The writing has been on the wall for Stuart Pearce for some time now. But having already lost the opening two matches of the European U21 tournament, a third defeat led the England manager to blame his players for the team’s shambolic performances. Having already bemoaned the FA for preventing him from utilizing his best players, you sense it was one final swipe at those he has perceived to have let him down from a dead-man walking.
Pearce will vacate his position at the end of this month when his contract expires, but his post-game interview following England’s third defeat in three group games spoke volumes about the country’s national set-up. That being that nobody within the hierarchy (be it players, managers or the higher-ups) seems to be a strong enough character to take responsibility and move things forward in a positive, progressive manner.
Looking forward, it is tough to find anything worth getting excited from an England point of view. The minor fillip of positivity that emerged following the senior side’s respectable 2-2 in the Maracana has been washed away in the light of the U21 shambles, such was the deplorable nature of their showings.
Three defeats from three, in the easiest of the two groups, is remarkably damning. The team failed to score a goal from open play in any of their games, and in the process showcased a dearth of ingenuity, creativity, temperament and organization. Naturally – a somewhat recurrent theme when it comes to England – questions have been asked and concerns have been raised. How has the development of the countries young players been strangled to such an alarming extent?
There seems to be a contrast between the direction the FA want to move things in and the road the Premier League seems to be taking.
The Premier League, perhaps unlike the FA, has moved with the times. Teams have demonstrated a willingness to adopt continental facets of the game and apply the positive features in their own clubs. The FA by comparison, remain pretty set in their ways. Unfortunately, this deviation is having a detrimental effect on the English national team.
It is well documented that the number of overseas players involved in the English game is constantly on the rise and this has often been cited as the main reason for the national teams apparent decline. This is merely a representation of the global brand that the Premier League has become and the league is undeniably better for it. The 25-man squad quota was introduced with a nod towards teams developing from within and was undeniably a step in the right direction.
But for the Premier League sides, is developing young players for the national team really their responsibility, or even in their interest? In a era were managers are sacked on a whim, it is difficult for coaches to take a long term view towards developing British players. Would you take that chance if a couple of results meant losing your job?
The cream will always rise to the top, and a core of local players is important at any club. But in England, for players who are just a tier below those obviously destined for stardom, opportunities are becoming increasing scarce because external factors are seemingly conspiring against them.
Just take a look at the young players at any of the top academies. Once upon a time they would have been stacked with the best local English talent. But clubs have become prone to picking up the brightest talents from abroad, pushing them through their academies before proclaiming them as home grown. By the Premier League’s ruling, they technically are.
Cesc Fabregas moving from Barcelona to Arsenal at just 16-years-old is the most pertinent and probably the first successful example of this. Subsequently, many of the English footballs most illustrious sides have since followed suit.
It’s the easy option, I suppose. Why concentrate on developing you’re own talent when a loophole allows you pinch somebody else’s for a nominal fee?. From Barcelona’s La Masia academy, in the past few months alone, Chelsea have snapped up Josimar Quintero, Liverpool have signed Sergi Canos and Arsenal have picked up Julio Pleguezuelo. All of whom are just 16-years-old.
We’re beginning to see the knock-on effects of this when it comes to the national team, as young English players just aren’t getting enough game time. The Premier League is awash with managers looking to play a continental brand of football and overseas players are often a better fit for their systems. As a result, the typical pattern of a Premier League is moving away from the fast and frantic; foreign players are finding it easier to settle and managers are a lot happier to exploit the world transfer market.
Mix in those young players pinched from across the continent, the window of opportunity for the young English players is getting smaller and smaller. Especially when the FA’s curriculums seem incapable of producing players who are on a similar technical plane to Germany, Spain and Italy.
And it is these nations that are currently streaks ahead of the English. Shifting our focus back to this summers championships, England’s U21 players had less minutes on the pitch than that of any other country taking part. Just 2.2% of Premier League minutes were made up by these players; Manchester City, Stoke City, Wigan, Swansea City and Chelsea failed to field an English player under 21-years-old all season.
Even key men in the England U21 squad were lacking in playing time. Steven Caulker, Jordan Henderson and Connor Wickham, the spine of the team in many respects, were all bit part players for their club sides. Compare this to Spain, who’s key players De Gea, Koke and Isco are all played crucial roles in their sides fruitful campaigns.
In fact, just over a third of the Premier League’s players are eligible to play for the English national team. This is minuscule figure when compared with 45 per cent in Germany’s Bundesliga and Italy’s Serie A, 58 per cent in France’s Ligue 1 and 59 per cent in Spain’s La Liga. That is a remarkable difference, and a figure which is showing no sign of an upturn.
Some clear direction from the FA and the England hierarchy would help too. The friendly in Brazil is a perfect example. It is understandable that they wanted the likes of Jack Rodwell, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Phil Jones to sample the Maracana atmosphere ahead of next summer. But is a friendly game more valuable to their development than three competitive games in a tournament format? Not a chance.
The more you dwell on it, the more ridiculous it becomes. Rodwell in particular, a player besieged by injuries this campaign, could have played three competitive games – games in which he would have no doubt played a key role – and would have given him some impetus at the fall of a frustrating campaign. Instead, he travelled half way across the world for 420 seconds of football in a friendly game.
How, in any way shape or form could this have been beneficial for his development? It makes you wonder who is sanctioning these decisions within English footballs governing body.
There are far more questions than answers when it comes to the England team. The FA will point to the new St George’s Park complex as a sign of progress. But the world-class facilities do not represent a magic wand that is going to conjure up a brighter future for the country. It is merely a starting point.
It is fantastic having some of the best facilities in the world, but if they are not complimented by able players and progressive coaching, then you might as well go for a kick-a-bout in the local park. The development of young players in England needs to be protected and preserved. It’s about time someone made themselves counted and stood up for the future of the England team.
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter: @MattJFootball