Are England’s Under-21 talents overrated?
England Under-21 fans who have trekked all the way to the Czech Republic for the UEFA Under-21 Championship could be forgiven for feeling they have been short changed so far, as the Young Lions, who arrived on the continent amid much fanfare, have looked as suspiciously lacklustre as their senior counterparts often do in big tournaments.
Just like the Three Lions in Brazil at the World Cup before them, England Under-21s (still 5/1 with Coral to win the tournament) could fail to progress from the group stage, which should be shocking considering the calibre of clubs Gareth Southgate’s talents hail from.
Manchester United academy graduate Jesse Lingard’s perfectly placed, but fortunate and late, volley against underdogs Sweden kept Southgate’s side in contention for qualification after an opening defeat to Portugal. Regardless of whether the Young Lions defeat Italy and progress, or fail and fall at the first hurdle, questions must be asked once again about mentality.
Watch Lingard’s lovely goal here:
Before facing the Swedes, Blue-Yellow defender Ludwig Augustinsson prodded the England camp by stating he thought the Young Lions were “a little overrated”, before adding: “Some players go for such sick amounts of money in England and it is a bit more expensive than what they are worth. We’ll see tomorrow how good they are.”
Of course Augustinsson’s words came back to haunt him in the end, but Sweden almost deservedly stole a point, as England looked laboured, turgid and devoid of ideas.
Again accusations of press and fan pressure swirl and there must surely be more than a grain of truth to that, with expectation on English footballers always high, but many of the starting XI against Portugal and Sweden have played regularly in the Premier League, in some cases shouldering huge burdens for their clubs.
Are we guilty as a nation then, of simply overrating our youngsters? It is tough to pinpoint just one reason why England international sides just don’t perform when it comes to the crunch and, so far, it seems that the Under-21s are mirroring their older peers. Yet despite arguments over the rating of individual talent, it is as a unit that England underwhelm. Unfancied Sweden, by comparison, have shown spades of spirit, unity and team play.
The Young Lions have looked far too Harry Kane-centric in the Czech Republic, with the Tottenham starlet (20/1 to be 2015 UEFA Under-21 Championship top scorer) left adrift and alone up top, expected to feed off scraps. A haul of 21 Premier League goals in his first full season for Spurs, despite suspicions he may succumb to second-season syndrome, suggests the striker’s prowess in not exaggerated though.
View Kane’s Tottenham goals:
Yet ‘Hurri-Kane’ does not have Christian Eriksen pulling the strings behind him here and should not be expected to work wonders alone. In fairness to Southgate, his substitutions, including bringing on Danny Ings to provide support, plus Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Lingard, did improve England, so there is no need to write the team off just yet.
It should also be remembered that the likes of Saido Berahino, Luke Shaw, John Stones and now injured Alex Pritchard are not available for selection, and would have combined for a stronger spine.
The Young Lions’ poor output is perhaps best summed-up by their sole goalscorer so far, Lingard, who was originally left out against the Blue-Yellow. Lingard is a late bloomer, but highly effective. Intelligent, with an eye for goal and the underrated ability to keep things wonderfully simple, the 22-year-old was benched along with James Ward-Prowse after a disappointing opening outing.
Not as naturally gifted, or explosive, as Norwich City’s Nathan Redmond, Lingard can, however, help knit the team together if given the chance. The Red Devil is no world beater alone, but can bring balance, which is what the Young Lions require.
Tottenham’s Tom Carroll and Chelsea youth product Nathaniel Chalobah, meanwhile, are symptomatic of England’s recurring problems in midfield at many levels. The pair have not impressed, and Southgate must throw caution to the wind now by deploying those who will allow the play to flow. Will Hughes, for example, showed glimpses against Sweden before being replaced.
The Young Lions may not boast as much stardust as Portugal, but the talent they do have should see them sweep aside the likes of Sweden. Allowing the technically sound midfield talents of Hughes, Lingard, Loftus-Cheek and Ward-Prowse the chance to sink or swim, instead of favouring safer options, could spark England’s attack, and once again have fans, rightly or wrongly, fawning over the next generation.
Many of the aforementioned Young Lions would at least be considered by stronger squads such as Portugal and Germany, though realistically perhaps not as starters, with their creativity nurtured rather than punished, illustrating that it is teamplay not individual talent that is the overriding issue once again.