This piece originally appeared on www.sabotagetimes.com.
This just in! England are not very good at football. No, hold on a second – that’s last week’s story. Let me try again. Breaking news! We have a tactical dinosaur in charge of the nation’s best and brightest players. Actually, we did that one last week too. Wait a minute. Sorry about this. Okay, here goes. Stop the presses! Why on Earth was one of the more typically attacking first XI squad numbers given to a defender? In fact, that was last week’s as well.
I’ve never seen Groundhog Day, the smash-hit 90s comedy in which Bill Murray becomes stuck in a time-loop, reliving the same day over and over again, but as someone who has spent the best part of two decades watching England, I think I can hazard a guess at what it must be like.
Every day for the next ten years we are going to do nothing else except complain that Wayne Rooney/Andy Carroll/Connor Wickham can’t control a football without taking at least seven touches; attack the Fabio Capello/Roy Hodgson/Stuart Pearce for playing safety-first tactics even though any other choice would result in conclusive, humiliating defeat; and wonder how it came to be that Phil Jones/Jack Robinson/Carl Jenkinson is wearing number 7/9/10.
Yes, if the England U21s’ defeat to a far superior Italy side proved nothing else, it’s that the feeling of total inferiority is here to stay for England fans. Watching the Three Lions will continue to be a consistently uninspiring, insipid experience and the usual complaints about youth development, tactical rigidity and the marginalisation of the technically-gifted will be repeated over and over until the revolution we all know is required somehow occurs.
It would be nice to write of some positives from last night but the sad truth is that is hard to come up with any. It was arguably miraculous that the score remained 0-0 until the 79th minute, given Italy’s obvious superiority, but that England managed to keep the scores level despite being by far the weaker side is perhaps commendable.
Even though our players are way behind their continental counterparts in terms of technical, tactical and creative ability, they can still battle it out with the best of them. That is what we are reduced to.
The thing is, Italy weren’t even that great. Their squad is overflowing with potential and that means they are fancied as tournament favourites, but while Marco Verratti predictably ran the show from deep midfield and Lorenzo Insigne was a constant threat before scoring the game’s only goal, Liverpool’s Fabio Borini flattered to deceive (as usual?) and Ciro Immobile failed to work Jack Butland once and conceded possession as often as any English player.
On the whole, Italy’s 4-4-2 seemed to suit too few of their players for it to be a viable long-term plan for this group, but nonetheless they remained fluid and dominant in possession and unafraid of trying the difficult pass. Many of their players will have come away from the game having learned something.
This is what it boils down to at U21 level: learning. For all the Italian football community’s problems – and, as usual, there are many – they still continue to produce, place trust in and educate their footballers. Of all the reasons for Italy’s prominence in international football history, the most important has been their organisation and education of their youth.
Francesco Totti, Andrea Pirlo, Demetrio Albertini, Fabio Cannavaro, Daniele De Rossi and Gennaro Gattuso, to name but a few, all had long careers at youth level before moving on to the seniors and becoming superstars. By contrast, our national youth teams are seen as something of a joke.
Wayne Rooney never played for the U21s. John Terry did, but only nine times. Rio Ferdinand made five appearances over three years. Steven Gerrard appeared four times before going to Euro 2000 and becoming a seniors mainstay. Theo Walcott had been to a World Cup before he played for the U21s.
When Frank Lampard, James Milner and Steven Taylor were integral parts of the U21 side, they were pitied by their managers and the press for not being seen as good enough to make the step up to the senior side. It is no coincidence that they are three of England’s most international-football-ready players.
How the likes of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones and Jack Wilshere could have helped their contemporaries in Israel. Instead, the former two played for the seniors in morale-sapping friendlies against Ireland and Brazil, while Wilshere is recuperating from injury – the root cause of which was unnecessarily accelerated development.
One would hope that the rest of the tournament would be more encouraging. It would be nice, for example, to see the talented Chelsea duo of Josh McEachran and Nathaniel Chalobah starting the remaining games ahead of Jason Lowe and Connor Wickham, with Jonjo Shelvey playing as a false nine. If nothing else, the players would have fun and learn something – that would be a start.