European Under-21 Championships – Group A Focus: England criticised after crashing out in dismal showing

England’s European Under-21 championship hopes ended in dire fashion as the criticism rained down not only Stuart Pearce’s side, but also the philosophy of the country’s youth set up and prospects for the future.

The manner of defeat against Norway was dismal, as a previously mean defence shipped three goals and despite some decent possession there was minimal imagination in the final third. England’s only goal of the tournament so far took two and a half hours of football to record, and even then it was thanks to a penalty. The sight of Steven Caulker being sent up front as a last ditch attempt to pump high balls forward was as disheartening as it was fruitless.

The absence of players such as Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck, Jack Rodwell and Jack Wilshere has been rightfully bemoaned, and calls into question the wisdom behind this country’s national team philosophy. Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Kyle Walker and Raheem Sterling would all have been eligible to play in Israel, yet once players are deemed worthy of a senior call-up, they scarcely return to the Under-21 squad, not even for tournaments.

This is in contrast to sides such as Spain, who were orchestrated to glory by Juan Mata two summers ago a year after he lifted the World Cup, and also Italy, who dominated England in the first Group A game thanks in no small part to a central performance from Marco Verratti, first capped at senior level almost a year ago. It is difficult for England to look for success in the future when the future is not allowed to win as a group in the present.

Much is often made of a need for a national identity in England’s style of play, as can be witnessed with countries like Spain, that must be implemented throughout the various age groups to establish a manner of play and ease transition up the levels. The Premier League blueprint of pace and power could have been executed in Pearce’s side had the likes of Jones, Rodwell, Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain been present, while Jack Wilshere’s guile and ability to dictate from the centre of the park would have been invaluable.

It is often the case that Premier League clubs are unwilling for their young players to compete in tournaments such as this, which are perceived at home as of little importance – that is until the team performs with such a whimper and the future is subjected to doom mongering. Yet England’s youngsters are hardly at the point of burn-out, with the trio of Jones, Welbeck and Oxlade-Chamberlain completing a little over 3,500 minutes between them last season, or the equivalent of 39 games, just over a full season of league fixtures between all three. The FA must govern from the top and ensure that this situation is put right.

On the immediate horizon however is a tie against hosts Israel, who can still qualify for the knockout stages of the competition if they beat England and Italy put a few goals past Norway in the other fixture. Pearce has said he will give some experience to players that will be involved in the Under-21s’ next qualification campaign, showing his own awareness of the importance of planning for the future. His bosses must start implementing the same measures if the fortunes of our national side are to improve.

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