U21s can entertain
Tom Ince and Wilfried Zaha should ensure England Under-21s have a more exciting Euros this June, says Jon Holmes.
Last Updated: 17/05/13 5:55pm
In the land of the Vikings, English football showed it was still stuck in the Dark Ages.
That was the verdict after the 2011 UEFA European Under-21 Championship in Denmark, where England U21s scored two goals, picked up two points and played far too many aimless long balls. After a backs-to-the-wall draw with stylish Spain and a stultifying stalemate with Ukraine, Stuart Pearce's young charges took the lead against the Czechs and were on course to clamber into the semis - only to collapse, lose and crash out.
Pearce was on the defensive almost from the start. Having been deprived of Jack Wilshere, England's midfield lacked composure and creativity, with Michael Mancienne deployed in a holding role and Danny Rose pushed upfield on the left wing. Criticisms of square pegs in round holes, the familiar possession problem and England's lack of intelligence under pressure were all directed at the manager. Pearce countered with praise for England's rearguard strength and their endeavour - qualities he claimed were inherent in our national "DNA".
The concern, however, was not nature but nurture. Where were the technical skills, the confidence of youth, the imagination? We'd seen the future. It wasn't exactly murder, to quote Leonard Cohen - but it had been painful to watch, and didn't bode well for English football. Meanwhile, Spain swashbuckled their way to tournament glory and within a couple of weeks, Pearce was handed a new two-year deal. "Continuity is vital," said FA chairman David Bernstein.
Fast forward 20 months to the present day - any change in the outlook for England's new breed? A brighter tomorrow, or will it be a case of 'same old, same old'?
Despite the cold weather, convincing home wins over Romania and Austria have seen the Under-21s warm up rather nicely for their fourth successive U21 Euros finals - a consistency of qualification unmatched by any other nation.
There's been continuity too in the defence, with only three goals conceded as England topped Group 8 and saw off Serbia 2-0 on aggregate in the play-offs. Pearce's young Lions are now on a record-breaking run of nine straight wins (five qualifiers, four friendlies), all achieved with clean sheets.
Jack Butland is the pick of a strong trio of goalkeepers - Jason Steele and Ben Amos provide the competition - while Craig Dawson is a born leader in central defence with a knack for scoring at set-pieces. Steven Caulker has gained extra experience this season and the versatility of Andre Wisdom makes him a solid squad option. In the right-back position, Nathaniel Clyne and Adam Smith have both impressed in recent U21 appearances while on the other flank, the reliable Rose gives balance and determination. Jack Robinson, on loan at Wolves from Liverpool, and Leeds' Tom Lees are also in competition for squad spots.
However, it's the significant improvements in midfield and attack that make England much more of an attractive proposition this summer.
Skipper Jordan Henderson and Henri Lansbury both struggled to impress in Denmark, but are brimming with confidence now and are certainties for Pearce's 23-man party. Another of his most trusted lieutenants is Blackburn's Jason Lowe - one last-ditch block against Austria in the first half in Brighton on Monday night demonstrated his awareness and bravery. Pearce recently said of the trio: "You could manage for 50 years and not find three more professional and dedicated lads."
They can play a bit too, but it's fair to say it's a different trio who England fans will be most looking forward to watching in Israel. Raheem Sterling, Thomas Ince and Wilfried Zaha offer a significant combined threat that can pull the opposition in unwanted directions and unlock defences. Sterling's wing play has been a highlight of Liverpool's season; Ince has been beating men for pace and banging in goals for Blackpool; while Crystal Palace's Zaha is one of the most skilful talents seen in this country for many a year. Even if Pearce is denied the services of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain this summer (a debate that is sure to rage in the days leading up to May 13, when the U21 squad is likely to be confirmed), he has the personnel to banish memories of those dreary displays in Denmark.
Throw in a couple more names of note - Watford's on-loan Chelsea midfielder Nathaniel Chalobah, who was perhaps the star man in the friendly double-header; and striker Connor Wickham, scorer of five goals in the last six U21 games. Jack Rodwell could even be available (injury permitting) for what would be, like Rose, his third tournament at this level, and Pearce hasn't given up hope of persuading Sir Alex Ferguson and Roy Hodgson to let him take Phil Jones to the Middle East too.
Of course, there will be those who say that it is the manager's tactics that are the biggest barrier to England's hopes of a tournament victory. However, there have been genuine signs in recent months that Pearce is shedding his penchant for the Charles Hughes manual and encouraging his charges to express themselves. Temperature shouldn't be a major issue either - between 21 and 28 degrees in Israel in June is warm but not sweltering.
Others more optimistic will talk of an easy group setting up a run to the final and potential glory, although the likes of Spain, Germany, Holland and Italy can rightly fancy their chances too.
What we can all agree on, however, is that having reached the finals again, it's time to see some flair to go with that English fire. In Sterling, Ince and Zaha, the Under-21s have three bright sparks that could light the way.
Possible England Under-21 squad for European U21 Championship in Israel:
Goalkeepers: Jack Butland, Jason Steele, Ben Amos.
Defenders: Nathaniel Clyne, Adam Smith, Andre Wisdom, Craig Dawson, Steven Caulker, Danny Rose, Jack Robinson, Tom Lees.
Midfielders: Jordan Henderson, Henri Lansbury, Jonjo Shelvey, Josh McEachran, Jack Rodwell, Jason Lowe, Nathaniel Chalobah.
Forwards: Raheem Sterling, Tom Ince, Wilfried Zaha, Connor Wickham, Marvin Sordell.
Follow Jon on Twitter at @jonboy79.