England U21s on brink of ANOTHER early exit despite talent

England Under 21s have been packed with attacking talent in the last decade but poor management, selection issues and questions over attitude have resulted in repeated failures… and now they’re on the brink of ANOTHER early exit at Euro 2021

  • England U21 are on the brink of another group stage exit from the Euros 
  • Aidy Boothroyd’s side have been beaten by both Switzerland and Portugal
  • The Young Lions have failed to produce on the big stage in recent years
  • They have been eliminated at the groups in four of the last five tournaments 

Aidy Boothroyd admitted ‘it’s time to review our record’ after his England U21 side were beaten by Portugal… and that record does not make for pleasant reading. 

Boothroyd’s youngsters are facing another early exit from a European Championship after losing their first two groups games without managing 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 by Switzerland. That was more than they managed against Portugal.

England U21 boss Aidy Boothroyd (left) admitted it was time to review their record after two defeats from two games in their European Championship group

The Three Lions have had just one shot on target in 180 minutes and none from open play

Somehow, England can still qualify if they beat Croatia and Portugal defeat Switzerland but there is little evidence Boothroyd can mount a turnaround in their final fixture.

This is an all-too-familiar story, with the Three Lions having failed to progress from the group stage in four of the last five tournaments. There was a glimmer of hope in 2017 when Boothroyd’s team topped their group to make the semi-finals, where they were beaten by Germany on penalties. 

That hope was eradicated when they emphatically crashed out of the competition in 2019, finishing joint-bottom of their group after defeats against France and Romania. 

England haven’t lacked talent at these tournaments; far from it. Since 2011, squads have included the likes of Harry Kane, Jordan Henderson, John Stones and Jesse Lingard. More recently, Phil Foden, James Maddison and Tammy Abraham have turned out for the side.

In the current squad there is Arsenal duo Eddie Nketiah and Emile Smith-Rowe, Ryan Sessegnon and Curtis Jones.

The last time England made the final was 2009 and they were well beaten by a German side that included Mesut Ozil, Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng, Manuel Neuer and Mats Hummels.

Despite the attacking talent England have had to choose from in recent years, they’ve come away from tournaments with more questions than answers… so where has it all gone wrong?  

The U21s have struggled to deliver on the big stage despite having plenty of talented players

Poor management  

Boothroyd faced questions over England’s disastrous 2019 tournament but the FA stuck by him.

His contract is up in the summer and, barring a remarkable turnaround in the next game, it seems unlikely it will be renewed. 

England’s form prior to this tournament had been good with a perfect record in qualifying up until an embarrassing 3-3 draw with Andorra – a country with a population just shy of 78,000.

That result was perhaps a sign of things to come but the warnings were there two years earlier.

Phil Foden had scored a stunning goal in the defeat by France in the opening match but was then rested for the must-win game with Romania, which England lost 4-2.

Boothroyd was criticised for his decision to rest Phil Foden (left) in a must-win game in 2019

Gareth Southgate’s side also crashed out of the tournament he took charge of 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 not under any pressure to limit his game-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 benched despite impressing in qualifying.

Boothroyd is not the only manager to have struggled at this level. Gareth Southgate’s tournament record as U21 boss was no better. His team also crashed out of the groups in 2015, finishing bottom after defeats by 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 did much to change perceptions.

Stuart Pearce had more success at U21 level, reaching the semi-final in 2007 and the final two years later before he also lost his way with successive group-stage exits in 2011 and 2013.

Stuart Pearce (left) had some success before going out at the groups in 2011 (right) and 2013

Problems with selection 

The club vs country debate is not exclusive to senior football. England have had issues getting young players to represent the U21s at tournaments in the past. 

There was controversy in 2013 when Jack Wilshere was left out of the squad due to concerns over 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 be play in the tournament, he later asked Pearce to leave him out.  

On some occasions, eligible players have been fast-tracked to the first team. For example, Jude Bellingham, 17, is currently with Southgate’s side for the World Cup qualifiers but no doubt would have been starting for the U21s had he not been selected.

Foden, 20, could also have played but his importance to the seniors means he will not make the step down again.

Jadon Sancho and Joe Gomez would likely have been part of the squad in 2019 had it not been for their involvement in England’s Nations League campaign. 

Jack Wilshere asked to be left out of the squad in 2013 due to concerns over 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 other four players had been mainly used as substitutes with some involved in the final game with Costa Rica, after England had already been eliminated.  

Pearce made clear his frustrations at being unable to call up certain players in 2013 and former Tottenham manager David Pleat criticised club managers who had tried to block youngsters from playing.

‘There has been reluctance from some managers to make their young players available. The whole set-up needs looking at,’ he told BBC Sport. 

‘Unless the FA gets tougher with leading clubs and we regard the nation’s results as more important than the clubs, then we are going to 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 senior debuts.

Jude Bellingham could have played for Boothroyd’s side but joined up with the seniors instead

Attitude of players 

The managers of the U21 side have faced fierce criticism but the finger has also been pointed at players. 

Following the defeat by Romania, goalkeeper Dean Henderson said: ‘Looking at the squad and players, I still believe we are the best team in the tournament. Are we better than Romania? Yes we are better than Romania.

‘Whoever goes on to win the tournament, realistically we know we can beat as well.’ 

Southgate raised concerns over the attitude and approach of Boothroyd’s squad.

‘For me, the biggest reminder was that we must always have humility,’ 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 at the tournament in 2019

‘They were a good team, they had a stadium full of support. 

‘I didn’t like the fact that our boys came off that and thought they were still the best team in the tournament. That can’t be the case.’

But there were also questions marks over the attitude of Southgate’s players in 2015, with Harry Redknapp giving a damning verdict after they crashed out. 

‘Half of them play in the Championship, half can’t get a game,’ Redknapp said. 

‘The centre-half, one of them can’t get into Leicester’s team. (Carl) Jenkinson was out on loan because he can’t get in Arsenal’s team. (Young players) don’t work hard enough. 

The attitude and desire of Boothroyd’s men will be put to the test in their final group game

‘They’re first off the training pitch. They should be out there. Even if they’re only doing simple passing or shooting or dribbling. But they don’t do it. They walk off, thinking, “I’ve got a three or four-year contract, I’ve made it”.’

The attitude and desire of Boothroyd’s men will be put to the test when they face Croatia. If they can get a win they will give themselves a fighting chance and might just restore some pride and credibility. 

Another defeat and performance like the one against Portugal or Switzerland and there will be yet another inquest when they return home. 

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