Are England's prospects on the up or is the under-20's World Cup win another false dawn?
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
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