Juan Mata, Mesut Ozil, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Iker Casillas, Andrea Pirlo, Petr Cech – what do these great players have in common apart from being world class? All have stared in the UEFA Under 21 Championship in recent years and gone on to be key performers for their clubs and countries by building on the experience gained in the competition.
It is no coincidence that the countries who have had recent success in the Under 21 European Championship – Spain, Italy, Germany and Netherlands – have gone on to either win, or feature in, a Euro’s or World Cup final in recent years.
If the Under 21 European Championship is seen as a stepping stone for some of the best players in the world across Spain, Italy, Germany and the Netherlands, why do England fail to take the competition as seriously as they should?
The 2013 Under 21 European Championship begins tonight in Israel, with England looking to win their first Championship since 1984. During that time, 7 different nations have won the competition – Italy (5 times), Spain (3), Netherlands (2), Germany (1), France (1),Czech Republic (1) and Soviet Union (1).
To make things worse for England, they have only appeared in the final once during that period when they were comprehensively crushed by an Ozil inspired Germany 4-0 in 2009. England will fancy themselves to reach the latter stages of the competition, however if recent performances in major tournaments is anything to go by, more questions are likely to be raised than answers provided about England as a footballing nation.
The key issue I have with how England approach these types of competitions is the squad. If you want to achieve success, at a youth then senior level, surely it is important to take your best squad to improve your chances of winning. Success breeds success – just look at Ferguson’s Man Utd ‘Class of 92’ who moved up the ranks together winning everything at youth then senior level.
Italy, Germany, Netherlands and Spain have included a number of players in their Under 21 squad who have already made their full International debuts and could have been excluded from the tournament in favour of the senior team.
However, the likes of Verratti, Insigne, Holtby, Strootman, Wijnaldum, Thiago, Isco to name a few, will all play major roles in the Under 21 Championship after their respective countries decided it would be best for the development of the players and the long-term footballing future of the nation for them to take part.
Compare this decision with England – Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jones and Rodwell are all eligible to play in Israel, however they were instead picked for the full England squad for the recent friendlies against Ireland and Brazil. Unfortunately Welbeck, Wilshere and Sterling are injured so are ruled out of the tournament, but the reality is that if they weren’t sidelined, Sterling would probably have been the only one of these players to have featured.
Butland, Caulker, Henderson, Shelvey and Zaha have all gained full International caps in recent months and they are all included in the Under 21 squad, however, Zaha aside, none of these players are at the same level as the likes of Jones, Oxlade-Chamberlain and Wilshere. More importantly, none of these players are anywhere near the same standard as the likes of Holtby, Verratti and Isco.
There is obviously benefit to having young players link up with the senior England squad, but I’d much prefer to see Oxlade-Chamberlain helping England to lift the Under 21 Championship trophy rather than having a good cameo appearance against Brazil in a pointless friendly.
In fact, England’s squad lacks experience of playing in the Premier League, let alone at International level. Caulker, Rose, Clyne, Henderson, Shelvey and Wickham are some of the only names to have featured in the top-flight of English football this season.
Instead, Stuart Pearce has been forced to look at the Championship and below, with players such as Steele, Lees, Chalobah, Ince, Lansbury and Sordell featuring in the squad instead. This is probably down to a more deep-routed issue within the English game of a lack of home-grown talent, however that subject is far too complicated to cover now!
Interestingly though, the issue of not playing your best available players doesn’t seem to be anything new for England. I looked at the previous Under 21 Championship squads and noticed some extraordinary exclusions – Rooney, Gerrard, Terry and Rio Ferdinand are considered some of the best players to have put on the England shirt in recent years, however none of these players have ever featured in an Under 21 European Championship.
If success breeds success, unfortunately it looks like we’ll be waiting a lot longer before we know what that feels like in England!
The list below shows the ‘house-hold’ English Premier League players who have featured in the Under 21 European Championship during the past 5 tournaments and have gone on to represent England at senior International level.
2011 – Bertrand, Smalling, Jones, Henderson, Welbeck, Sturridge, Gibbs, Walker, Cleverley, Rodwell
2009 – Hart, Milner, Agbonlahor, Johnson, Walcott, Rodwell, Richards, Gibbs
2007 – Baines, Anton Ferdinand, Cahill, Young, Hart, Milner, Huddlestone
2002 – Robinson, Barry, Defoe, Jenas, Parker, Crouch, Zamora
2000 – Robinson, Carragher, Lampard
Written by Dave Hornby
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