This is the first half of a two-part piece, where I will be taking a look at the future of the England National team, judging the state of our young generation compared to those of rival nations. Also to see if we can pin point where our game is potentially going wrong, and why seemingly the English cupboard is bare, compared with those we compete against. In this half, we’ll be concentrating on the development of young stars between the age 17 and 21.
During the summer of 2014, I had great pleasure in watching the UEFA European Under 17 Championship, which was based in Malta. I would even say that I found this tournament more entertaining to watch than the slightly grander spectacle held in Brazil that summer. With eye catching youngsters such as Benjamin Henrichs, Rúben Neves and Enes Ünal bringing pleasure to the fans, the tournament culminated in a rather fortunate England side beating the impressive young Dutch team in a penalty shoot out to lift the title. The Netherlands team really were the stars of the tournament, but kudos to England, they rode their luck at times, particularly in the semi-final win over Portugal and brought home the trophy.
It’s the two finalists of the 2014 tournament that I will be basing my comparison on in this article, how do the English and Dutch teams compare 19 months later, with most of the players now 18 years of age, how much game time are they getting, either in the top flight or second tier football. Below is a table I prepared showing a comparison of career minutes played at club level so far.
Now as you can see, things look pretty similar between both sets of players, you could even argue that the England team is in a slightly better position. The likes of Joe Gomez, Dominic Solanke, Lewis Cook and Taylor Moore all gaining valuable experience. Why is it then, that as fans, we give more credence to the futures of Steven Bergwijn, Kenneth Paal, Donny van de Beek and Bilal Ould-Chikh? Are the English players not just as exciting? Are we just lured by the prospects of Dutch youngsters because of how fondly we look at the Dutch stars of the past? I fear the reason is that we in England expect the inevitable, that over the next few seasons the game time will not be properly given during the important years of 18-21. It’s happened before, what’s to stop it happening again.
To back up this claim it’s worth looking at the generation that just hit the age of 21, coincidentally England and Netherlands also met during the 2011 UEFA European Under 17 Championship, a tournament the Dutch won, beating England in the semi-final. Now take a look at the two sets of players from that year’s event, again showing career minutes played so far at club level.
The difference here is startling, the Dutch team have 5 times the amount of top tier minutes played, Continental experience and 4 of the squad are now full Dutch Internationals, a few more on the cusp of the squad. England have one player in Raheem Sterling who has full International honours, and Nathan Redmond doing well at Norwich. Two members of England’s squad went on to declare their loyalty to other National teams. So what happened? Ok it’s acceptable to say that some of the players just weren’t up to the required level, but that is applicable on both sides, the vast majority of the English lads were just not given the game time required during the key years of their progression.
Now the question is, will this also happen to team that represented the Country in 2014? Right now we can say that Dominic Solanke, Isaiah Brown, Joe Gomez and Patrick Roberts are the pick of the bunch. I would have added Ryan Ledson to that list originally but his progression hasn’t really got going since the tournament. Will they get the minutes required to fulfil their potential? Solanke and Brown are on loan at Vitesse from Chelsea, not a situation that fills you with too much confidence for either player considering those that trod the path before them. Patrick Roberts recently joined Manchester City in a big money move, and his game time has diminished since, whereas sadly for Joe Gomez he has unfortunately picked up a long term injury just as his Liverpool career was taking off.
The Dutch however, you get the feeling that the path to progress for their young stars is being carefully planned, Bergwijn and van de Beek are now appearing in PSV and Ajax teams respectively. Other exciting talents like Schuurman, Nouri, Paal and van Osch are being built up to be on the verge of their teams. Bilal Ould-Chikh, like Patrick Roberts, made a big summer move to Benfica, as the Portuguese giants took advantage of FC Twentes financial situation, but unlike with Manchester City, the door to first team football is a little more open in Benficas system. So what’s to say in three years’ time, yet again a generation of English players have fallen short, whereas our competitors have embraced theirs. The fear is the cycle is repeating.
So how can English football change? Well a new trend in young English players is happening, more and more are plying their trade overseas and learning the game in European academies. Eric Dier is a prime example of that, if he had not trained with Sporting Lisbon would he now be an England International, capable of playing well in various positions, no is the short answer to that. I am no football coach but clearly training methods in England need to change. Also the structure of our game at youth level really needs looking into.
The Under 21 Premier League doesn’t seem to be a great success, it is not providing the players the correct level of football to grow. Loans are being organised, often without any real thought into how a move will benefit the player involved. Short term transfers are being brought in to fill squad gaps instead of chancing a ‘kid’ and the big clubs are stockpiling talent, not allowing any of them to grow.
What are the options to improve the situation? Well the idea for ‘B Teams’ was mooted by FA Chairman Greg Dyke, an idea ridiculed by many, despite its success in Spain and the Netherlands. I can see the problem with this in regard to the English game though, it could signal the death of many lower league clubs. Maybe more television coverage could be given to hype up the Under 21 league, there are enough Sport channels around showing endless repeats, why not invest in the youth leagues, giving the players a stage on which to shine. Another idea would be creating a youth tournament with a huge cash incentive to the winners, after all clubs will start paying youth football more attention if there was a chance to make some money from it at the end. Some ‘out of the box’ thinking needs to happen at the FA, right now it’s not working and in three years’ time we could be looking back at the Euro Champions of 2014 and wondering what could have been.
Part 2 of this article will be looking at the current situation of England’s Under 23’s, and how they stack up against their rival nations globally.