by Tom Maston
With the Football Association earmarking England’s 18-21-year-olds as those who are failing to live up to their potential, the Toulon Tournament allowed Gareth Southgate and his squad to disprove that theory for the time being. In short, they failed.
One win from five matches is a poor return, and though finishing in fourth cannot be sniffed at, in truth the Three Lions failed to take the opportunity to showcase their talents.
Greg Dyke and the FA chose to send a side to compete in Toulon for the first time in nine years with the aim to provide valuable tournament experience to the next generation of England footballers as well as put in performances that will have made Roy Hodgson sit up and take notice.
|Portugal U21 1-0 England U21
|Southgate's men settle for fourth in Toulon Tournament|
But few performances will live long in the memory.
It is fair to say that the squad were missing a number of players who in other circumstances would have been key members. Luke Shaw, Ross Barkley and Raheem Sterling, among others, are with Hodgson on their way to Brazil while Harry Kane and Nick Powell were injured.
But that provided the opportunity to show there is strength in depth for England to call upon in the coming years. From this evidence, there is a long way to go.
England arrived with a squad who mustered 57 Premier League starts in the 2013-14 season - plus nine in Portugal’s Primeira Liga by Eric Dier - but 14 players are still awaiting their full debuts in top-flight football.
Though English domestic football boasts more depth than its international counterparts, the fact that so few of the country’s talented youngsters are getting a chance to impress at the highest level remains the biggest issue in the national game.
For all the talk of ‘B’ teams playing in lower leagues, it is top-level experience where those making their way in the international game are coming up short. The introduction of quotas of English players into the Premier League is beginning to be abused - with Richard Wright at Manchester City a prime example - and more needs to be done to make sure young homegrown players are being given their chance.
Whether that is by introducing rules regarding the number of English players in matchday squads or even putting a cap on foreign signings, Dyke and his select committee have plenty to mull over.
They will no doubt have noticed how the gulf in class between the Three Lions and eventual winners Brazil almost defied belief.
The Selecao played a second-string side against Qatar and won 7-0 before beating hosts France 5-2 in the final.
Most, if not all, of their 20 players would have been selected for England. Few in Southgate’s roster would have even been considered for Brazil’s squad. The South American nation are a footballing superpower, and it seems the Three Lions have some way to go to catch up.
Defensive errors proved to be England’s undoing, with all five goals they conceded down to a mistake in the back line. Captain and goalkeeper Jack Butland cannot be spared after his part in Brazil’s first goal during the group stage while Portugal’s winner in Sunday’s third-place play-off bordered on slapstick.
But it wasn’t all doom and gloom for Southgate’s charges: James Ward-Prowse was outstanding throughout as he was voted as the third-best player in the tournament, while his free kick against Brazil was named 'Goal of the Tournament'.
The Southampton youngster has had to wait for consistent opportunities at St Mary’s given the performances of Adam Lallana and Morgan Schneiderlin in particular, and has often been deployed on the right. But with at least one if not both of those players on their way out, the 19-year-old should be used by Mauricio Pochettino's eventual replacement as the lynchpin of the new Saints side.
Able to sit deep and dictate play with diagonal passes or break from the centre of the park to get involved with attacks, he looks set to become the next off the Southampton conveyor belt to make their England bow. His set-piece delivery, meanwhile, would mean Steven Gerrard would not be missed should he, as expected, bow out of the international game in the coming months.
Elsewhere Cauley Woodrow continued his development by finishing as the team’s top scorer, albeit with two, while Nathan Redmond and Nathaniel Chalobah continued to add to their burgeoning reputations. In truth, though, the FA would have been hoping for far more success stories.
England are the newly-crowned champions of Europe at Under-17 level, and the new breed in Hodgson’s squad have given supporters renewed hope ahead of the World Cup, but the Toulon Tournament has passed by without providing anything to shout about. There is a gap in the middle.
Dyke has vowed to improve the standards of those coming through the system, however that may be achieved. This age group now have tournament experience, they cannot let it go to waste.