On the 19th May, one branch of England’s Young Lions had been seconds away from lifting a record third Under 17 European Championship trophy. Instead, an inexperienced side conceded to Spain with the game’s final touch, before cementing their place as a ‘typical England’ side by losing on penalties.
On Saturday, the first-team faced rivals Scotland in their latest step towards World Cup qualification – generating a predictably lacklustre performance.
For all of the individual achievements and plaudits at club level, England struggled to truly impose themselves on a Scottish side who have stumbled against lesser opponents in the group, before throwing away an undeserved lead through two carelessly conceded, almost identical, free kicks in a matter of minutes.
Putting aside any personal criticisms, the whole thing was particularly stereotypical England stuff – something that an injury time equaliser, regardless of its quality – will not cover up.
Away from the disappointment, which inflicted both sides at Hampden Park, two younger incarnations of the Three Lions were gearing up for the biggest games of their fledgeling international careers.
In the south of France, a squad of mostly under-19s (of mixed ages due to other active youth commitments) prepared for the final of the Toulon Tournament, hoping to defend their title against Ivory Coast. The side faced a similar experience to the under-17s in May. England gained a lead, which they failed to extend, ultimately paying the price when conceding an injury time spot-kick, taking the match to penalties.
Another typical England performance? Perhaps, but this time, at least, the Three Lions were victorious in a shoot-out and retained their trophy.
The weekend’s England football action came to an end as the Under-20s lined up in South Korea’s Suwon World Cup Stadium for the most important competitive match in the side’s history.
For the first time since 1966, an England squad were contending a World Cup Final. The occasion provided a stark reminder of failures since, but also an opportunity for optimism and hope; as many fans remain desperate for some sign of progression after last summer’s shambolic performance in France – Saturday’s game with Scotland proved that not much has changed for the senior side.
Yet in South Korea, the Under-20s began brightly. Attacking from the start in what had promised to be an open game, a young England side was playing without the fear that usually permeates the first-team. Their confidence was no surprise as they had progressed with five wins and 1 draw from their other matches, securing victories within 90 minutes in each knockout stage.
Everton provided four of the starting XI for the game, whose players have generally been handed more, but still limited, Premier League opportunities this season. After 35 minutes, one of the four, Dominic Calvert-Lewin opened the scoring. Bournemouth’s Lewis Cook played a long straight ball from a free-kick which his teammate competed in the air for, before showing great perseverance to beat the ‘keeper at his second attempt.
However, as other England sides generally do, the under-20s began making life difficult for themselves and had even been caught off guard at 0-0, by a superbly struck long-range free-kick which rebounded off the post and had Newcastle United’s Freddie Woodman scrambling.
At the start of the second half, Venezuela introduced Yeferson Soteldo, who only missed the starting XI because of an injury concern. His impact on the match was impressive, and he should really have had an assist with one of his first touches – an exceptional through ball which dumbfounded England’s backline. Fortunately for England, poor control from his teammate meant Woodman could block the shot.
As the match progressed, it was Venezuela who looked most likely to score. England’s opponents played with flair and agility, attempting tight passing combinations and dribbles which would not have looked out of place in the Champions League.
On 73 minutes it appeared that their efforts had been rewarded when England conceded a penalty, despite efforts to have the decision repealed by use of the video referee. Adalberto Penaranda took the kick, but a poor effort hit just left of centre at a saveable height, was kept out by Woodman with a strong hand, stretched back against his diving direction.
They had got away with it. Despite their best efforts to have a typically English footballing calamity, they retained a narrow lead and won them the title. The win means that from three summer tournaments so far the nation’s youth teams have been winners twice and runners-up once, the under-21 and under-19 European Championships are still to come.
As seen in the past, it is important to be wary about success at youth level and ensuring it is not overhyped, so that the fear and pressure the national team play under is not damagingly passed on to the next generation.
Better than this? pic.twitter.com/xVj4dZeeT0
— Game of Throw-ins (@GameofThrowIns) June 11, 2017
Images like the one in the tweet above are reminders of the nature of international football. In particular, the difficult transition between youth set-ups and the first-team – most players don’t make it.
With the current under-20s side, there is an additional threat of losing the players to other nations. For example, at this stage, despite having represented England, five players from the squad are eligible to play for Nigeria.
Another contentious issue, which is scrutinised further as the Premier League gets richer, regards the difficulty of young players gaining top-level experience in England. Thanks largely to Everton, some of the current crop have at least made their debuts. However, of the XI who started the final, Calvert-Lewin has the most appearances with 11, (345 minutes) – none have been close to regular starters.
Fikayo Tomori, Woodman and Jake Clarke-Salter have all had some game time but only out on loan, the latter racking up the most minutes but dropping to League One for them. Dominic Solanke and Kyle Walker-Peters haven’t played at all for Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur respectively, the former’s impending transfer to Liverpool by no means guaranteeing that will change.
Arsene Wenger has already announced that Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who impressed when brought on against Venezuela, will be in his first-team squad next season. This is a positive move but he is unlikely to feature in more than a handful of games.
The reality is that if young English players aren’t given opportunities they will not develop in line with their potential. It is a problem that has created much debate and few solutions, is sending them out on loan good enough? would they be better off plying their trade in the lower leagues instead of having the benefits of being around top players and coaches? Nobody can say for certain.
Ideally, Premier League managers will become willing, or be forced by the FA through rule changes, to give young British talent more opportunity. There is, of course, an argument that players who prove their ability will get a chance, and perhaps the English youngsters aren’t good enough.
Hopefully, success at these international tournaments will give coaches and managers more confidence to pick these players and increase the pressure on them to do so.
There is no point in getting carried away, and even the most optimistic supporters know England haven’t won the real thing, but there is no harm in celebrating the success of a team who have done the country proud, especially when the first-team have failed for so long.
Featured Image: All rights reserved by Jack Jeff
Tottenham Hotspur fans react to Danny Welbeck dive
Tottenham Hotspur fans were not pleased with Danny Welbeck’s dive v AC Milan.
Arsenal successfully knocked AC Milan out of the Europa League last night with a 3-1 win at the Emirates Stadium. The hero of the night was England forward Danny Welbeck. The striker scored two goals as Arsenal completed a deserved 5-1 aggregate victory over the Rossoneri.
But Milan had taken an early lead through Hakan Calhanoglu’s bamboozling long-range strike. Arsenal, at that stage, were looking on the ropes. Welbeck though won and then dispatched a penalty to level the scoring. The word ‘won’ being the optimum word.
Welbeck dived for the penalty, there is no doubt about that. Ricardo Rodriguez barely breathed on the Arsenal man, who tumbled to the ground hopefully. When the penalty was given, he looked in disbelief.
For Tottenham Hotspur fans it was a moment they did not appreciate.
Spurs have seen Dele Alli victimised throughout the season, and some would say rightly so, for his diving. There is no doubt that the England midfielder has dived this season and not many Tottenham fans would suggest not.
But the anger here lies with what Tottenham fans believe is hypocrisy. There is also a certain level or irony given a thinly veiled dig by Arsene Wenger against Spurs’ players this season.
After the highly controversial 2-2 draw at Anfield, where Harry Kane was accused of diving v Liverpool, Wenger had this to say, as reported by the BBC:
“I remember there were tremendous cases here when foreign players did it.
“But English players have learned very quickly and might be the masters now.”
“Sometimes players play a little bit with the rules. How far can you go? That is down to the referees.”
With Arsenal their next Premier League opponents, Arsene Wenger’s barb was not hard to see.
When that statement came out Tottenham fans quickly pointed out occasions when Arsenal’s English stars had been caught diving. Jack Wilshere and Theo Walcott were prominent examples. Now, in Welbeck, Tottenham have seen another.
Arsenal fans will be happy that their team have booked a place in the next round of the Europa League. On balance it was more than a fair result as over two legs Arsenal outplayed the Italian giants.
But the Welbeck moment certainly put an asterix on the game for Spurs fans.
Here is some of the best reaction from Twitter…
Özil against Watford was falling down when a gust of wind went past him. It was appalling. Welbeck yesterday was one of the worst dives
— Joe B ??????? (@JblincoTHFC) March 16, 2018
Only just seen the Welbeck dive, he must be embarrassed even appealing for that.
— Joshhh (@JJonesTHFC) March 16, 2018
— Harry Hotspur (@HarryHotspurWHL) March 15, 2018
If you had any doubt about how this country treats Dele Alli (one of its brightest prospects in years) look at the difference in how the media and in particular fans, are talking about the #Welbeck dive. ? #COYS #THFC
— Gary Ford (@Spursfordie) March 15, 2018
Imagine if this was @dele_official who did this and the media onslaught! Danny Welbeck you diving cheat! Hope the likes of @talkSPORT @GaryLineker @alanshearer to name a few subject Danny to the same treatment they have subjected Dele too this season! https://t.co/MXFMAkOGcN
— H (@LittleMissTHFC) March 15, 2018
— Lucas (@MoughtTHFC) March 15, 2018
Welbeck is a cheat end of. Ruined a good game.
— THFC (@RaoullyT69) March 15, 2018
Look how everyone destroys Dele over diving. No one will comment on Welbeck’s dive. Shocking! #THFC
— Harry Hotspur (@HarryHotspurWHL) March 15, 2018
— Steve Williams (@spurssteve69) March 15, 2018
Welbeck dives. Dele will be in trouble in the morning. #THFC
— Stephen Vincent (@StevieV14) March 15, 2018
If Dele Alli did what Welbeck just did?
— Billy Adams (@ThfcAdams) March 15, 2018
Victory in Milan, but is this another false dawn for Arsenal and Arsene Wenger?
Arsenal were triumphant in Milan despite their recent miserable form.
Arsenal ended their losing run of four matches with an excellent performance away to AC Milan in the Europa League. This competition has the potential to save the Gunners season and the commitment from every player suggested that they want to go all the way.
They were coming up against a team full of confidence under Gennaro Gattuso. Milan hadn’t lost a match since the end of December. The Serie A club hadn’t conceded a goal in six and had won five of those inside ninety minutes.
These sides came into this fixture in remarkably different form, but football is played on grass and not on paper.
Despite Milan having more attempts, it was Arsenal who created the better chances. They had a couple of half-chances early on before the opening goal.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan has had a hot and cold start to life in a Gunners’ shirt, but he was one of the best players on the pitch in Italy. His goal was emphatically taken as he drove the ball past Gianluigi Donnarumma.
It is important to capitalise when you are on top, especially away from home in European competitions and Arsenal did just that. As the first-half progressed, they continued to create the better opportunities. Both Danny Welbeck and Mkhitaryan had good chances to double the visitors’ lead, but they were squandered.
In stoppage-time of half-time, Arsenal scored a second to give them a commanding lead in the tie. It was a great move from the team and Mesut Ozil found Aaron Ramsey who coolly rounded Donnarumma before putting the ball into the net.
The first-half performance from Arsenal was one of the best that supporters have seen this season. They were better all over the pitch and showed the work rate that they had lacked in previous weeks. Milan pushed in the second half, but they couldn’t penetrate the Gunners’ defence.
Laurent Koscielny and Shkodran Mustafi were both excellent. Arsene Wenger will be hoping that both are returning to their best after some uncharacteristic errors in previous matches. The centre-back pairing made eight ball recoveries and were always in the right position on Thursday.
Patrick Cutrone is a teenager with a big future, but the young striker had no luck out of the Arsenal defence and that will encourage the manager.
Another player to emerge with credit is Danny Welbeck. The ineligibility of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang and the injury of Alexandre Lacazette means that the Englishman started the game up front for Arsenal. It was a huge opportunity for him after being pushed down the pecking order at the club and he took it with both hands.
The Englishman worked tirelessly and caused problems with his movement.
Although his final product wasn’t great, he was a constant threat and led the defensive effort from the front. Welbeck will never be a leading Premier League striker, but he is effective in matches such as this one. He deserves more opportunities during the run-in.
It would be too soon to get carried away for Arsenal fans. There are still questions regarding Arsene Wenger and the work rate of the players, but this was an excellent performance that finally provides the club with positive momentum. They have had a miserable few weeks and the supporters can get excited about their team once again.
When the draw was made, a lot of supporters checked their expectations when it came to the Europa League. Milan were the overwhelming favourites, but Arsenal have taken a dominant position in the tie and should be able to finish the job in London.
If they can do that, they will move into the quarter-final stage. Although it will be difficult to win it, they will have as good a chance as any.
There have been many false dawns for Arsenal in recent years and this could be another one. That said, it takes enormous character to go away to a huge stadium like the San Siro after a poor run of form and win comfortably.
Considering the criticism that they have had for their lack of desire, few would have thought the Gunners to be capable of a result like this.
It is now up to Wenger to prove that he can get this level of effort and performance out of his players on a regular basis. The Frenchman remains in a difficult position with no margin for error. If he is going to keep his job, he needs to finish the season strongly and win the Europa League.
It won’t be an easy challenge, but this performance and result will give him hope that he can upset the odds to claim his first European trophy.
Brighton 2-1 Arsenal: Three talking points from the Amex
Arsenal lost for a fourth successive game as Brighton & Hove Albion bullied their opponents into submission.
Arsenal suffered their fourth consecutive defeat in all competitions as Brighton & Hove Albion took a giant leap towards Premier League survival.
The pressure on Gunners boss Arsene Wenger, which has intensified since the turn of the year, looks set to reach new heights after another dismal day at the office for his charges.
Goals from Lewis Dunk and Glenn Murray put the Seagulls in control before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang pulled one back for the visitors on the stroke of half-time.
Despite enjoying the lion’s share of possession, Arsenal were unable to muster an equaliser.
For Brighton, this was a huge result that lifted them seven points clear of the relegation zone.
Here are three talking points…
Is beleaguered Wenger’s position now untenable?
It lurches from one disaster to another for Wenger.
He probably thought the nadir had been reached after last weekend’s limp performance in the Carabao Cup final against Manchester City, when his future became the main topic of debate.
The Frenchman would have hoped for a reaction from his players in the subsequent fixtures.
Instead, his side were brushed aside against City in the Premier League before producing another sub-standard display here against Brighton.
Added to their shock Europa League reversal at home to minnows Ostersunds, it is the first time Arsenal have lost four successive matches since 2002.
After last season’s FA Cup triumph, Wenger penned a new contract that takes him through to the summer of 2019.
Now, however, it’s difficult to see how he can last beyond the end of the current campaign.
Perhaps only by lifting the Europa League, which would automatically qualify Arsenal for the Champions League, could Wenger realistically remain in situ.
Even then, it may not be enough. His players look devoid of any confidence and need an injection of new ideas.
Brighton take a massive step towards safety
The focus will understandably be on Arsenal, but Brighton’s display should not be overlooked.
This victory extended their unbeaten run in the Premier League to four games and has all but banished thoughts that they might be dragged into a relegation scrap.
Yes, it was a good time to face Arsenal, but Chris Hughton’s side made a fast start with two early goals that went a long way to recording their first win over the Gunners since 1982.
Brighton’s performance bore all the hallmarks of their season so far.
Despite being one of the lowest scorers in the division, they took their chances when they came, exploiting Arsenal’s weakness from set pieces and aerial balls.
In the second half, the home side remained very organised defensively, which was key when the Gunners upped the tempo.
Modest and unassuming, Hughton has done a terrific job on the south coast.
Defensive shortcomings continue to haunt Arsenal
Wenger has regularly spoken of his belief that Arsenal cannot compete on a level playing field with the likes of Manchester City.
And while his side’s record against fellow ‘Big Six’ clubs is regularly scrutinised, the Gunners’ results against the lesser lights have not been good enough for a club with Champions League aspirations.
In 2018 alone, Arsenal have been beaten by Swansea City, Bournemouth and now Brighton in the Premier League, while losing to Nottingham Forest and Ostersunds in cups.
A lack of leadership has long been an issue on the pitch and it’s an area Wenger has consistently ignored.
Defensively, the Gunners are too easy to bully.
Take Shkodran Mustafi’s defending for the first goal in the Carabao Cup final last weekend, for example.
Particularly away from home, Arsenal are prone to imploding.
Despite the attacking talent Wenger has at his disposal, his failure to invest in proven defenders at the top level looks set to cost him dearly.
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