England have advanced to the final of the u20 World Cup. On Friday, Paul Simpson’s players came from a goal down to defeat Italy 3-1, having conquered Mexico, Costa Rica and, earlier in the competition, a talented Argentinian side. On Sunday afternoon, they’ll face Venezuela in Suwon.
The sense of catharsis – or even relief – is revealing. Because of England’s history, it doesn’t take much to stoke national enthusiasm and this u20 team have certainly prodded some embers. Their group stage games may have attracted little attention, but as they’ve grown into the tournament and their performance levels have gradually risen, so has the surrounding interest. Even at this level of the game, success has the properties to heal.
Supporters back home are busy distilling the tournament’s relevance to their club side. Everton’s Jonjoe Kenny and Ademola Lookman have each produced a string of seductive performances, as too have Tottenham Kyle Walker-Peters and recent Liverpool signing Dominic Solanke. So for now, the emphasis appears to be more on what these individuals might be able to do for their Premier League teams (and when they might be able to do it), and less on what’s making this particular side successful.
That may be natural, but it’s also a mistake. England’s great ailment over these recent fallow decades has been their unwavering belief in the power of the individual player. The hand-wringing which accompanies any discussion concerning talent identification betrays that. As, to the same extent, does the focus on “what Solanke might be able to be at Liverpool” or “how quickly Kenny can secure a first-team place at Everton”. Those are hardly irrelevant details, both are good players deserving of recognition, but they still aren’t at the root of what’s been happening in South Korea.
Simpson’s squad is relatively ordinary: on a player-by-player basis, it’s unremarkable. Though it will likely breed several Premier League players who will go on to enjoy lucrative careers, there is nobody within the group capable of threatening the game’s stratosphere. It’s also notable that, rather than dominating from the off, England have grown in stature as this competition has developed. The 3-0 win over Argentina disguised what was really quite a tight game, the 1-1 draw with Guinea was actually rather fortuitous, and the wins over South Korea and Costa Rica were only fleetingly impressive. By contrast, the more recent wins over Mexico and Italy were more convincing and betrayed a further degree of evolution which, regrettably, isn’t typical of English teams at international tournaments.
Shortly after this competition began, Simpson gave an interview to The Set Pieces and, informed by what has happened since, much of what he said within it rings true. In discussion with Matt Stanger, a conversation worth reading in its entirety, Simpson talked of developing intelligent footballers and of creating accountability which extends beyond just the coaching staff. Words like “ownership” for instance, imply the intent to germinate this squad with a set of qualities which have been startlingly absent in England camps for over a generation.
And yet, they’ve been clearly apparent in South Korea. The most gratifying part of this team’s progress has not been their literal advancement, but their ability to overcome the challenges they’ve faced along the way: the freak own-goal against Guinea for instance, which would disturb the equilibrium of most adult reams, or the alien temperament encountered against the Mexicans. Even generic obstacles such as the warm climate and high humidity, so often portrayed as insurmountable difficulties in the past, have been hurdled in-stride by a squad which has not only been meticulously prepared, but seems to have also been empowered in a way which allows them solve problems in an efficient way.
The cumulative result is something quite novel. This England team are not tethered to the performance level of a small group of individuals, but capable of adapting to situations as a unit. On the basis that competitions, at any level of the game, rarely develop as planned or in a way which ideally suits a squad, the capacity to emotionally bend and flex is vital. In last week’s quarter-final, for instance, Tottenham’s Josh Onomah was ludicrously sent off for an inadvertent tread on a Mexican player, thus ruling him out of the Italian game. To that point, Onomah had been essential to England’s phases of possession and his absence presented a real threat to the team’s rhythm and continuity. However, Ainsley Maitland-Niles was dropped into the centre of midfield alongside Lewis Cook and England’s internal chemistry remained unaffected. Maitland-Niles and Onomah have mildly different traits but, to the credit of everyone involved in that selection, the former was able to mimic the latter’s role perfectly on Friday afternoon. Squint and they could have been the same player, pushing around the same passes and occupying the same spaces.
And that’s how a healthy team reacts to difficulty. Revealingly though, it’s was the kind of adversity which would have inevitably plunged a senior English side from the recent past into absolute turmoil. Injuries and suspensions, or even losses of form, have always been terminal for the national team and their capacity to problem-solve over the recent generations has been discouragingly minimal. On the basis of what Simpson’s players are doing, that issue can now be said to be on the retreat – a notion reinforced by their recalibration after Italy’s opening goal and the methodical way in which they gradually took control of that game. The excuse was there, but the underwhelming deference to it was not.
Whether England win this World Cup or not isn’t really important. What matters, or at least what carries the greater long-term significance, is the tangible validation of their approach to it. Those who have been paying attention for a while will recognise this as just the latest in a series of age-group successes which all, conveniently, have exhibited the value of this altered emphasis. The u17s were a penalty shootout away from winning their European Championship at the end of May, early on Saturday evening another u20 squad retained the Toulon Tournament in the south of France and on Sunday this group will hopefully take their turn to show how healthy England’s preparatory layers are becoming.
At St George’s Park, a clock continues to tick down towards the 2022 World Cup. But while that may still be a fairly crude motivational tool, but it can no longer be said to be a punchline for a failing organisation. Something is happening. It’s embryonic and delicate, but it’s real enough.