For years, in some quarters at least, English football has been a cesspool of jealousy when looking across at main rivals when it comes to major tournaments. The nation’s constant failure to win, or even put up a good fight in recent years, has gone from a bit of a joke to a genuine concern.
Part of the issue has been the lack of style and identity. Looking at the winners of the titles over the recent years, it is easy to see just how those teams have become successful. Whether it is Brazilian flair, German efficiency, Italian organisation or Spanish intensity, it would be easy to see which team was playing, even if they weren’t wearing the famous colours of their country.
There has been a rather vicious cycle to contend with in England. Following a disappointing showing at a tournament, media and pundits alike will outline how to move forward, and it usually centres around trying to model the entire set up of the Football Association on that of the nation who has just proven successful. The trouble is, football is forever evolving, and failing to play to the strengths from within leaves this country constantly playing catch up.
Change may be in the air, though. On Sunday morning, England’s under-20s won the World Cup, beating Venezuela 1-0 in the final. It was the first male footballing triumph on the international stage since 1966, but it is very easy to misconstrue what it could mean for the future of the game and whether England can compete better at senior level as a direct result.
There are a number of genuinely promising players who impressed in South Korea under the stewardship of coach Paul Simpson. Goalscorer in the final, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Ademola Lookman have enjoyed good early development under Ronald Koeman at Everton, while Freddie Woodman, who saved a penalty, is highly thought of at Newcastle United. Liverpool’s capture of Dominic Solanke from Chelsea may well have saved his career, given how easy it is for youngsters to fall through the net at Stamford Bridge, despite the club’s excellent FA Youth Cup record.
Spain and Germany have been the most prominent trendsetters lately, and it could be argued that winning a combination of four titles between them in nine years has stemmed from how their development squads did in their tournaments. The spine of Germany’s 2014 World Cup winning side had beaten England in the 2009 under-21 European Championship final, including the likes of Mesut Özil, Manuel Neuer and Sami Khedira. Thiago Alcantara and Isco have become mainstays for La Roja after helping them to win that same competition in 2013.
But from the game against Germany, which Stuart Pearce’s men lost 4-0, only Joe Hart progressed through to become a regular on the full international scene. Nicky Butt was the star for England under 20s in 1993, when they reached the last four of the World Cup, and although he went on to have an impressively solid career, neither was it incredibly era-defining, so this team must learn to thrive with their new reputations.
No tournament can be won by success further down the ranks years earlier. Talented players must be nurtured, afforded opportunities to grow and even make mistakes. Özil and Thiago, along with a number of their teammates, had played lots of games at club level, mainly because the Spanish and German leagues collaborate with their respective national teams because success is mutually beneficial.
In England, the FA and the Premier League are completely separate entities and often act as such. Domestic football, some would say, is driven further by marketing and brand exposure than it is supporting the international game. Often, young players are not given a chance because the pressures to get results are so great. This is the main reason for England’s sorry demise on the biggest stage of all.
Calvert-Lewin, Woodman and Solanke offer hope for a much brighter future. This is a team that has achieved something so many greats; the likes of Paul Gascoigne, Alan Shearer and Steven Gerrard, never could, and tasted international success. More importantly, they did it together, in their own style. Simpson’s side played with great pace, getting at teams as quickly as they could. It has proven to be a great start on the journey toward success in years to come, but cannot be seen as job done. Just because they have succeeded now does not mean they will continue to fulfil their potential.
It must be said that the FA are making strides in the right direction. Whatever the general opinion of him may be, Gareth Southgate, now England manager, represents the kind of continuation needed to succeed, having previously worked as under-21 boss. Developing a playing style and allowing players to immerse in it together are lessons that should be learnt from Germany and Spain, rather than copying their actual methods.
Aidy Boothroyd will be looking to repeat the success of the under-20s with the year above later this summer, and once again there is promise. His squad is brimming with talented Premier League regulars, and while Southgate’s decision to include Marcus Rashford in the senior squad instead of allowing him to go to the Euros in Poland has contradicted many people’s thinking, there is a clearer plan in place now than there has been for a long time.
The FA seems to have realised previous errors and there is a real feeling that something big could happen for England in the not to distant future. The under-20s success serves as a marker, proof it can be done, but the hard work is just beginning. The Premier League must play its part, as must the clubs, but the Young Lions have obtained a vital winning mentality and they did it their own way, but they must heed previous warnings to succeed.