Bang! Egypt ruin England’s footballing summer as the U20s, like the U21s, go home at the group stage of an international tournament without managing to win a game. It’s a damning, bleak story say the press with England looking no closer to progress at any level. You can’t argue with it. Or can you?
The U20s is a funny age group for England. Like the U18s they rarely meet as a squad and seldom have games. European international football lends itself to U21, U19, U17 and U16 age groups more frequently and so for starters, this is a mish-mash of a squad if you like. With the U21s in Israel for the European finals this summer this was never going to simply be a squad of the best players aged under twenty from England. In fact, if your average football fan was to look at the England U20 squad, he or she would maybe only recognise three names – so who are the U20s?
The squad picked contained a mix of players who’d regularly stood out at both reserve and academy level for their clubs over the last couple of years, as well as a few players who have started to break into Championship teams over the duration of the 2012/13 season. In terms of experience it read:
– 21 players of which 13 had never played even a minute of top flight football.
– 7 players who’d made a combined 63 Premier League appearances between them (mostly from the bench).
– And Eric Dier who’s managed to break into the underachieving Sporting Lisbon first team.
It might sound like a readymade excuse, but this was an inexperienced group of players. Take the other countries in their group and look at experience – Iraq had as many full international caps between them as England did Premier League appearances; Chile and Egypt are both used to playing an U20 squad and as such they had players who were not just used to playing together but had players who’d played in this age group at least 20 times as well as some who’d full international honours.
But we’re England! It doesn’t matter what kind of experience these other countries have, we should be beating them comfortably on principle. To a point, yes this is true. Our country has clubs with great academies that produce good footballers for the national team and three years ago we won the Euro U17 Championships so three years down the line what’s gone wrong? From that successful U17 group, only six were in the U20 squad with others either with the U21s or injured (only a couple have dropped off the radar altogether). Experience whether at a competitive club level or international level really is important particularly when a group of players so lacking in it is competing in an age group where other countries have been able to start to experience that.
You can argue that it’s becoming increasingly difficult for a young player to break into a first team at a Premier League club; and you can argue that because the FA have allowed the league to become so competitive that the problem, a seemingly irreversible one, is one of their own doing. So maybe our players are developing a bit later on – there are plenty examples of that being the case at present even in the full England squad.
What’s maybe most important to take away from this U20 tournament though is that beyond the results there were positives. This group, a technically gifted group in some positions in particular, played good football. Fans moaned that our U21s could hardly keep the ball and create chances over in Israel and yet by contrast the U20s were the opposite – they just failed to take many of their opportunities.
It’s a work in progress after all. The fans and press alike moan if England win playing dull football and yet when one age group starts to show a change in attitude it’s “so bloody bleak” to quote Sam Wallace of The Independent. One wonders to what extent Sam and other journalists who’ve been ever so quick to pile on the doomlordery watch and follow U21 and U18 football in England – or even U19 and U17 football. Football in England has been undergoing a change over the last few years – deep in the bowels of clubs, kids are being taught technical skills and a new style of play. Prodigious talents are being encouraged to express themselves rather than conform. Academy football is as entertaining and good as it’s been in a long time. In fact, it wasn’t that long ago that our press were proud to watch two English sides, Chelsea and Aston Villa, meet in the final of the prestigious NextGen competition.
There certainly is a problem in terms of the number of foreign players in academies and the number of players making the steps up through to the first team but there’s lots of good going on. As a lesson, look at Man United and look at how long it took Rene Meulensteen’s impact to be felt in the first team – 9/10 years. Danny Welbeck was part of the first group to experience Meulensteen’s new methods and the fruits of the hard work were only felt in United’s first team nearly a decade later. There simply is no quick fix. England now have a fabulous base, St George’s Park, and it will take time for the new techniques and styles to filter through into the higher England international teams. Clairefontaine – held up as an example to how England should run their national set-up wasn’t an overnight revelation either.
So what of the U20 tournament itself? England will look back to the Iraq game as the one that really got away but against a good Chile side and Egypt, the performances were strong as neat possession football lead to chances, often falling to either Ross Barkley or Harry Kane but accurate shooting seemed to evade most of the players. Kane in particular was an unfortunate disappointment – he tried hard and played well against Chile but he struggled to make his size make up for his lack of pace. As @ManUnitedYouth pointed out on Twitter – sometimes a squad simply lacks a clinical striker but that doesn’t make it a bad squad. United’s own U21 side were the perfect example of this in the latter half of last season.
Individually there were bright sparks too – Ross Barkley stood out in most games and various defenders put in some very strong performances. The style of play was no doubt a Peter Taylor influence but was importantly something that these players were all used to playing for their various clubs.
Who am I to argue with good writers and knowledgeable people of the game in the media? If the U20s make the sports sections in and around the tennis, the cycling and the formula one then there will be a wholly negative spin put on the last couple of weeks. Results should have been better but performances were good – a strange predicament for English football indeed. Remember, there were some countries that didn’t even qualify for the tournament *looking at Argentina and Brazil in particular* – embrace the changes we did see and look for the positives that are most definitely taking place in our academy system rather than listen to people in the media with influence whose finger isn’t always quite on the pulse. The reaction on Twitter to the results/performances by them compared to those who watch and follow academy football in England closely couldn’t be more different. I know whose opinion I side with anyway.