Another demoralising defeat, another inquest into where English football is going wrong.
Stuart Pearce will almost certainly be a casualty of England's humiliating early exit at the European Under-21 Championship, although anyone who thinks that appointing a new manager will solve everything is deluded.
If it is hard to argue with the idea that it is time for Pearce's six-year reign to come to an end, especially when the manager resorts to asking centre-halfs to play as centre-forwards – as he did in the final 15 minutes of the sobering 3-1 defeat against Norway on Saturday – the reality is that the reasons behind the poor performances England have delivered in Israel run deeper than the tactical shortcomings of the man in charge.
First and foremost, the Football Association needs to decide whether it is serious about trying to win the Under-21 European Championship, or if Roy Hodgson, the England coach, and the rest of the governing body are happy to go through the motions every two years and prioritise international friendlies instead. One thing is clear, after failing to win any of their previous eight European Championship tournament matches in normal time, England are not good enough to be competitive at under-21 level with a shadow squad.
Whether Pearce would have got the best out of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones, Danny Welbeck et al is a matter for debate, but something is clearly wrong when the Italy Under-21 coach is thanking the manager of the senior team for making Marco Verratti, a full international, available for the opening group game in Tel Aviv – where England gave two teenagers debuts and lost 1-0.
For England, though, the Norway result was the tipping point and suggested there are wider issues to be addressed. While it is understandable to think they will never win the tournament without their best players – which has been Pearce's message for years – there is no excuse for losing so abjectly to a Norway side who had four of their regular starters on the bench because they had played for the senior team against Albania the night before.
The Norway defeat was one of those rare occasions when, in the wake of a poor England display, we were not left bemoaning the team's inability to retain the ball. England made 462 completed passes compared with Norway's 156 and enjoyed 69% of possession. A bigger problem was knowing how to use the ball intelligently – for all their dominance, England registered only one more goal attempt than Norway. At the other end of the pitch, England's defence was, to quote Pearce, "a disaster". A defence that failed to concede in nine matches across 19 months has been breached four times in 62 minutes of football here.
As much as Pearce must carry the can, the England players have hardly covered themselves in glory. Indeed, on the back of the defeats against Italy and Norway the natural conclusion to draw is that, with the star names missing, England have a paucity of talent at under-21 level.
Research carried out by the CIES Football Observatory revealed last week that the playing time of English footballers under the age of 21 in the Premier League has fallen to its lowest ever level. For too long, the Premier League and its member clubs have been preoccupied with serving their own interests, which means generating as much money as possible and focusing on short-term success. The corollary is that homegrown players have fewer chances to break through than in any of the other leading nations.
As for the FA, it is now playing catch up at St George's Park, the national football centre, after finally waking up to the fact that there is a lack of highly qualified coaches in England compared with the other leading nations. Increasing those numbers will take time, as will the benefits of the elite player performance plan, which it is hard to be optimistic about when there are so few pathways to the first team.
In the meantime, Pearce will take charge of the England Under-21 team against Israel on Tuesday evening for what looks like being his final game. Gareth Southgate and Peter Taylor, who had two previous spells in charge of the Under-21s, are leading contenders to replace him, with the FA unlikely to move for either Glenn Hoddle or Steve McClaren, two former England coaches. Whatever happens, much more needs to change than the name of the Under-21 manager.
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