Spend time around this England U21 squad and something becomes apparent quickly: this is a confident group of players. They’re not arrogant or conceited, but endowed with a healthy self-assurance. Some are shy, others are a little nervous around the media but, generally, they’re expressive young men who hold themselves with conviction.
At the heart of Dan Ashworth’s mini revolution lies an intent to not only cultivate deep pockets of talent, but to also create a particular type of player. Technical ability, of course, remains a priority, but there’s additional emphasis now on emotional maturity. Coaches refer to this as accountability, often dressing it as a capacity to problem solve, and it manifests in a player’s – or team’s – ability to think and adapt to situations on the field.
It’s been one of the themes of the summer, lying at the heart of England’s u20 World Cup win and their near-triumph in the U17 European Championship. Adversity has been encountered, adversity has been defeated. Now the U21s, though probably a more moderately talented group, are showing the same resolve.
Aidy Boothrody’s side started slowly in Kielce. Early dominance on opening night against Sweden slowly melted into mild chaos, with the midfield looking worryingly porous and England’s attacking players become increasingly peripheral. The important thing was not to lose, said Boothroyd after the game and, one-by-one, his players echoed that message through the mixed zone.
At the time, it was tempting to be dismissive – after all, that is the crown prince of platitudes and highly typical of the situation. When England don’t win the opening game of a tournament, there’s always some comfort in knowing that they don’t lose it either.
By half-time against Slovakia, little had changed. It was another tentative performance characterised by a reluctance to take risks and an inability to do anything at great speed. England were 1-0 down and heading home.
But then came the risks. Boothroyd would throw Jacob Murphy into an unfamiliar full-back role at the expense of Mason Holgate and his delivery and thrust paid immediate dividends, setting up the equalising goal and laying the foundations for a come from behind victory – a result which, in the days to come, would be swollen in stature by the Slovakians’ 3-0 dismantling of the Swedish.
It was a win which put England in control of the group and three points away from the semi-finals. In the press-conference before that decisive final game with Poland, host manager Marcin Dorna all but guaranteed victory for his side, describing their opponents as a long-ball team of little central creativity. Members of the Polish squad sat alongside him, too, and spoke in detail of the the threat posed by Tammy Abraham. They’d been briefed and not without reason. Abraham’s pivoting in attack had been essential to the English recovery two days before and separating him from his midfield would be a smart defensive starting point.
But England couldn’t have been more different. Demarai Gray replaced Abraham at the top of the pitch, playing in a rotating front-three with John Swift and Nathan Redmond, and the Polish backline spent the night looking underprepared and unsuited to their task. The movement in front of them was too much, the breadth of the threat behind and to the side of them was too broad. England won 3-0, but could easily have run up a highly embarrassing scoreline.
It was a mistake by Dorna but one for which he can be forgiven. In the past, English sides have travelled to tournaments with a single approach from which they’ve been reluctant to deviate. If performances have fallen below expectation, the response has typically been minor: the introduction of a stylistically similar player, perhaps, or a minor tweak in focus. Rarely has something more dramatic been attempted, rarer yet with any success.
An England manager tactically flummoxing his opposite number in a tournament? When was the last time that happened? Dorna had history working against him.
For another country, the replacement of a traditional targetman with a phalanx of quasi-forwards wouldn’t be particularly notable, but for England it was only just short of stunning. The win was wonderful, but that it also showed a new degree of dexterity made it almost intoxicating. Pathetic really, given the context, but that’s measure of how precious these increments of improvement are.
In the aftermath, the performance was portrayed – rightly – as a victory for managerial dexterity. Good, because the personable Boothroyd has been quietly achieving within the age groups for some time now, yet remains lumbered with a reputation he outgrew many years ago. The more pertinent observation, however, acknowledged just how well his players coped with the changes thrust upon them.
Of course, that speaks highly of the level of coaching and direction they’ve received, but also to the receptiveness of these players and their ability to absorb a variety of instructions. After all, teams have been accompanied by talented technical staff before, but with precious little result. This time it felt different – and it looked different: England rotating between approaches and functioning well behind a frontline which had been redesigned on the hoof? What a novelty. True, a variety of approaches would have been discussed and planned for ahead of the tournament, but putting them into practice when the pressure is on and the crowds are hostile is another matter entirely.
As the fans drifted away into Kielce on the final night, down in the bowels of the Kolporter Arena the England party seemed more satisfied than jovial. They had broken a sequence of failures which stretched back to 2009, but this group evidently feel detached from that past. They exuded a sense of vindication, the implication being that this kind of tournament performance is more illustrative of what English football is becoming, and that it was reflective of who they as a generation are. The rest of the country may have been left hopelessly impressed by their flexibility, but it’s a trait which players like Nathaniel Chalobah, Lewis Baker and Tammy Abraham have been exploiting in junior tournaments for some time.
As they’ve been silently rebuilding the country’s reputation at sparsely attended competitions in unlikely places, they’ve had to watch the Iceland debacle and hear the ensuing negativity with all of its derisory assumptions. It would be ludicrous to claim that emerging from a group in a twelve-team junior tournament has chased the misery away entirely, but this was still a gentle riposte – their chance to challenge the notion that The FA is selling only magic beans.
No, there’s no beanstalk yet, but there’s something poking out of the topsoil.
On Tuesday night, Germany await in the semi-finals. The gap in talent between the two sides is such that England will likely find themselves in a no-lose situation.Winning tournaments always breeds optimism and there are many who believe in the intangibles which come with that, but the mission for this squad was to change the mood which surrounds their age category. They’ve done that: both in a literal sense and through the nature of the progress, thinking their way out of tight corners and relying on something other than raw effort.
They’ve shown the capacity to problem-solve which, although an assumed quality in more successful nations, is a big stride forward for this one.