A crucial crossroads for England's Young Lions
Regardless of the result in Krakow tonight, it has been a terrific summer for all Young Lions. As Aidy Boothroyds’ U21 side prepare for their European Championships semi final against an old foe in Germany, they can be proud of their journey which has contributed to what has been an impressive summer for the England youth sides.
The under 21 side have reached the semi final stage looking to continue an unbeaten record this summer, with no English side beaten within 90 minutes across four different tournaments. The only blemish being a narrow penalty shoot-out loss to the Spanish, in the Euro championship final at Under 17 level.
So, we have to wonder what has catalysed this successful summer, and ponder whether we are witnessing the development of the next golden era. It looks good right now, but the next steps are the most significant.
There have been calls for drastic change in recent years, with the senior side failing to live up to expectations and a familiar feeling of disappointment lingering over the Premier League’s homegrown mega-stars. It is exactly a year today that the national team were embarrassed by the minnows of Iceland in the Euro 2016 round of 16. The result left fans exasperated with the current set-up, with a shake-up seeming imminent. However, this summer of success has not been born out of drastic and purposeful change. Instead, everything has slowly fallen in to place rather accidentally.
Sam Allardyce short-lived reign came to a controversial end at the top of the tree, with Gareth Southgate his successor in a direct promotion from the Under 21 side. This sparked a domino-effect for the coaching staff across the age groups, as the F.A as gave Aidy Boothroyd the opportunity to fill Southgate’s role, after the latter successfully steered the team through qualifying. Neil Simpson then made the jump to the vacant U20 side with enough time to prepare for this summers World Cup. The F.A stuck by their guns, and it is now proving to be a wise decision.
Boothroyd is hoping to emulate the success of Simpson’s U20s side as they were crowned World Champions in South Korea, the first of world title of any kind for England since 1966. Neil Dewnsip was also handed the task of taking a youthful U20 side to Toulon within the same month, it was effectively an U18 side, however they also managed silverware in the south of France. These were all relatively new challenges for those in the hot seat, but they were executed to perfection.
So, why now? Why is it clicking all of a sudden? The U21 sides have had a dismal record over the last three tournaments, with three group stage exits under Stuart Pearce. So what has changed since then?
Firstly, experience has proven important. The squad that travelled to Poland have vast experience at U21 level, which has helped integrate a common understanding among the squad. Not many international squads will remain the same but players such as Nathan Redmond, James Ward-Prowse and Will Hughes have been ever-present, with over 30 caps each at U21 level. They are reliable members of the squad for Boothroyd, and they understand their roles in the side. These players have also enjoyed a long run of first team football at both Premier League and Championship level, which has been key to their development.
The next factor has been the ability to recognise that this group of players have a particular style of play that they can all adhere to. It shouldn’t have to be rocket science for a manager to spot his team’s strengths and weaknesses; however the ability to act on these at the right moments has been beyond coaches of the past. Simpson, who led the U20s to the World Cup crown, highlighted that the players can now “show what they’re about” thanks to a specific system put in by the F.A. A system that has aimed to find a blueprint that combines all the successful aspects of a young footballer. We have passed the stage where we want to replicate Spain’s tiki-taka, or the hard-working Germans. The F.A have identified that it is important to find our own style somewhere in the middle and the fluid style has been easy on the eye across all four teams. The players are encouraged to play it out from the goalkeeper and build forward, and they have adapted well.
Aidy Boothroyd isn’t an orthodox choice for the role of head coach, but he has been impressive thus far. His last club job was at Northampton Town, where he was sacked after taking them to the bottom of the Football League. Yet, so far he’s shown why he's the right man for the job.
Boothroyd’s timing and judgement has been vital to the success of the team so far at the Championships. Recognising where and when the team can react to the opposition have seen two clinical performances against Poland and Slovakia. Swansea defender Alfie Mawson identified that the dressing room became very heated during the half time interval against Slovakia, and it spurred the team on to an emphatic win. Boothroyd is clearly a manager who will lay it all out on the dressing room table, a method many in football feel tarnish as ‘old-fashioned’, however his squad have responded perfectly. His decision to place Demaria Gray in to the starting XI over the in-form Tammy Abraham in the last group game, as well as the late introduction of Jacob Murphy to put pressure on the tiring Polish opposition, has shown a great level of tactical nous and has earned England a place in the final four.
They now face an impressive Germany side, in an effort to avenge the humiliating 4-0 loss at the same stage in 2009. When we compare the two sides from then to now, it starts to become increasingly obvious why the next steps are so important. That German team included Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil and Mats Hummels, to name a few. All five lifted the World Cup five years later and boast over 350 caps between them. If we compare that with the England side, the only notable inclusions are James Milner (who has now retired), Theo Walcott (who has been hampered by injury) and Adam Johnson (who is currently in jail). The rest of that England side has struggled to make any impact in the senior side, with six of them yet to earn a cap. This raises concerns over whether our youth teams are properly valued by those at the top end of the set-up, and highlights the prolonging issue of limited opportunities for academy players at club level. Many England hopefuls are being displaced by foreign purchases at the top end of the Premier League, with chances few and far between.
Statistics gathered by the Guardian show that Germany’s Under 21 squad has spent 15,000 minutes more on the park this season as part of their domestic league, than their English equivalents. Spain top this chart with 38,981 minutes, compared to England’s 17.994. Interestingly, this shows even the most dominant forces in both club and international teams have trusted their youth with the opportunity of playing at the top level. This is whilst English teams struggle to implement academy graduates and instead look abroad when a vacancy in the squad arises. This statistic could be significantly higher for England, if they had allowed Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford to travel to Poland. Both have played consistently in the Premier League over the last year. Although they have both been fast-tracked to the senior side, the F.A have overlooked the value of the duo playing at a competitive tournament, and instead recommended the youngsters to take the time off. This is likely to be music to the ears of Jose Mourinho and Mauricio Pochetinno, who will see their players return for pre-season injury free. Moreover, this situation has highlighted the disregard for the national set-up at a key development stage.
The F.A and clubs need to come together to end the tug-of-war type battle of players, and discuss how they can help develop the current crop of promising youngsters in to their next national heroes. The F.A needs to expand on current legislation to encourage clubs to include academy talent within their senior sides. The current homegrown rule states that clubs must register eight players, out of a 25 man squad, that have been trained at the academy for three years between ages 16 and 21. This rule has meant some of the bigger clubs have been scrambling to fill the quota following their extensive purchases of foreign players. Ironically, this has forced the same clubs to pay larger fees for English talent, with the likes of John Stones valued at £50m for his move from Everton to Manchester City last summer.
Premier League clubs are stuck in a desperate state, where they feel extreme pressure to splash the cash every transfer window or risk falling behind their rivals. This vicious cycle has damaged the significance of club academies throughout the country and will continue to do so until there is further intervention. Club and international football can be so close yet so far apart, but after a promising summer they need to ensure that they support one another if England have any hope for glory.