By Jay Jaffa
Many of us grimaced upon hearing Stuart Pearce’s declaration that his England Under-21s held the advantage over their Norwegian counterparts because Tor Ole Skullerud’s side “haven’t seen the sun in eight months”.
As it turned out, Norway exuded confidence in the HaMoshava Stadium in Petah Tikva, clinically dismantling a defensively fragile England side and eliminating one of the pre-tournament favourites before the group stage had even concluded.
Excuses have been in ample supply in the past week. From Pearce quite rightly lamenting the players he had missing from his squad, to those higher up in English football's hierarchy who have had to fend off fierce criticism aimed at the Young Lions.
But now, with England embarrassed for the second European Under-21 tournament in succession, the Football Association must take stock and devise a realistic plan to get English football moving in the right direction.
To his credit, Pearce has energised a stagnant Under-21 set-up. Upon arrival in 2007, the side had failed to qualify for the 2004 and 2006 iterations of the tournament. Before then there were a pair of group stage exits papering over a decade from 1990-1998 in which England barely registered as a player on the U21 circuit.
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Yet the failure to progress out of the groups in 2011 and now 2013 should represent Pearce’s final act as Under-21 manager, and tellingly the 51-year-old refused to indulge any questions about his future in the immediate aftermath of the Norway defeat.
Defensively, Pearce’s side came into the tournament holding a fantastic record of nine clean sheets in a row, but this proud boast was swiftly made redundant thanks to Lorenzo Insigne’s free kick and Norway’s fine finishing.
But there are deeper problems than the suddenly brittle defensive foundations. Throughout Pearce’s tenure, the clunky, rigid attacking shape was often easy to read and neutralise. This was apparent against Italy as at one end a well-drilled defence coped with ease, and the other saw the brilliant technician Marco Verratti dictate proceedings.
It was 90 minutes of pure frustration - what was the point of carrying such a stellar record to Israel if this was the final product?
Yet this England side do at least have their heart in the right place. They want to play short, sharp possession football and that was the basis of many attacking moves, but leaden-booted movement would quickly cause a breakdown or cessation of the ball. There has at least been progress, however stunted.
In the aftermath of their elimination, with St. George’s Park six months old and the advent of a coaching overhaul on the horizon, the FA must consider the direction in which they wish to move.
It will primarily be the job of new head of elite development Dan Ashworth to ascertain what exactly England want to build and as he said earlier this week: “I think it's important at some stage that we state what our playing and coaching philosophy is as a country, not necessarily based on what the clubs have."
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Far from being an afterthought, Under-21 football and the development of the country’s youth is the thrust of international football - at least at elite level. Germany, Spain and Netherlands have led the way in Europe and are reaping the benefits of the planning put into their sides. Increasingly the Under-21 team is the tail that wags the dog, rather than the other way around.
Jurgen Klinsmann and Joachim Low partnered up in 2004 and oversaw the revolution of German football. The financial strife that many Bundesliga clubs suffered in the early 2000s prompted a change and years later, Die Mannschaft have seen the fruits of their labour. Although titles evaded the national side, recognition and admiration for their sweeping style of football have been bestowed upon them. They have found an answer and one that translates from the bottom of the pyramid to the top.
In essence, this is what England craves; a style to call our own. Or at least a style that is not predicated on traditional English virtues of honest graft. That grit, determination and spirit - words synonymous with the Three Lions and undoubtedly Stuart Pearce - are marvellous traits, but football has moved beyond guts and gusto alone - it cannot take you all the way in a tournament (or even out of a group); there must be something more, something cerebral. Nor should hard work and passion be put on a pedestal, but rather a base requirement.
Ashworth’s vision sees England win a tournament in the 2020s - a genuine 10 year plan - and much of this work will start now. It is not so much the style of the new man, but rather his capacity to invite change, adapt to the FA’s vision and influence the next generation of English talent. This set of rules is evident at Under-20 level where Peter Taylor was invited back into the national set-up and now coaches that side.
Pearce will receive thanks for the honest, and at times, refreshing work he did for the Under-21s, but he has been left behind by a nation's fancies and a football association under pressure to create winning football. His moment has passed, and it is time for a changing of the guard.
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