Most England fans will remember or at least have heard about the events of July 30th 1966 when Bobby Moore famously led England to its first and so far only World Cup triumph. However few England fans will be able to recall what happened almost thirty years later on July 25th 1993. That was the last time that an England side at either under 18, under 19, under 21 or senior level won an international tournament. That day, with a squad that contained the likes of Sol Campbell, Paul Scholes, Gary Neville and Robbie Fowler, England beat Turkey by a single goal (a penalty by Darren Caskey) to lift the UEFA European Under 18 Championship trophy. Twenty two years later, England are still looking for their next trophy after being dumped out of this years Under 21’s European Championships at the group stage. Gareth Southgate’s side finished bottom of their group after two defeats and a win in yet another disappointing tournament for English fans.
England entered the tournament as a strong contender with a talented squad at their disposal. With Tottenham’s 30 goal a season striker Harry Kane leading the line, Southampton’s James Ward Prowse in midfielder and Everton’s John Stones solidifying the defence in front of the ever reliable Jack Butland in-goal, England should have at least progressed beyond the group to the knockout stage. But defeat in their opening game to Portugal left Southgate’s side with a mountain to climb. They appeared to be back on track with a nervy 1-0 win over Sweden, with substitute Jesse Lingard striking with five minutes to go but going into the final game against Italy, England looked disheveled and unorganized. What followed was a mauling at the hands of a less than convincing Italy side despite England having the majority of possession and a greater volume of shots. A brace from Torino’s Marco Benassi and one from Andrea Belotti had already sealed the win before Nathan Redmond grabbed a late consolation goal. The result in the end was good for no one with neither side progressing to the knockout stages after Portugal and Sweden drew in their final match and both advanced. Southgate almost immediately sprung to the defense of his team insisting that despite the team being knocked out, there was still a lot of positives in terms of the individual progress of certain players. Hardly what the England fans want to hear from one of their national managers.
There will be an inquest into what went wrong with several influential figures in English football like Harry Redknapp, Rio Ferdinand and Gary Neville all calling for rapid changes across the board. The first question raised is a valid one and is around selection. Whilst Southgate did select a talented group of players for this tournament, he chose to ignore other more experienced players like Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley, Luke Shaw, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Jack Wilshire. The make up of his squad was primarily Championship players and fringe Premiership players with the except of Stones, Kane and his strike partner Danny Ings. For comparison, Italy fielded a squad that had between them played over 270 games in Serie A last season whilst England could only boast 130 appearances in their squad with a vast majority of them being in the Championship or below. When questioned before the tournament about his selection, Southgate spoke about being fair and loyal to the group of players that had gotten them to the Championships through qualifying. It’s a fair point but one that should be addressed by the FA with a major rethink into priorities.
If England does want to win a tournament like this one, then they should be giving themselves the greatest chance of doing so. They need to select the best squad possible with the likes of Sterling, Barkley, Chamberlain, Shaw and Wilshire going in place of others. These players should have been part of this squad from the very start, creating a nucleus that lasted not only for this tournament but beyond. The team needs to grow together and more importantly progress together through the various international stages. In 2009, Germany beat England in the final of the Under 21 Euro Championships with a squad that would largely make up the team that would lift the World Cup at senior level five years later. England needs to adopt a similar approach if its is to build a team that is capable of winning the World Cup or European Championships in the future. Winning breeds confidence and giving a team the chance to be successful at one tournament only benefits them when it comes to their next one.
There also needs to be a tactical adjustment. England through all levels up to the senior team are being instructed by FA Director of Elite Development Dan Ashworth to play in a 4-2-3-1 formation but without creative midfielders in the squad, this formation simply does not work. At the under 21 level, Southgate has used this formation repeatedly forcing players like Danny Ings or Tom Carroll to operate out of position in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar attacking midfield role. This role should have been played by Rosss Barkley or Jack Wilshire, both of which are comfortable in the role and can create chances. Similarly the inclusion of a player like Raheem Sterling could have offered more width to England and presented Harry Kane up front with more chances, something he was sadly starved off during the whole tournament in the Czech Republic. Southgate’s lack of backbone and willingness to go against the FA’s wishes will no doubt cost him his job. But its far from his fault. The FA should shoulder some of the blame for appointing him in the first place instead of a more progressive manager. Their desire to appoint a yes man to the role has led to failure once again and yet another set back for England. Strangely Southgate still believes that England can win the 2022 World Cup given the quality of players coming through but in order to do so the country’s FA needs to make a fundamental decision into how much they want to win a tournament and what changes will be needed to make that happen.