There was a moment late in the game between Germany and the Czech Republic at the Under-21s European Championship on Tuesday night when, with the score at 1-1, the Germans found themselves under pressure. A winner for the Czechs would have knocked Horst Hrubesch’s German side out the competition and the host nation were throwing everything at it.
On the counter-attack, the Czechs’ Ondrej Petrak broke through the middle and with the German defence back-pedaling had a few options at his disposal. He never got to choose one. Germany’s Joshua Kimmich took his opponent high on the leg and stopped the attack in an instant, accepting the yellow card without protest. His team-mate, Liverpool’s Emre Can offered a thumbs-up.
That is what they call game-management: the maturity to know when emergency action must be taken, the ability to ride out difficult periods in matches. A few minutes later, Can committed a tactical foul of his own. It showed a shrewdness badly lacking in Gareth Southgate’s Under-21s on Wednesday night when they momentarily crumbled against Italy, conceded two goals, and lost the game.
Boarding the flight back from the Czech Republic, the Football Association was left to reflect on another tournament in which English players have come up short. It has not simply been game-management. England have scored only two goals in their three games. They passed the ball well at times, but apart from the first 20 minutes against Italy and the second half against Sweden there was precious little to celebrate.
Coming 12 months after the senior team’s disastrous World Cup finals in Brazil, there are very few glad tidings the FA can offer up other than the progress of the women’s team in the World Cup in Canada, and it does not help that the daunting target set by their chairman Greg Dyke is hanging over them.
That was the pledge to win the World Cup finals in 2022, one made to look all the more unlikely given that the current crop of Under-21s who struggled so badly this week will be reaching full maturity by then. Yet for the FA technical director, Dan Ashworth, there can be no stepping back from that promise from Dyke.
“I honestly believe the day after getting knocked out of the Under-21s, people will read this with a smile on their face, and think I’m deluded,” Ashworth said at the squad’s hotel in Olomouc. “But I believe we have players in the system who were not here, players playing in the Premier League. The seniors going unbeaten for a season for God knows how many years . I believe the signs are there.”
You have to look hard for those signs, although undoubtedly the re-crafting of Roy Hodgson’s squad looks better post-Brazil. That said, there was precious little evidence among the Under-21s that they can handle the unique demands of tournament football in the way that their counterparts in Germany, Portugal and even Denmark have managed to far.
The argument in favour of England’s Under-21 teams is that they have qualified for five tournaments in a row, the only nation to have done so, while in this edition alone the likes of Spain, France and the Netherlands all missed out. But then these are countries who can point to recent success at winning or going far in international tournaments at senior and Under-21s level. England have not been European Under-21 champions since 1984.
“People can get their excuses in early and twist it however you want but we are effectively a year into a journey,” Ashworth said. “We are implementing it [his plan] at Under-15s, 18s and 20s. Are you going to see the results of that now? Anyone who has been involved in youth development is clearly going to say ‘No, of course not’. Come back to me in a few years’ time – you could say, ‘Oh, he is getting his excuses in for the next five, 10, 20 years’, but we have got to make improvements in our national game at senior level.”
The “England DNA” plan which Ashworth launched six months ago, having effectively been given control of the FA’s national teams by Dyke, is a broad set of principles that advocate best practice. It all makes good sense on the page but as ever with the FA, its relationships to the elite players is like that of helpful grandparents. They see the kids occasionally but it is the big clubs who are mum and dad.
An international who progresses through the FA’s junior national teams will get, Ashworth says, “88 touch points” with the FA – international breaks when he is coached and moulded by FA staff. Central to the “England DNA” approach is that English players must be comfortable on the ball. One criticism of the Under-21s over the last eight days has been that sterile possession has diluted traditional English qualities.
“I ask the national coaches to play in a certain style because I firmly believe to win a senior competition players have to be able to deal with the ball,” Ashworth said. “We have been critical of England teams in the past not being able to dominate possession – we will get caught playing from the back and concede goals but I have to take that on the chin. The long-term development is to make sure they can handle the ball in European Championships and World Cups. I will live and die by that.”
He is asking for more time, a lot more time. With a population of 53 million, 10 times that of semi-finalists Denmark, there is no reason why England should not be able to produce successful teams every so often. The FA thinks so too, and its latest approach could do with some vindication soon.
Azzurri advantage: England’s lack of experience
The inexperience of England’s Under-21 side is highlighted when comparing top-flight appearances made by Wednesday’s starting XI with those made by their Italian counterparts.
England U-21 starting XI
J Butland Premier League appearances 3
C Jenkinson 32
B Gibson 0
N Chalobah 4
J Forster-Caskey 0
N Redmond 0
D Ings 35
J Lingard 1
H Kane 34
Total PL appearances: 136
Italy U-21 starting XI
F Bardi Serie A appearances 10
D Zappacosta 29
D Rugani 38
A Romagnoli 30
C Biraghi 18
M Benassi 25
L Crisetig 28
D Cataldi 16
D Berardi 32
A Belotti 38
M Trotta 0
Total SA appearances: 264
*Statistics from 2014-15 seasonReuse content