Eddie Nketiah appeared in the immediate aftermath of yet another uncomfortable night for the English Under 21s and the sentiment was admirable. The guilt, he insisted, had to be shared.
‘Aidy (Boothroyd) has clearly done a brilliant job for all of us and if we win in qualifying there isn’t that much (criticism) of him,’ said Nketiah. “The players have to look at ourselves before we blame someone else.”
Ultimately, however, responsibility for this exhausting week – two two European Championship defeats, no shots on target from open play – rests with the man in charge. Even if England come through on Wednesday, which is highly unlikely, the deep-seated issues must be resolved before the knockout stages.
Aidy Boothroyd is a beaten man after failing to inspire his star-studded England U21 squad
Goalless and pointless, England is heading for another early elimination, barring a two-goal win over Croatia and help from elsewhere. It is a copy of the gloomy 2019 tournament, for which Boothroyd received a new two-year deal, one of Dan Ashworth’s last acts as technical director.
As with anything, there are many reasons for disappointment. All around the camp, observers are stunned by the negativity of the performances, some asking why Boothroyd insists on two tenacious midfielders inclined to do the same job.
There are questions about the setup of last Thursday’s horror show against Switzerland. England started with a back three, which was a common occurrence in qualifying, but there are vastly different styles in that formation.
The English fullbacks, Max Aarons and Dwight McNeil, were instructed to take throw-ins in place of the wide middle halves. That in itself was a signal as to how England approached opponents they should have defeated. McNeil is the team’s most consistent Premier League player in offensive areas, but started from position.
After two losses, Young Lions again faces an early exit from the European Championship
‘Too safe’ and ‘too careful’ were the buzz-phrases afterwards. The nickname ‘Hoofroyd’, a nod to the tactics used in club management, does not apply, but neither has Boothroyd coached good individuals to play fast and attractive football against similar opponents. The plethora of goals and wins over minnows in qualifying often hid obvious vulnerabilities.
“We need to talk about how to take more risks,” said Nketiah, the captain. ‘We have the quality, but it’s about producing.’
A frustrated Nketiah was seen screaming ‘lift it’ during halftime in Switzerland, but England didn’t take it up. Boothroyd admitted after the loss in Portugal that he did not know how he would pick up the players. Inspiration is lacking.
Eddie Nketiah insists the blame should be shared by the entire squad after lukewarm displays
Boothroyd, 50, looked like a beaten man on the sidelines and in front of the media, noting that England was only ever a favorite in the home press.
That line is at odds with his pre-tournament message. “We are England,” he said last Wednesday. ‘We want to win. The tournament comes at a time when it helps us. The players are in a rhythm. Emile Smith Rowe, a fine creative type, has been thrown for a debut, which makes you wonder why the Under 21s have waited so long to call on him.
Jamal Musiala waited and awaited an introduction and swore his allegiance to Germany after just one Under 21 camp. Both had been regulars in the pathway groups, selected only when making waves for their clubs.
It feels a bit messy. There is mitigation to the two miserable displays, however, and some raise tough questions for Boothroyd’s superiors including Gareth Southgate. Boothroyd has chosen not to publicly wonder why Jude Bellingham and Reece James are not in Slovenia with the Under 21s. Neither played a minute in the seniors’ victory in Albania, with 45 minutes each in the 5-0 practice against San Marino.
The Under 21 boss has opted not to complain about injuries either, with James Justin and Mason Greenwood noting significant absences. However, Bellingham and James feel more relevant to the debate.
People like Jude Bellingham are with the seniors instead of playing tournament football
The Young Lions were deprived of drive, especially in the central areas, yet the FA chose Bellingham to connect with the seniors rather than experience tournament football. Southgate also selected three right backs for these internationals.
There are compelling arguments on both sides – Southgate wants to get a good look at both for the summer – but it feels like the Under 21s are suffering more than ever. The much-vaunted path is increasingly ignoring this age group.
The idea of this acting as a finishing school seems fanciful because the best talents barely get through the door before being picked up from above.
Few ever make the step back and maybe that’s something the FA needs to address if they want success in the biggest youth tournament.