The numbers aren’t pretty. England’s Under-21s have collected five points from nine matches in their last three European Championship Finals. They’ve won just once. Demoralizingly early exits have become the norm.
Talent-wise the pool is surely enough to do better (Sweden and Denmark are in the last four for goodness sake) so why have we struggled so much to perform in this prestigious competition?
I see at least two clear reasons for the failure…
First and foremost, if you don’t pick your best team you’re asking for trouble. And although Gareth Southgate is a lovely man, with a fine footballing intellect, he didn’t select the cream of the under-21 crop.
Who’s to blame? Ultimately I’d say his employers, the FA, for being too soft.
With various South Americans on duty at the Copa America, and other full internationals obliged to attend major tournaments during the summer months (or even mid winter), I don’t fathom why it isn’t compulsory for all clubs to release their youngsters for the Under-21s too.
As it stands, any Premier League manager can get one of his players withdrawn if they kick up enough of a fuss. That can’t be fair! (On England or the player)
It’s time the FA laid down the law and insisted on those selected taking part, unless the player himself says he doesn’t want to be involved. I don’t know many young footballers that would want to say ‘no’ and risk their future prospects on the international scene. Eric Dier did it once, and he was subsequently snubbed for selection.
Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw aren’t exactly overplayed. Why weren’t they in the Czech Republic? Phil Jones, Jack Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Raheem Sterling could and should all have been involved too.
No one is moaning that Alexis, Coutinho, Willian and co are all busy playing in Chile right now, so why should it be legitimately argued that their younger teammates need a rest? Most arguments on the issue of burn out are flawed and contradictory.
Imagine if the following XI was selected: Butland, Jenkinson, Stones, Jones, Shaw, Loftus-Cheek, Wilshere, Barkley, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Sterling, Kane.
That side would have stood a great chance of lifting the trophy - and it would have allowed England’s genuine stars of the future the chance to get used to playing in the same side at a major tournament.
Two huge ticks.
It was an opportunity wasted. Loyally rewarding fringe players for helping you qualify for the European Championships isn’t the point. Other nations go to the Finals to win, and to help shape the future of their senior teams. Any professional would understand and respect that decision. Southgate was too nice.
My secondary point is this…
England’s best young footballers are sometimes given too much information and too much money. It’s holding them back.
While it’s lovely to be free of financial strain, the hunger dies. Last night I didn’t see players running or fighting for their lives; playing for their futures. It looked to me like most thought they’d made it already. It was just another game, before they got to spend their wedge on a holiday.
When I speak to coaches, I hear the same frustrations all the time.
You can’t tell them anything. Their attitudes are poor. They don’t want to push harder. They think they know it all already.
Too many young players are given too much too soon. Only those with the fiercest ambitions survive.
When it comes to ‘information’, while I’m loath to criticize the amazing education players receive on all aspects of football these days; instruction-overload can on occasion be detrimental.
For example, as a player I didn’t enjoy being bombarded with too many instructions. If told too much about the opposition, or if tactical requirements were constantly fed into me, I started to think too much. This can inhibit or restrict your natural game, and when I watch England, I often get the feeling they’re not being instinctive. They have jobs to do, and they must stick to the plan.
According to commentator Ian Darke last night, Southgate had told him before kick off that Chelsea’s Reuben Loftus-Cheek wasn’t starting because he was ‘still raw and a bit tactically naïve’. That thinking worried me.
Sometimes you just have to trust your men, even if they’re not the safe bet. Worrying about someone failing to carry out a specific instruction is a legitimate concern, but gifted players who can make a difference, are worth gambling on.
England’s cricket team has been told by the new coaching staff to rid themselves of fear, and concentrate on what they CAN do without worrying about the consequences. They won’t win every time, but each player is trusted to express them self, and to show their own ability. It’s been a joy to watch.
England’s football teams could definitely learn from that. To win on the big stage you need to be well prepared of course, but you also need your best players and you need them to be bold.
If you fail giving it a go in that positive manner, then so be it.
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