Tonight sees the beginning of the Under-21 European Championship in Israel; a tournament that has graced our eyeballs with such playing delights as Zinedine Zidane, Petr Cech, and… Matthew Upson.
England were leprechaun lucky to avoid a group that contains Spain, Germany, Holland, and Russia, but will still have to contend with the hosts, Italy, and Norway in Group A.
In terms of predictions it’s business as usual, Spain are favourites to replicate the senior team and win the tournament a second time, while Holland also have their sights on the title. Germany’s youth is also typically strong. Which is annoying.
As for England, the team should be capable of getting out of their group but are probably weaker than whatever teams come out of the other group to meet them. But why is this?
Well the BBC have presented some data gathered by the International Centre for Sports Studies and it makes pretty grim reading.
Because you’re too lazy to read about it all, here are the most depressing facts in easily digestible bullet points. You slob.
- English U-21’s only made up 2.28% of the total minutes played in this season’s Premier League season – the lowest of the top five European leagues.
- Only 35 English U-21’s made appearances in the Premier League – the lowest in eight years.
- Manchester City, Chelsea, Swansea, Stoke, and Wigan didn’t play a single English U-21 in the entire season.
- In fact, the English top flight has the lowest number of national players regardless of age at 42.9% – a percentage that is dominated by the dominant German (55.4%) and Spanish (61.6%) top leagues.
Yeesh. In an age where sustainability is a word omitted from the footballing dictionary, English look weaker than ever. As David Pleat put it: “Some of the financial prizes for rising one place in the Premier League are so high now that clubs will jeopardise their youth in order to get those financial rewards.”
In the cases of Man City and Chelsea, it doesn’t matter if any good youth is coming through the ranks because they can just buy already developed players in the summer, and developing players themselves is too risky and time-consuming. They need a world-class team now, they need trophies now – they don’t need emerging talent now.
In the cases of Swansea, Stoke, and Wigan one can’t be quite as harsh. Swansea have fielded at least one Welsh U-21 and Wigan did give us the promising Callum McManamum who unfortunately will miss the tournament. As for Stoke, well you know it takes only the most premium European internationals to play their tiki taka.
So once again it seems England will battle on with what we have, maybe Shelvey or Zaha out doing themselves, but overall falling short of the more developed countries – looking on in jealousy as a some 19 year old German centre-mid adds 10-mil to his price tag.
So who are the key opponents to enviously watch out for?
Italy – Mattia Destro: The 20 year old striker enjoys drifting out wide and enjoys scoring – hitting 11 in 26 games in his first season for Roma. If he’s up for it, he’ll be a dangerous hitman that England will have to keep tight to.
Germany – Lewis Holtby: Okay, not a hidden gem since his move to Spurs but one to watch all the same. Holtby has disappointed me so far in his time at Tottenham, but put him in a German U-21 shirt and he turns into a wonder-player. The now captain has scored 13 goals in 21 games from midfield for the U-21’s and has shown no signs of stopping as he looks to step up to the senior team and cement a place in the Spurs team.
Spain – The Entire Squad: I’m not kidding. They could enter their U-21 team into the senior Euros and probably make it the quarter-finals. From David De Gea to Marc Bartra to Isco to Rodrigo to Iker Muniain the team is full of players who play for top European teams on a weekly basis – many of whom have played in the Champions League this season. They will really take some beating.