After the huge build up England’s Under 21s are out of Euro 2019. A highly talented squad, packed with World and European Champions at junior level are out after two calamitous defeats in four days. So what went so badly wrong? Who’s to blame? And what impact will this have on the senior squad?
A Week to Forget
It’s been a disappointing summer for England and in particular at junior level. However much more was expected from arguably the most gifted Under 21 squad England have ever assembled. Things started well with some great one touch passing in the opener against France, however defensive frailties looked apparent from early on with France’s Jonathan Bamba getting plenty of joy down the right. England took the lead through a wonderful individual effort from Phil Foden, the Manchester City starlet danced around five French defenders to score a sublime opener. England had the ball in the net again but were denied by a VAR offside.
Then came the defining moment of England’s tournament when Hamza Chourdhury flew into a reckless challenge in his own box conceding a penalty and earning a red card. France missed from the spot but the man advantage for the remaining 25 minutes took its toll and Jonathan Ikone finally found a gap to draw France level in the 89th minute. France sensed a win and in the 95th minute a scramble from a corner saw Aaron Wan-Bissaka turn into his own new and hand the French a 2-1 win.
England then had to beat a talented Romania side. England dominated possession but conceded the better chances however the game was still 0-0 with 15 minutes to go. Then Jonjoe Kenny stuck out a leg to concede a penalty which put Romania ahead. But within minutes England were level through a fine strike from Demarai Gray. However as England pushed they looked vulnerable to the counter and a fine goal from Ianis Hagi (son of the legendary Gheorghe) saw Romania retake the lead. England quickly found parity through an incisive Tammy Abraham finish but England were caught out again and the previously excellent Dean Henderson conceded a soft goal to Florinel Coman who ended the game with an injury time brace as Romania won 4-2.
The Blame Game
The immediate blame will inevitably lie between the players and manager Aidy Boothroyd. Wan-Bissaka, so impressive this season at Crystal Palace was awful against France, leading to suggestions that he was distracted by transfer speculation. That seems a lame excuse for a player representing his country and it would be a surprise if Gareth Southgate called him up anytime soon as many had previously suggested he should. Choudhury was hugely culpable after his moment of red mist cost England so dearly, others such as misfiring striker Dominic Calvert-Lewin and left back Jay DaSilva will be hugely disappointed with their tournaments.
For Boothroyd this was a disaster and the manager was hugely culpable. Whilst he can’t be blamed directly for individual defensive mistakes, England conceded a staggering 6 goals, 3 stonewall penalties and 1 red card in just two games. Those statistics point to poor defensive organisation and a lack of tactical planning, particularly when factoring in the number of presentable chances both Romania and France passed up.
Boothroyd’s substitutions after England were reduced to 10 men were also highly questionable. Boothroyd rather than add defensive numbers brought on attacking midfielder Mason Mount for centre forward Dominic Solanke and then took off productive wingers Gray and Ryan Sessegnon for strikers Calvert-Lewin and Abraham all of which piled pressure on England’s back line.
Then against Romania, Boothroyd made five changes to his starting lineup four of them voluntarily, dropping Wan Bissaka was understandable but dropping Foden and Sessegnon was strange. Dropping Solanke wasn’t without reason after he struggled in front of goal, but surely the in form Abraham was a better bet than the goal-shy Calvert-Lewin.
But perhaps Boothroyd’s biggest gaff was his squad selection. The squad was crammed with wingers and attacking midfielders, but Choudhury was the only holding midfielder selected. Injuries denied Boothroyd the services of Tom Davies and Sean Longstaff but Ronaldo Viera and Oliver Skipp were both available but omitted, once Choudhury saw red this mistake became costly. Meanwhile England’s embarrassment of attacking riches was such that neither Reiss Nelson not Morgan Gibbs-White saw a minute of action whilst England were alive in the tournament.
In many ways Boothroyd’s selections were reminiscent of Roy Hodgson’s attack heavy squads at Brazil 2014 and France 2016, as Chris Waddle angrily remarked back in Brazil ‘its not about picking all your flair players, it’s about getting your side balanced!’
Same Old Problem
The biggest concern of all from the Under 21s displays was a lack of game management, that smacked of inexperience even at junior level. Perhaps that’s not entirely surprising when you consider the lack of top level football these players have under their belts.
The most worrying example of this comes if you look at the Under 20 World Cup winners of 2017, who made up the backbone of this Under 21 squad. Of the 21 players who lifted the trophy in South Korea two years ago, only Lewis Cook (currently injured) and Calvert-Lewin have become regulars for Premier League teams. Of the other key players from that team the likes of Freddie Woodman, Jonjoe Kenny, Ainsley Maitland-Niles and Dominic Solanke are all benchwarmers in the Premier League. Meanwhile Fikayo Tomori, Kieran Dowell and Dean Henderson all spent last season on loan in the Championship. One player from that team that didn’t even make the Under 21 squad was Everton’s Ademola Lookman who last summer was priced out of a move to RB Leipzig where he’d excelled on loan, only to spend the season sat on the Everton bench. All of these players face a vital season in their careers next term, if any of them are going to be full internationals they need to be playing regularly in the Premier League or in another of Europe’s top leagues.
Better news can be found with the younger players in Boothroyd’s squad. Whilst not a regular starter at Manchester City, Phil Foden is becoming increasingly prominent in Pep Guardiola’s squad. Foden’s old teammates from the Under 17 World Cup win Jadon Sancho and Callum Hudson-Odoi are now full internationals and amongst the hottest young properties in Europe. Mason Mount and Ryan Sessegnon were the stars of the European Under 19 win of 2017 and both have proved star turns at Championship level, both seem set to figure in the Premier League next season. Others who could become prominent in the Premier League next season include Morgan Gibbs-White, and possibly Reiss Nelson, who with Mount and Sessegnon likely stay to form the basis of England’s next under 21 side.
Moving Up the Ranks
After every Under 21 cycle the inevitable question becomes which players will graduate immediately to the senior squad. Foden seems certain to pick up his first cap this autumn, his stunning goal against France underlined what a special talent he is and Southgate will be keen to look at a player who can clearly play his way out of a press.
James Maddison too could provide an upgrade to England’s midfield that struggled so badly against Holland in the Nations League semifinal. Maddison’s Leicester teammates Demarai Gray and Harvey Barnes could also get a senior call, Gray was England’s best player at this tournament but both he and Barnes will find competition for places fierce out wide where Southgate has plenty of options.
Abraham is likely to add to his two caps if he’s playing in the Premier League, he’s coming off a big season with Aston Villa and was far and away the sharpest of England’s forwards this week. Meanwhile goalkeepers Dean Henderson and Angus Gunn will both start in the Premier League next season and will battle it out to be England number three, with the longer term objective of challenging Jordan Pickford.
Ultimately a poor showing in the Under 21 finals doesn’t necessarily point the way to similar showings at senior level, notably Gareth Southgate suffered a group stage exit here in 2015 with a side featuring Harry Kane, Jesse Lingard and John Stones: three years later all three started a World Cup semifinal. However this along with the summer failures with the Under 17s and in Toulon show England can’t rest on the laurels of those 2017 triumphs.
Image Credits: Evening Standard, Getty, Manchester City.com