England's U-21s should stop trying to emulate Gerrard and co and should focus on technical ability.
Youth football is much like a new relationship. You promise that this time it'll be different. That you won't make the same stupid mistakes as before and that you'll think before you act. Fat chance.
The problem for England U-21s is that there hasn't been that break from the past, the forgetting of bad habits and the adoption of better ones. The talent is there certainly, with the exception of the goalkeeper all of the first team play for Premier League clubs. Kyle Walker's driving runs up the flank, Daniel Sturridge's shooting ability and the defensive paring of Phil Jones and Chris Smalling all gave glimpses of future success. These are all players who haven't looked out of place in the Premier League, so why did they struggle against an unambitious Ukraine side who made little effort other than to sit back?
Too much of what was on display here tonight we'd seen before from England at the senior level. Perhaps instead of trying to emulate Steven Gerrard and co, the U-21 players should be trying to set a better example. There was little co-ordination between the attack and defence when the team pushed forward, this frustration over the disjointed nature of England's attack expressed itself through the ever present long balls. The lack of composure in attack was particularly damning given the nature of the opposition. Against a technically superior Spain side, an element of sitting off and attempting to contain the opposition was justified. Against the Ukraine it was not. The Ukrainian players were wary of the threat posed by England and their decision to sit back against them flattered, compared to the actual talent England displayed on the pitch.
The lack of composure in attack was particularly damming given the nature of the opposition.
Often in the attack England seemed rushed, with players grabbing the ball and barrelling down at the Ukrainian defence without looking to play the killer pass or allow team mates to contribute to the attack. While Sturridge's Hollywood shot, a spectacular effort which beat the keeper but unfortunately hit the bar, would have been a contender for goal of the tournament if it went in, England posed little attacking threat from their pace and physicality. When the team did slow down and players, especially Mancienne looked to play the killer pass from the outside of the area Ukraine looked troubled. Passing and moving on the edge of the area drew defenders out of position and also several fouls from the Ukrainian defenders who correctly identified that this was a real threat from England.
As with all great frustrations, the finished article is tantalisingly close but remains that little bit out of reach. Now we reach the blamestorming session, obligatory in any article about the England team stumbling. There were two aspects about the England set up which frustrated. One was the lack of Jack Wilshire, the other was the presence of Stuart Pearce.
Wilshire has been one of the revelations of this season. He did not look out of place against Barcelona in the Champions League and he was one of Arsenal's players of the season. Importantly for England he's able to perform in the regista role, sitting back spraying passes and giving the team a tempo to play to. Mancienne tried to do this, it was noticeable as he was one of the few England players who took some time and looked to play a considred pass to launch an attack. While he made a few good attempts at this, he lacks the feel for the game which Wilshire has demonstrated. England needed a player like Wilshire to dictate the plays and give the team some shape. Without him England attacks often felt like they were being made up as they went along rather than following a considered plan. While there were a surplus of central holding players in Mancienne, Rodwell and Henderson, the lack of an adequate replacement in the creative role was clear. The importance of Wilshire has clearly been noted by his absence from this tournament. We can look forward to him playing a central role in England's efforts at Poland/Ukraine 2012.
In the aftermath of the failure to qualify for Euro 2008, the FA promised a 'root and branch' review of English football promising to tackle the long term problems behind England's under performance on the international stage. It seems obvious that the FA has failed to emulate Spain and Germany whose successes at youth level are the product of considerable investment in coaches and training facilities whilst stressing the technical side of the game. Stuart Pearce is not the man to deliver this emphasis on technical football which England will need to compete at the highest level. He is an old fashioned manager and the job of the U-21 manager should not be given to a old ex pro who wants to remain in football. England's future success will demand forward thinking and a manger who can impress good habits into these players now. It has been clear watching England at this tournament that the old habits of the long ball have not been abandoned. If the FA cannot find an English manager to do this at the youth level then importing foreign coaches is a bigger imperative for the English game than giving a big name foreign coach £6 million per annum. Capello's influence on English football will naturally be short lived, proper investment in youth football will be an investment which can last a generation.
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