England U21s: Big Exit

Tom Bodell looks back at the aftermath of England’s poor showing at the European Championships in Israel.

The Under-21 European Championships in Israel might have provided some of the most uncomfortable viewing for England fans since the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, but they did at least serve one purpose: alleviating Stuart Pearce of his role as head coach.

It had been a matter of great concern that Pearce had – prior to the tournament kicking off, even – stated his desire to extend his contract as England Under-21’s head coach. Thankfully, somebody made the call at the Football Association not to renew Psycho’s deal, which is at least a first step in the right direction.

Admittedly Pearce’s record with the Under-21s has only soured in the previous two tournaments. In 2007 and 2009, Pearce guided England’s young lions to the semi-finals and final of the tournament – beaten on penalties by the Netherlands in ‘07 and humbled 4-0 by Germany two years later.

However, the previous two tournaments have been nothing short of an aberration for Pearce, England and the FA.

In 2011 Pearce was able to call up the combined talents of Kyle Walker, Micah Richards, Chris Smalling, Phil Jones, Tom Cleverley, Jordan Henderson, Jack Rodwell, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Welbeck; all players who have gone on to win, or had already won, full international caps with England.

With that group of players, plus the likes of Kieran Gibbs, Danny Rose and Scott Sinclair to boot, Pearce and co. delivered a third-place finish in Group B, finishing behind the Czech Republic (2nd) and Spain (1st).

There is no shame in coming behind Spain. Watching their U20’s destroy the United States earlier this week and having seen Thiago Alcantara’s masterclass in the final of the Under-21 Championships, it’s clear that their youth sides are just as far ahead of England as the senior side is.

Nevertheless, the England U21s that travelled to Israel were still a talented group of players, and somehow they were unable to squeeze into the knockout stages.

The same goes for this summer’s disappointment. A group containing Italy, Norway and hosts Israel was beyond Pearce and his charges.

Once again, you can’t discount Italy, they have some excellent young players and showed in the opening group match against England that they too were head-and-shoulders above the Three Lions.

Goalkeeper Jack Butland has been amongst those to point out that the players should take the blame for their abject failure to get out of the group stages again, and whilst that is true, I can’t help but feel Pearce has played a huge part in setting his young charges up to fail.

Take the first group match. Armed with a squad that included just three out-and-out strikers, Pearce elected to utilise one of those players, Marvin Sordell, wide left in his attack.

As a Watford supporter, I can categorically state that having watched Sordel at Vicarage Road for two seasons, Sordell a) will never be an England international and b) is a striker and only that. What possessed Pearce to play a player who plays his club football as a striker out on the wing is anyone’s guess.

That decision descends into further farce when you consider that Thomas Ince – widely regarded as one of the Championship’s finest young talents and a Liverpool target in January – was left to stew on the bench for 90 minutes, despite being a left winger.

In the centre of midfielder Jason Lowe of Blackburn Rovers was given the nod alongside skipper Jordan Henderson. Perhaps I’m biased but Lowe is not even half the player that Nathaniel Chalobah is. Chalobah has excelled on-loan at Watford this season and without a drop of hyperbole I can safely say that the Chelsea youngster is by far the most talented player I have ever had the privilege of watching live at that age.

How the workaholic but technically deficient Lowe can be preferred to the well-rounded and technically exemplary Chalobah is beyond me. In the event, Chalobah came on the second half and looked like the man most likely to change the game for England.

Onto game two and the 3-1 defeat by Norway. Pearce shuffled his pack to introduce the fit-again Wilfried Zaha who is started up front on his own with Sunderland forward Connor Wickham benched.

Ince does at least start on the left this time, preferred to Sordell, but the real question is whether Pearce has ever seen Zaha play or not?

The Palace flyer is a winger, he excels in the wide areas and his goalscoring record for the Eagles – 15 in 106 Championship starts – backs that statement up.

Again, drawing on my own experience of watching Zaha play, I watched in dismay as the Manchester United loanee teased Italian international Marco Cassetti into conceding a penalty in the Play-off Final to help Palace to promotion at Watford’s expense in May.

So why on earth was he selected as a lone striker?

Examining Pearce from a different angle, Pearce’s Manchester City were in dire need of a goal against Middlesbrough on the final day of the 2004/05 season in order to sneak into the UEFA Cup. With two minutes to go, Pearce brings on goalkeeper Nicky Weaver for midfielder Claudio Reyna and moves ‘keeper David James up front.

On the bench, striker Jon Macken sits redundantly. Some masterplan.

Under Pearce, City hardly set the world alight, which rather begs the question of how he got the England Under-21’s job in the first place.

For me, his appointment seems symptomatic of the ‘jobs for the boys’ mentality in the English game. Pearce was an excellent player during his day, a grounded, decent individual and someone whom the nation rallied behind when he walloped home that penalty against Spain in ‘96, but was he ever fit for such an important coaching role?

The role of the England Under-21s is to break potential full internationals into the international game; to develop players in their more formative years and hopefully give them the experience they need to be successful at a senior level.

Winning silverware at youth level is a good experience and makes it look like the national side are moving in the right direction but it is not the be-all-and-end-all. The single most important role of the Under-21s is to produce players capable of playing for the first team and that requires a great coach.

A great coach Pearce is not. It is now time to bring in an experienced head to coach England’s Under-21s; someone who can extrapolate the best of his players and work on those attributes to create better, more rounded, technically adept footballers.

England might qualify for the Under-21 European Championships like clockwork, but they need only turn up against many of the minnows they face in qualifying. They aren’t pushed tactically or technically until they reach the tournament and by that stage they are ill-prepared.

In qualifying for this summer’s tournament in Israel England faced such giants as Iceland and Azerbijan.

With the greatest of respect to those two nations, England do not need to be tactically coherent or technically adroit to beat them, but they do need to be in order to face the likes of Spain, Germany, Italy and Holland and more importantly, if those same players are to progress into the full side.

Intrinsically linked with the future of the Under-21s is the way in which we fast-track any young player who shows the slightest bit of promise into the first team.

A rule needs to be introduced whereby players cannot play for the Under-21s if they have been capped by the senior side. That would have a positive two-fold effect. Firstly, players who had played for the senior side and were adjudged to be ready for the first team would not then be called into the Under-21s and block the route of others.

More importantly, it would hopefully force respective Under-21 and senior head coaches to think about what was best for the individual and promote some joined-up thinking at the same time.

Pearce was rightly annoyed that he was unable to call on several players who were eligible for the Under-21s as they were away with Roy Hodgson’s side sitting on the bench in Brazil.

He was however annoyed for the wrong reason. The likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain et al should have been in Israel getting tournament experience and playing international football of a decent standard in three lots of 90 minutes rather than one lot of 30 minutes at the Maracana.

If capping a player at senior level meant they were ineligible for the Under-21s, the coaching structure might, for once, think about the best interests of the player and not themselves.

We might be a long way off of Spain and co. in terms of footballing ability, but we’re just as far off in terms of the strategy and infrastructure of the national set-up.

Tom Bodell

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