World Football: Did the New Look England Under 21s Impress in Debut Qualifier?

James WillisAnalyst IFebruary 23, 2017

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 01:  Craig Dawson of England celebrates scoring the first goal for England during the UEFA European Under-21 Championship Qualifier Group 8 match between England and Azerbaijan at Vicarage Road on September 1, 2011 in London, England.  (Photo by Paul Gilham/Getty Images)
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

A scoreline of

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 01:  Martyn Waghorn of England celebrates with his team-mates after scoring the fifth goal for England during the UEFA European Under-21 Championship Qualifier Group 8 match between England and Azerbaijan at Vicarage Road on Se
Paul Gilham/Getty Images

6-0 is convincing for any team. There can be no denying that a victory of that margin is going to show the best of a team, and sadly the worst of the opponents.

That was the scoreline that England Under 21's beat Azerbaijan Under 21's by at Vicarage Road on Thursday evening. A game that I attended.

Based on the rules of under-21 football, the start of a new qualification competition largely means a new-look team as many past players become ineligible.

So did the new-look England Under-21s show something to excite fans for the future?

Sadly, no. The score will say differently, and some fans may say differently, but when looking at the game objectively the facts are still evident.

Going into the game my personal worry was that England would go for the win by taking an early lead and then sitting back, similar to what we've seen the nation do too many times in the past.

After just four minutes, debutant defender Craig Dawson headed home a Henri Lansbury corner, giving England the early lead that they had clearly been looking for.

The game continued to be surprisingly attacking for England until the 21st minute when Lansbury volleyed in England's second goal of the evening.

It was the goal that seemed to change the team's mentality. All of a sudden, the ball was being played from Matthew Briggs, to Craig Dawson, to Steven Caulker, to Jon Flanagan and then back along the defensive line again.

My initial concern at this was soon overcome after accepting that it was simply England's style. Sure, it was a bit more boring and far less glamorous than many of the top national teams' styles, but it was what England know and do so well.

One thing learned from the 2010 World Cup is that a nation should always build on their strengths and their own style (with a knowledge of other styles) as opposed to focusing all efforts on patching up weaknesses—as shown by Brazil's disappointing defensive approach to the tournament.

Just before the half, England went 3-0 up after what looked like a great strike from Jordan Henderson. It was a great shot, but based on the Azerbaijani defence and the amount of time Henderson had on the ball, the goal suddenly became a bit more usual.

It took me a while to figure out why I still wasn't impressed by the England performance, despite the convincing scoreline and the now-accepted English style.

It soon became evident in the second half, after a short period of Azerbaijani pressure, when England pushed forward again and scored their fourth in the 73rd minute, again through Henri Lansbury.

Suddenly England were less defensive, less formal and, most importantly of all, less scared.

Despite being heavy favourites for the game, there had still been an evident fear about the team. Not that they wouldn't win the match, not that they would lose their squad positions, but that they wouldn't match up to the spectators' expectations.

At 4-0 up, there was suddenly eased pressure, the fans were enjoying the match a lot more and the atmosphere rubbed off on the team.

There was attack after attack all of a sudden, all fluid and all exciting.

Waghorn added another long strike late on that and, like Henderson's, was very impressive but had no pressure from the opponent's defence.

Dawson headed in his second and England's sixth in the 89th minute just to add insult to injury and give England this convincing scoreline.

England had their moments of flair and did look hugely impressive, but the score said more about the Azerbaijani defending than England's attacking. I use the term "defending" instead of "defence" because it was simply impossible to pick out who was even meant to be part of the back four in the Azerbaijani lineup, it was so bad.

I don't want to make it sound like it wasn't a good performance. It definitely was. It was in fact a great performance by the England team. It was simply against an overall poor opponent.

So the key lesson from the match? England need to be able to play without fear all the time, regardless of opponents' strength.

Sure, it'd help England's chances of winning a major tournament if they found the right coach, if the media stopped its hype, if the FA setup was altered, but ultimately don't all nations have their own problems like that to deal with?

I doubt the Spanish media decided to act like they weren't expected to win the tournament before the 2010 World Cup.

At the end of the day, the key thing for England is to play without fear of failing the public—something that in this social state is understandably difficult to do.

It's something that can't be taught but must be a mindset in the players. It's what England need to compete in the major tournaments.

Most of all, it's what scares me into thinking I'll never see this nation win a major trophy in the rest of my lifetime.