FIFA Under-20 World Cup: Poor Selections Symptomatic of England's Youth Failure
A summer of international youth tournaments should have made for exciting viewing for fans of the England international team, but instead all it has provided is a stark reminder that the country continues to be lightyears behind its rivals in preparation for major tournaments.
Early June saw England's under-21 side head to Israel for the UEFA European U-21 Championships, were they were drawn in a group with Italy, Norway and the hosts. The young Three Lions lost all three matches, scored a single measly penalty and took bottom spot in the group with ease, while their three rivals battled for the two qualification spots.
It was hoped, then, that the under-20 side would do themselves rather more justice at the FIFA U-20 World Cup in Turkey, which has just reached the end of the group stage and is preparing for the knockouts to begin.
Unfortunately, those games will also not feature England, after they, too, finished rock bottom of the group, failing to win a single game.
Six group stage youth international matches, and not a single, solitary victory in sight for the boys in white.
Having been drawn in a group at the World Cup also containing Egypt, Iraq and Chile, many were tipping England to get through with ease—seemingly completely ignoring the differences between senior and youth level football, and the organisation and preparation which goes into it.
Indeed, given recent performances, it could be perhaps be argued that the senior side would have struggled with such a group too.
That England's youngsters who went to the tournament gave their all or played to the best of their abilities is not up for discussion right now. It may or may not be the case with any given individual, and hopefully all who partook will gain some benefit from the experience of being at a tournament, whatever their level of ability.
The problem in the main lies within those who make the selections, who plan the participation of England and who direct the way the game should be played.
Like at senior level, England often displayed an inability to retain possession against their opponents. They chased hard when behind and showed some moments of quality, but overall, it was far from enough to win matches consistently.
Why should this be so, when England were up against Iraq or Egypt?
Consider the players taken.
England named their squad featuring players from the likes of Liverpool, Manchester United and Tottenham—but none who are regulars at that level. Captain Conor Coady made one Premier League appearance for Liverpool this season. James Ward-Prowse played 15 times for Southampton. Harry Kane played four times on loan for Norwich from Spurs, and a smattering of other top-flight names got game time.
But by and large, these are all promising youngsters, still trying to make their way at the second level of English football either on loan or at their parent clubs, and nothing more.
By contrast, Egypt captain Rami Rabia has been capped four times at senior level for his country. Saleh Gomaa, seven times. Midfielder Trezeguet—full name Mahmoud Hassan—has played in the African Champions League and the World Club Cup Championship. And so it goes on.
And so it was the same, for Chile and for Iraq.
England could have had Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain in their squad, the 19-year-old Arsenal attacking midfielder. He also could have played at the U-21 Euros, of course.
Instead, he wasn't in any squad, missing out on valuable tournament experience at a younger age ahead of a possible visit to Brazil next summer with the senior squad. Imagine if he had gone, along with a handful of others, and helped make a difference at one of this year's tournaments? England might have gone a lot further, and the youth age squads would have been far more confidence-inspiring than they have transpired to be.
Elsewhere, Raheem Sterling might have gone, had fitness issues not permitted otherwise. From those who went to the U-20 Euros, Andre Wisdom, Jack Butland, Jack Robinson, Josh McEachran, Nathaniel Chalobah, Nathan Redmond, Connor Wickham and Wilfried Zaha all could have played for England's U-20 World Cup team in Israel.
Would that not have made the side more competitive than, with all due respect, the likes of Jamaal Lascelles (two Championship appearances for Nottingham Forest) and John Lundstram (14 League One appearances on loan to Doncaster) being starters for England at this point?
If England want their young stars to be confident and successful in major tournaments, that behaviour and mentality has to come from being so at a young age. And if that means a senior international needs to play for the U-20s team, then so be it.
Managers, administrators and perhaps the players themselves need to realise it's not a come-down to feature at a major tournament.
Where would be the shame in a senior international doing battle in the latter stages against France's Geoffrey Kondogbia, Spain's Suso or Mexico's Marco Bueno?
Most players would love to get the chance to go up against them domestically, so why not in international tournaments?
As for the U-21 side, losing those players need not weaken that squad either, if the same criteria and mentality is applied.
For all the praise aimed the way of Spain's U-21 side as they lifted the crown, that squad featured eight players from the top two teams of the country, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
How many England U-21 players came from Manchester United or Manchester City? One. Wilfried Zaha, who hasn't even properly joined his new team yet.
And yet, Phil Jones, Jack Rodwell and Danny Welbeck were all eligible to play.
So was Jack Wilshere and Carl Jenkinson, regulars for Arsenal and capped at international senior level. The same goes for Spurs' Kyle Walker, and the aforementioned Oxlade-Chamberlain.
The U-21s lined up with Marvin Sordell and Connor Wickham up front, and Nathan Redmond, Jason Lowe, Jonjo Shelvey, and Jordan Henderson in midfield for their defeat to Italy.
Perhaps a lineup mixing Rodwell, Henderson and Wilshere in midfield would have been more competitive and offered more international-class qualities, with Oxlade-Chamberlain, Wickham and Zaha in attack.
Should England's younger senior internationals be played in age-group specific tournaments?
But instead, these youth tournaments are eschewed by all to do with the English game, who then have the temerity to moan about lack of progress, quality or even victories.
Were they expecting Bolton's four-goal Championship hero to outscore Paco Alcacer who scored three in Spain's top flight? Perhaps for Henri Lansbury of Nottingham Forest to provide the ingenuity equal to three-times capped, for the best international nation around, Thiago Alcantara?
It's not going to happen.
At least including the likes of Wilshere in the squad, and the side, gives England a fighting chance. And even if they don't win, those players could arrive next summer at the World Cup with the tournament experience behind them to know what is required and what doesn't work.
Keeping hold of the ball would be the first place to start, but to do that, at any level, you've got to provide the players equal to your competitors.
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