England under 21 has been full of talent for the past decade, but they are on the verge of making ANOTHER exit
Aidy Boothroyd admitted ‘it’s time to review our record’ after his England U21 squad was beaten by Portugal … and that record is unpleasant to read.
The Boothroyd youths are facing another early exit from a European Championship after losing their first two group matches without taking a single shot on target from open play.
Callum Hudson Odoi’s free kick was the only time they tested the goalkeeper in their 1-0 defeat to Switzerland. That was more than she managed against Portugal.
England U21 boss Aidy Boothroyd (left) admitted it was time to revise their record after two losses from two games in their European Championship group
The Three Lions have only had one shot on target in 180 minutes and none from open play
Somehow, England can still qualify if they beat Croatia and Portugal beat Switzerland, but there is little evidence that Boothroyd can turn their back on their final match.
This is an all-too-familiar story, with the Three Lions getting no further than the group stage in four of the last five tournaments. There was a ray of hope in 2017 when Boothroyd’s team reached the top of their group to make it to the semi-finals, where they were beaten by Germany on penalties.
That hope was dashed when they emphatically dropped out of the competition in 2019 and ended their group ‘joint-bottom’ after defeats against France and Romania.
England is not lacking talent at these tournaments; far from it. Since 2011, it has featured Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson, John Stones and Jesse Lingard among others. More recently, Phil Foden, James Maddison and Tammy Abraham have sided.
The current squad includes Arsenal duo Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith-Rowe, Ryan Sessegnon and Curtis Jones.
The last time England reached the final was 2009 and they were well beaten by a German side including Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng, Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels.
Despite the attacking talent that England has had to choose in recent years, they’ve gotten away from tournaments with more questions than answers … so where did it all go wrong?
The U21s struggle to perform on the big stage, despite having many talented players
Boothroyd was asked about England’s disastrous 2019 tournament, but the FA stuck with him.
His contract expires in the summer and, barring a notable turnaround in the next game, it looks unlikely to be extended.
England’s form prior to this tournament had been good with a perfect record in qualifying to an embarrassing 3-3 draw with Andorra – a country with a population of just under 78,000.
That result may have been a sign of things to come, but the warnings came two years earlier.
Phil Foden had scored an astonishing goal in defeat to France in the opening game, but was then rested for the game to win with Romania, which England lost 4-2.
Boothroyd has been criticized for his decision to rest Phil Foden (left) in a game to win in 2019
Gareth Southgate’s squad also crashed out of the tournament he took over in 2015
The decision was puzzling. Foden had played 1,134 minutes for Manchester City – who had just won the Premier League title – and Boothroyd was under no pressure to limit his playing time.
Dominic Solanke also started the game against France over Tammy Abraham, who had scored 25 goals for Aston Villa that season, and Dominic Calvert-Lewin was also on the bench, despite impressing in qualifying.
Boothroyd isn’t the only manager struggling at this level. Gareth Southgate’s tournament record as U21 boss was no better. His team also crashed out of the pools in 2015, finishing at the bottom after defeats against Italy and Portugal.
Southgate’s reputation was far from at its peak when he replaced Sam Allardyce as manager of the senior team in 2016, but the 2018 World Cup has greatly changed the perception.
Stuart Pearce had more success at the U21 level, reaching the semifinals in 2007 and the final two years later before also getting lost with consecutive group stage exits in 2011 and 2013.
Stuart Pearce (left) had some success before joining the groups in 2011 (right) and 2013
Problems with selection
The club-country debate is not exclusive to senior football. England has had problems in the past in getting young players to represent the U21s in tournaments.
There was controversy in 2013 when Jack Wilshere was dropped from the squad over concerns about the number of games he had played for Arsenal that season.
The Gunners made it clear they wanted the midfielder to rest and while Wilshere initially wanted to play in the tournament, he later asked Pearce to leave him out.
On some occasions, eligible players have been expedited to the first team. For example, Jude Bellingham, 17, is currently siding with Southgate for the World Cup qualifiers, but would no doubt have started for the U21s had he not been selected.
Foden, 20, could have played too, but his importance to the seniors means he won’t be making the move again.
Jadon Sancho and Joe Gomez would likely have been part of the squad in 2019 had they not been involved in England’s Nations League campaign.
Jack Wilshere asked to be left out of the squad in 2013 due to concerns about the number of games he had played for Arsenal that season.
In 2015, Wilshere, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Luke Shaw, Raheem Sterling and Ross Barkley were all eligible for the tournament, but not selected by Southgate. Aside from Sterling, the remaining four players were mainly used as substitutes, with some involved in the last game with Costa Rica after England was already eliminated.
Pearce made clear his frustrations about not being able to call certain players in 2013 and former Tottenham manager David Pleat criticized club managers for trying to stop youngsters from playing.
‘There is a reluctance among some managers to make their young players available. The whole set-up needs to be reviewed, ”he said BBC Sport
“Unless the FA gets tougher with leading clubs and we care more about the country’s results than the clubs, we will continue to have problems.”
As well as Wilshere, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Rodwell, Kyle Walker, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck were all eligible, but had already made their first debut.
Jude Bellingham could have played for Boothroyd’s side but joined the seniors instead
Attitude of players
The managers of the U21 team were strongly criticized, but the finger was also pointed at the players.
After the defeat against Romania, goalkeeper Dean Henderson said: ‘When I look at the squad and the players, I still believe we are the best team in the tournament. Are we better than Romania? Yes, we are better than Romania.
“Whoever is going to win the tournament, realistically we know we can beat.”
Southgate expressed concern about the attitude and approach of Boothroyd’s squad.
“For me, the greatest reminder was to always be humble,” he said after the tournament.
‘We play a country like Romania – I don’t know if we thought we were better – but they had some really good players.
Southgate questioned the attitude of England’s U21 players during the 2019 tournament
‘They were a good team, they had a stadium full of support.
‘I didn’t like our guys getting away from that and thinking they were still the best team in the tournament. That cannot be the case. ‘
But there were also question marks over the stance of the Southgate players in 2015, with Harry Redknapp passing a scathing verdict after they crashed.
“Half of them play in the championship, the other half can’t get a game,” said Redknapp.
“The middle one, one of them can’t get on the Leicester team. (Carl) Jenkinson was loaned out for not being able to join the Arsenal squad. (Young players) don’t work hard enough.
The attitude and desire of the men of Boothroyd will be tested in their final group game
‘They are the first to leave the training field. They should be out there. Even if they just pass, shoot or dribble. But they don’t. They walk away thinking, “I have a three or four year contract, I made it”. ‘
The attitude and desire of Boothroyd’s men will be tested when they face Croatia. If they can win, they’ll give themselves a shot at fighting and maybe restore some pride and credibility.
Another defeat and achievement like the one against Portugal or Switzerland and there will be another judicial investigation when they return home.