Even as progress has begun to take root beneath them, England’s u21s have so far remained resistant to growth. Entering the 2017 European Championship, they carried with them ghosts of tournaments past: three successive group-stage exits between 2011 and 2015 have tarnished the country’s reputation at this level.
Perhaps those memories have infected the supporters, too. While England’s first opponents Sweden packed the far end of the Kolporter Stadium in Kielce, with maybe as many as 5,000 supporters making the trip to the south of Poland, St George’s Crosses were few and far between. It’s the kind of lopsidedness usually associated with protest or mass disenchantment and maybe that’s true in this case too: when u21 tournaments arrive, misery usually follows.
Paul Simpson’s u20 side team may have recently captured their World Cup and Steve Cooper’s u17s may have come within a last-minute goal of lifting the u17 European Championship, but England remain awkward at this level, perpetually stuck between the future and the present and, inevitably, arguing over why certain senior players are excused from duty. The timing doesn’t help, either. First-team involvement is, of course, essential to progress, but the 2013 and 2015 performances were fogged by fatigue; shattered players played blunt football after a season of grind and elimination became increasingly inevitable.
Many of those problems remain, but within this current squad there’s a clear degree of cohesion. That’s something which comes from above; The FA, despite common misconceptions, have done a thorough job of decluttering the technical and coaching pathways.
Neverthelss, these u21s stuttered in Kielce. Sweden may be the defending champions in this competition, but they are an obdurate team rather than a particularly talented one. Besides, England exposed their limitations early, dominating possession and creating space in deep wide areas. It was impressive: pressure was built, crossing angles were manufactured, and there was a pattern to the football which spoke of a well-understood gameplan.
But then, a lull. England hadn’t exactly been profligate, but the ease with which Sweden’s defensive line was able to slide up the pitch was worrying, as was their midfield’s growing ability to pick holes in their opposition, despite a numerical inferiority.
There was certainly a flimsiness about Aidy Boothroyd’s team. Not necessarily a structural fault, but an inability to maintain their grasp of the game’s rhythm and shape. The second-half followed the same pattern as the first, with England controlling the opening minutes before, again, giving away the initiative. They’re not a high-pressing side, happy instead to allow their opponents to control possession in their own defensive third. The tactical concession to that, however, is normally a central resilience which, for the moment, England just don’t have. They’re too porous through the middle.
After the goalless draw with Sweden, Boothroyd suggested that some of his players might have been over anxious. That seemed fair. Lewis Baker, James Ward-Prowse and Nathaniel Chalobah usually enjoy a far greater understanding than they exhibited on Friday evening and that typically shows in the collective effect they have with the ball and their stifling influence without it; Sweden found it extremely easy to move through them and, on more than one occasion, created overloads which really should have yielded more. England’s midfield, normally such a tight unit, seemed to work in separate parts and on instinct rather than instruction.
Early tournament blues perhaps, but there’s still work to do.
England were not a pre-tournament favourite and, actually, a semi-final appearance would probably be a slight over-achievement. However, perception is important. Slovakia’s win over Poland has made Monday’s game with the former a must-win, but it’s also vital that this u21 side shows something at this tournament – some trace of positivity. Winning u20 competitions, retaining the Toulon Tournament title and reaching the final of the u17 European Championship are all laudable waypoints which warrant recognition and applause, but until England achieve at this level – the last stop before the senior game – the public will remain unconvinced that anything has really changed or that the claims of a brighter tomorrow hold any truth. It has and they do, but both will become toughers sells to an embittered public who now recoil from any sort of failure. It wouldn’t be illogical either, because this is the last preparatory stage and so any evidence of a continuing structural ellipsis here would invite some highly familiar criticism.
These players are not in a fair situation. With no senior tournament taking place, the responsibility has fallen on them to act as the barometer of future performance. Unfortunately, failure here would, in the eyes of many, count for more than the successes elsewhere. England’s u21s must shoulder that burden: for those beneath them, but also for appreciation of the infrastructural reform which they themselves are part of. They are standard-bearers for New England, for Dan Ashworth’s England, for We’ve Learned Our Lessons This Time England and, as the sparse support here in Kielce would suggest, they are battling against a native negativity which remains unmoved by the achievements of younger teams.
A group stage exit here wouldn’t be a disaster. England’s name and the size of their domestic league doesn’t disguise that, really, they’re only the fourth or fifth-best side here. Regardless, it would still be a PR failure and a victory for those who pay next-t0-no attention to anything beneath The FA’s surface and yet who continue to dismiss the deeper texture within its reforms.