A lot has been said about why England’s Under-21s failed so spectacularly at this month’s European Championships.
A lot has been said about why England’s Under-21s failed so spectacularly at this month’s European Championships. Much of it has been centred on how the country’s players from all age groups are not as good as many others around the world, and that England’s lacklustre performances at senior level are because the players have not been taught the ‘right’ way from a young age thus are left behind from the early stages of their football development.
The Right Way
How can this be when we have a decent record from the age of 21 and below? I wrote an article last year on a similar subject stating how ‘Roberto Martinez is right: It’s between the ages of 18-21 where England need to improve.’ It was about how England are actually one of the most successful sides in the world when it doesn’t come to the senior side.
It’s obvious that our Under-21s do not get enough game time for their clubs. The FA and other bigwigs bang on about how we need to implement the philosophy and style of Spain and Germany then don’t follow it up with action that backs up those musings.
Yes, there’s the St. George’s project that we all know of, so it feels like they are doing something about it, but then the likes of outgoing FA chairman David Bernstein and England manager Roy Hodgson promote the idea that players like Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain (who only played the equivalent of 11 games last season) would be better off playing the odd half hour in two friendly matches rather than being part of a more competitive environment that would inform him of what tournament football is all about, as this month’s Euros would have done.
Who cares if it’s a step down from the European Championship he was involved in last year? The here and now states that he and others like Phil Jones, with their current irregularity of first team games for their clubs, should be with the Under-21s. Four players from England’s Under-21 opponents, Norway, flew from a senior World Cup game against Albania to be back with their squad ready for the contest with England. That is the approach to have.
Getting priorities right
Maybe England’s players would have done the same if they were in Albania rather than on the golden beaches of the Copacabana, but then Chamberlain had dates to fulfil with Nike after the game with Brazil, so he couldn’t ‘possibly’ help Stuart Pearce’s side. It’s always good to get your priorities right.
You can tell that Hodgson sees Chamberlain and Jones as our future (which is true as they are arguably two of our best players in that age bracket), so he insists on putting them with the seniors in order for them to get used to playing with the players that they will inevitably be alongside in a couple of years’ time, providing them with a familiarity of playing with Wayne Rooney and the like.
But we should actually look to Spain rather than simply say we will emulate their approach. Spain’s David De Gea had a far better and consistent season for Manchester United than Pepe Reina had for Liverpool, but with the former being set up as the country’s main shot stopper in years, and for years to come, their footballing hierarchy thought it would be better for De Gea to experience what it’s like to be Spain’s number one man between the posts and the responsibilities that come with it, rather than being a third choice keeper in the squad like Reina is.
De Gea was first choice for the champions of England while Reina was in the same position for the seventh best side in the same division, but Spain’s management thought it would be better for De Gea to learn his trade in first team international football, which meant being with the Under-21 squad. It's obvious why they won the Euros earlier this week: fielding their best qualified players gave them a better chance.
Pity the FA and Hodgson don’t have the same attitude despite the constant harping on concerning how we need to be more like Spain and Germany.
Hyping up players
England are often accused of hyping up players before they’ve really achieved anything at the top level and the inclusion of Manchester City’s injury-ridden Jack Rodwell in the first team squad sums up the whole debacle. It should have been hard-pushed for him to get in the Under-21 squad let alone the senior side, but because he's had a few good games for Everton over the last few years and scored two goals against Norwich City on the final day of the last campaign, Hodgson thought he deserved a place in England’s best 22.
He made 11 appearances last season, and his selection just about sums up Hodgson’s reign so far. One could say it would have been bold of him to choose other players who played consistently well last season like Southampton’s Jack Cork, but it should be the obvious thing to do. The selection of Rodwell wasn’t bold, just plain dumb, like a number of decisions, but have the FA and Hodgson learned from this?
Judging by England’s performances at underage tournaments where they have triumphed over those same countries we laud, we already have the players, so where do we go wrong?