A barely populated stadium in Denmark played host to England’s opening group game of the 2011 U21 European Championship Sunday night. A difficult test awaited the players, pitted against tournament favorites Spain who, like England, boasted an impressive array of their domestic leagues young talent.
The Spanish youngsters, much like their senior side, looked well drilled and used the space effectively. Quick interchanges gained fluidity and were a joy to watch as the game wore on.
Both goals in the 1-1 match had a degree of controversy. A handball for the Spanish and an offside for the English meant one point for both sides. It was however far from an even contest.
It’s at this point I note my first grievance with England at youth level. Spain have a very clear tactic and mantra, I can see what they are trying to do in their play. By exploiting the flanks and playing the newly coined Barcelona 4-3-3, they use a holding midfielder to take the ball from the back and distribute. In the early stages Stuart Pearce’s men looked to match their Spanish opposition with quick short passes but Michael Mancienne and Jordan Henderson were consistently overrun.
Before too long the dreaded long ball from the England defence made an appearance. It was the same long ball John Terry can be seen to play for the senior side and it has the same, minimal effect. The ball would often fall into space to be swept up by the composed Spanish centre backs with neither Danny Wellbeck or Daniel Sturridge the physically imposing target man this kind of tactic requires.
In the first half the main attacking outlet for England came through Kyle Walker. His blistering pace caused occasional problems for the Spanish left side but it was the bright spot of a poor first half. He continued in the same vein throughout the second half squaring it inside for Danny Wellbeck to apply the finish.
A draw was not in truth a deserved result with Spain wasting a number of chances. England didn’t even appear set up correctly to deal with Spain’s tactics. Pearce’s selection process is also a cause for debate. Michael Mancienne, a defender operating in midfield with Jack Rodwell warming the bench, was a puzzling decision to say the least.
However my biggest selection issue comes with the inclusion of Danny Rose. In what’s becoming a recurring theme when he takes the pitch, the commentator inevitably mentions his infamous strike against Arsenal. Rose is fast becoming this generation’s Ronnie Radford.
His performance was erratic and best summed up by a wild shot in the first half that looked more like a clearance than an attempt at goal. He would make way for Henri Lansbury with Pearce’s final substitution being Swansea City’s Scott Sinclair — both of whom joined the squad on the back of impressive seasons in England’s second tier.
Yet surprisingly neither is deemed worthy of the starting XI. This is where Pearce begins to garner more criticism. The team selection seems to lack any thought to the opponent or with a composition in mind. A team is not selected merely an eleven all wearing the same shirt. A fairly flat and lifeless 4-4-2 with players just pushed in.
The general consensus in the English media seems to be that the tournament serves little purpose other than giving youngsters games at international level. Ergo why Andy Carroll and Jack Wilshere, both of whom are on the fringes of Fabio Capello’s side, were granted a pardon, citing ‘potential burnout’ as an explanation.
However looking back at 2009 the final between Germany and England makes for interesting analysis. Mesut Özil, Jérôme Boateng, Sami Khedira, Denis Aogo, and Manuel Neuer all played that evening as Germany’s U21’s dismantled England 4-0. That same quartet also lined up a mere 12 months later against England’s senior side in South Africa with a similar score-line being the end result.
Familiarity is what breeds a well gelled side. England should be using this tournament with next summer’s European Championships and the 2014 World Cup in mind. A core group should be ushered together as a unit for Capello’s side being the ultimate goal. Allowing players like Carroll and Wilshere breaks from international football can be a dangerous game.
David Bentley was praised in some quarters for removing himself from the 2009 tournament. His impact for club and country has since been minimal at best. While I’m not cynical enough to befit the same fate to Carroll and Wilshere, I believe that if a chance to gain tournament experience arises youngsters should take it.
After all, one of the stars of Sunday night Juan Manuel Mata — a player Sky drooled over with envy in their pre match build up — is in fact a World Cup winner along with Javi Martinez. Diego Capel, and Bojan Krki? have also made their senior debut yet Spain use this tournament to gel those players with the next generation such as Thiago Alcântara, César Azpilicueta and Iker Munian.
There is a lazy argument that the tournament has no bearing on senior football because it birthed one month wonders such as Royston Drenthe and Maceo Reigters. The latter of whom was turned down by Southend in 2009 . However it can’t be ignored that both Germany and even world champions Spain have used this tournament to forge their international future. Time will tell if England start to realize and adopt the same philosophy.