Following England’s exit from the UEFA Under 21 Championship at only the group stage, Luke Sale believes further development changes must be made to ensure this sort of performance is only a once off.
Three games played, just one goal scored, and five conceded. That was the 2013 UEFA Under 21 tournament for England, the nation’s worst ever performance at this event.
Optimism was widespread before the tournament had begun with sound enough justification; manager Stuart Pearce’s side had not conceded a goal in their last nine matches, a streak dating back to November 2011.
This optimism was reversed following their first game, however. A classy Lorenzo Insigne free kick 11 minutes from time earned Italy a 1-0 win. Although, surely a single goal defeat to the other group ‘heavyweights’, with easier games still to play couldn’t bring too much concern, right? Wrong. The worst was yet to come.
Stuart Pearce so often defends his players publicly but interestingly took the step of labelling his players as ‘awful’ following this first match, surely in hope of generating a positive response from his players. A move that so disappointingly fell on deaf ears.
England was 3-0 down to Norway in their second game, before central defender Craig Dawson scored a consolation goal from the penalty spot. Yes, England’s only goal for the tournament was a penalty kick.
Their final group game was against Israel; with the vocal crowd on their side, and England already eliminated, the hosts found the net with ten minutes remaining to seal a 1-0 win.
The public fallout from this most recent English failure is still unravelling. Most notably with squad members Danny Rose and Jack Butland calling their side’s performance against Norway and Israel as embarrassing in The Daily Mail and the BBC Online respectively, before both continued to say all the players felt they had let their now potentially out-going manager down massively.
But the buck cannot just stop at accepting the players didn’t perform to standard and replacing the manager. In fact, England’s record prior to the tournament is evidence enough that replacing the manager shouldn’t be the assumed solution. A look at the other leading squads at the tournament highlights where England are failing and the answer, is top-‘flight’ football.
Spain, the Champions of the 2011 instalment of the tournament have 15 players who are playing their football at the top level, primarily in the Spanish first division, La Liga.
Of these 15, the likes of David De Gea, Marc Bartra, Sergio Canales, Isco, Ignacio Camacho, Rodrigo, Thiago Alcantara, Marc Muniesa and Cristian Tello all have Champions League appearances already on their career profiles.
It’s really no surprise they are the current Champions, and have advanced through to the semi-finals of this year’s tournament.
A look at another leading squad at the tournament, Germany, who were also eliminated at group stage, highlights the same problem further.
Ten players from their squad play their football at the top level, and their performance at the tournament may have been entirely different if the likes of the still eligible Mario Gotze and Julian Draxler had not been included in the senior German squad.
14 players from the Netherlands squad are playing their football in the top division, three of who appeared for Ajax in last season’s Champions League. For Italy, 11 players are playing at the highest level, with four taking part in the most recent Champions League.
It is this sort of top-level exposure that develops players with obvious potential into recognised names around the world.
This is the sort of exposure the majority of the young English stars are being deprived of due to the elite, cashed-up nature of the top clubs in the English Premier League.
Eight English players included in this year’s squad play their football in the Premier League, just two can be considered to play regularly for leading clubs, Liverpool’s Jordan Henderson and Tottenham’s Steven Caulker. No players had competed in the Champions League.
Josh McEachran, Nathaniel Chalobah (both Chelsea) and Wilfred Zaha (Manchester United) finished the 2012-13 season on loan at clubs competing in the English Championship. Hardly the exposure these players need in order to compete with the above-mentioned nations.
It’d be the easy way out of this failure to point to the simultaneous selection of Arsenal stars Jack Wilshere and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in England’s senior squad as detrimental to their chances in this tournament.
The correct way to avoid a similar failure in two years time in the Czech Republic is to further enforce rules into top-flight football regarding the development of young, native players as a priority over signing already accomplished stars from the continent and abroad.
By no means should there be a complete cease in international signings to the English Premier League. But it is certainly high time the leading clubs in England expose the nation’s best young talent to the highest level possible and help to sustain it’s standing as a world-class footballing country.
Luke Sale second-year Journalism (Sport) student at La Trobe University. You can follow him on Twitter @lukesale1