce felt obliged to point out England's record against them in the various age-groups. "They are an exciting nation at the moment. They have talented players, [but] last time we came up against Spain we beat them 2-0. I think our Under-17s turned them over, our Under-19s drew with them. So our recent record is not bad."
It is reasonable to assume that the same message has been conveyed to the players. West Ham's James Tomkins said: "We have to concentrate on our own qualities and where we can get goals. We're working hard at set-pieces, which are going to be important in this tournament. But technically, we're underestimated. They just see us as big people who can't play football."
A few minutes later, the little Aston Villa winger Marc Albrighton was saying: "I don't think many countries have got the passion and the hard work that England possess. Defensively we can get at them, definitely."
Albrighton is one of several wide players in a fully fit squad hoping for a start this evening. Scott Sinclair, Danny Rose and Tom Cleverley are others, while Daniel Sturridge was impressive in pulling out to the right in the final warm-up match against Norway on Sunday.
The composition of the defence is easier to predict, with the only question mark at right-back. Michael Mancienne, the oldest player in the squad – he qualifies for this tournament by only seven days – has been playing there as well as wearing the captain's armband, but Kyle Walker has now dropped down from the seniors to threaten his place. Mancienne may move into midfield as a holding playeralongside Fabrice Muamba, which would almost certainly mean Jordan Henderson completing the tight midfield trio and Jack Rodwell losing out.
Pearce is adamant that he will be no respecter of reputations or transferfees: "I treat them all the same. I have to pick a team of 11; outside of that there will be disappointed people."
The same, of course, applies to Spain, whose squad can boast half-a- dozen Barcelona players as well as three defenders already lured abroad. David de Gea, the goalkeeper expected to leave Atletico Madrid for Manchester United after the tournament, has recovered from a finger injury. Juan Mata and Javi Martinez played as substitutes in the winning World Cup squad last year, while Bojan Krkic and Thiago Alcantara were on the bench at Wembley for Barcelona.
The defender Mikel San Jose, one of Rafael Benitez's less successful Spanish acquisitions for Liverpool – he was subsequently sold back to Bilbao – joined the style council yesterday, suggesting: "The Premier League is more physical but in the Spanish League we play with more quality. I expect England to play the same way as they do in the Premier League, with strength and speed, and we haveto be thinking fast to cope Both technique and strength are vital."
The team that marry the two most shrewdly tonight are likely to win, though as the most important factor is always not to lose the opening game, neither country would be too upset by taking a single point into the battles to come later this week.
England (probable, 4-3-3): Fielding (Derby); Walker (Tottenham), Jones (Blackburn), Smalling (Manchester United), Bertrand (Chelsea); Henderson (Liverpool), Mancienne (Hamburg), Muamba (Bolton); Sturridge (Chelsea), Welbeck (Manchester United), Sinclair (Swansea).
England Under-21s v Spain is on Sky Sports 1 this evening, kick-off 7.45pmReuse content