Whilst most European nations embrace Under 21 Championships, the UK has always seemed to have a bit of a love-hate relationship with them. The continual dispute over club-country relations is intensified at younger levels and England always seem to go to tournaments without their best squad, albeit often due to their own choices.
This year has seen a refreshing approach with only Luke Shaw’s absence causing any debate in the lead up to the tournament. However, established international stars such as Jack Wilshire, Alex Oxlade Chamberlain, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling were not selected by manager Gareth Southgate, a move that undoubtedly helped to reduce any friction and resistance from Premier League clubs. The choice not to include such names was Southgate and England’s own prerogative, instead choosing to put their faith in the same players who had gained qualification to the Czech Republic.
England’s stance of wanting to reward those who got them to the Czech Republic is extremely moral and helps the confidence of those players knowing that their manager trusts them on the big occasion. Roy Hodgson’s recent comments about giving players the chance if they impress will also help to boost those picked rather than shattering confidence by replacing them with a first team regular.
The argument is that players who are already established in England’s first team do not need to go back to the Under 21’s and risk burnout, and with the World Cup in 2014 and European Championships to come in 2016, it is entirely justifiable decision. However, the consideration needs to be made as to whether the extra tournament games for some of England’s young stars would actually help the senior side. Other nations certainly appear to differ from England’s stance with 23 year old Juan Mata helping Spain to a fourth tournament success in 2011.
Of England’s starting 11 in the 2009 final, only Kieran Gibbs, James Milner and Theo Walcott have had any impact on the senior side and none are in the current first choice team. In contrast, six of Germany’s finalists (Neuer, Howedes, Boateng, Hummels, Khedira, Ozil) played key roles in the country’s 2014 World Cup triumph with four playing in every game.
England though are always reluctant to move players between the two squads and view the transition to the senior squad as a graduation. Following Harry Kane’s stunning Premier League form and instant impact on his international debut there were calls for him not to have the ‘burden’ of an U21 tournament during the summer. To Southgate’s credit, he was keen to have the Tottenham man in his squad, a sentiment echoed by Kane himself. Kane has had a breakthrough season but wasn’t a regular in the Spurs side until November so playing against the other top talent from around the continent will only help his development. He was also a key part of England U21’s qualification, the side Southgate wanted to keep together for the tournament, hence the reluctance to see his star man missing.
However, nations are remembered for their European Championship and World Cup successes, so the ultimate goal must be preparing the team in the best possible way for these, with the U21’s being an important step along the way. How many of the current crop of youngsters go on to become England regulars remains to be seen, but history suggests the number will be relatively low, particularly with a large number of the current English set up having numerous years at the top level ahead of them. Winning breeds confidence, particularly in a stable team, hence the transition and success of Spain and Germany in recent seasons.
This year’s crop of U21’s, Kane included, will benefit from playing in a high pressure tournament environment; particularly should they go on to do face similar situations for the senior side in the future. However, the benefits gained will be individual with the England team at the 2020 European Championships unlikely to be representative of the 2015 U21 squad, so team building for future tournaments at senior level will not be on the agenda in the Czech Republic.
England’s decision may be moral and rewarding, but winning tournaments requires a ruthless streak. Recalling Wilshire, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Barkley and Sterling would have been extremely unpopular with their club managers, and dented the confidence of squad members who would have missed out on selection but it would have set a precedent for future tournaments. It would also have given England the best chance of winning with the four players already in the senior squad due to their superior talent to the current U21 players. All four gained experience at the World Cup in Brazil, but England were knocked out at the group stage meaning they will be carrying that experience of failure into Euro 2016. It also meant the squad didn’t face any knock-out fixtures, something that are sure to be part of their future evolution with England but games that are relatively rare in the club game, particularly against high class opposition if you are not in the Champions League.
Wilshire and Barkley have both faced injury interrupted seasons, so more game may have actually been beneficial for them in the short term too whilst Oxlade-Chamberlain doesn’t play 90 minutes week-in, week-out for Arsenal. Fatigue may have been a problem for Sterling, but he played twice for England after the end of the season. If he had missed those two games and joined up with the U21 squad his season would have been extended by a maximum of 3 games.
England have been lagging behind their fellow European heavyweights for too long on the international stage, so big decisions and big changes are clearly required. These need to start in the junior ranks to prepare players better for tournament football. The senior side seem set to sail through their qualifying campaign again and reach Euro 2016, but does anybody realistically expect anything other than the usual quarter-final exit once they’re there? English football needs a radical change and it’s about time people being paid big money made big decisions for the benefit of the England team, not just choices aimed at pleasing Premier League managers.
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