The U20 World Cup, and what it means for England

Posted by on Aug 15, 2013 in Uncategorized | 3 Comments
The U20 World Cup, and what it means for England
Image available under Creative Commons (c) Nicholas Smale

On Tuesday, England produced a highly encouraging 6-0 win over the auld enemy at Under-21 level. It has been, however, a miserable summer for the Three Lion Cubs. Here, our resident expert on youth football and designer of our rather fabulous site logo, Ben Piggott runs the rule over the possible reasons for England’s failure in the U20 World Cup in particular. Ben can be followed on twitter at @apt_pseudonym while he is also the brains behind graphic narrative The XII.

Well then, this was supposed to be a piece about the Football League players in England’s U20 squad and how they fared in the Youth World Cup last month. That didn’t really pan out, though. You already know how they fared, I suppose: not very well.

That summation covers the specific and the general. Those players sent from Football League clubs to represent England were few and far between, and in that sense they didn’t have much chance to fare at all. Sheffield United’s George Long didn’t set foot, and Jamaal Lascelles of Forest vanished after playing the opening 2-2 draw with Iraq. Middlesbrough ensured a stronger showing by sending three players, in keeping with their reputation for nurturing, developing, breeding and such. Of those, Adam Reach got portions of all three games and Luke Williams, though similarly denied a full 90, slotted home the second against Iraq.

‘Not very well’ also applies to England’s U20 squad as a whole. They were knocked out in the group stages, watching Iraq and Chile go through in their place. I use the term ‘their place’ advisedly because wouldn’t we all see the top of that group to be a place rightly graced by our boys (I use that term advisedly, too)? Well it wasn’t. It was taken by a team at whom most of us will have looked down our noses when the draw was made but who ended up a couple of kicks from the final.

Those same noses — bloodied, probably sunburnt — will now be sniffing out the familiar, but no less sticky, smell of excuses. Which one feels most fitting this time around?

The players aren’t getting enough experience at the top level!

Of England’s 21-man squad, 16 players were selected from Premier League clubs, and one more — Sporting Lisbon’s Eric Dier — from a top-flight league abroad. Of those, only Dier, Gaël Bigirimana and James Ward-Prowse played more than ten league games for their clubs last season. The rest managed 11 between them – less than one each.

We’re told that our young players are being held back from the elixir of Premier League football and that this is the main reason for their underperformance and the same goes for the senior national team as well, come to think of it! After all, the victorious England U17 team had eight players in the Euro 2010 team of the tournament, and they averaged just three and a half appearances for their Premier League clubs last season. Even this World Cup’s best player — France’s Paul Pogba — had to ship himself off to Italy to get a kick. The squad who won the cup for his nation had an impressive average of 33 first-team games under their belts.

It’s odd then that arguably England’s best player in their short stay was Harry Kane, who appeared once for Spurs but otherwise busied himself in the Championship, playing 15 games for Leicester.

Kane was impressive throughout, setting up both goals against Iraq, scoring and being generally magnificent in the air against Chile, and then getting on the end of several chances in the final game against Egypt. Had he been playing those 15 games in the Premier League (perhaps at Norwich, for whom he also briefly featured last season) then maybe he would have put those chances away and England would have gone further, but are we really to believe that playing every week for lower league teams is insufficient preparation to take into an international youth tournament?

Long played 38 times, John Stones was a regular for Barnsley before moving to Everton, and Luke Garbutt played almost every game for Cheltenham the season before last, so these players aren’t the untested embryos that we’re sometimes led to believe. Maybe it’s the number of games that counts, not the league. After all, what kind of ‘top-level’ experience are some of England’s rivals getting? More on that below.

We don’t actually have enough players in the first place!

A nice little graphic was doing the rounds not long ago via The Guardian. It reveals England’s shocking paucity of home-grown players. Only 189 in the Premier League last year! Italy has nearly 100 more! France has 320! Spain even more! We’re done for.

But wait there. Germany only has 35 more Germans in the league than us… surely that can’t make too much more difference?

Well it’s misleading because there are fewer teams in the Bundesliga, so they still have on average three more players per club who’re eligible for the national team (or, if you want to look at it this way: two more competing for each space in a standard 23-man Nationalmannschaft squad). But it’s all splitting hairs at this level because Germany did even worse than us, not even qualifying for the competition, by virtue of previously not even qualifying for the Euro U19s in Estonia last year. But anyway, we have enormous psycho-sporting scars from their senior team, so we should still continue to doff our investigative caps to them.

Regardless of the precise figures, these arguments presuppose the idea that top-flight football is the key to success. At senior level, perhaps it is. The skills learned by a young player in a Premier or Champions’ League season will both get him into and keep him in the national team more readily than those picked up lower down the ladder. That’s the way the game is now; it’s honed to a point. But wait, who did we finish below again?

Yeah, it was Iraq. All their players play in the Iraqi league. So… wait, who else was there? Egypt! Well that’s another matter entirely. One of their players is in the PSV Eindhoven youth team, and another played half a season in Portugal! Still this isn’t quite adding up to the long resumà© of ‘top flight’ experience that we’re led to believe is a prerequisite for success. At least Chile had a couple of Prem players, eh? Cristià¡n Cuevas and àngelo Henrà­quez. Four appearances between them last season, too.

As it happened, all three of these teams managed to actually win a game, and two of them made it to the quarter finals, one of whom finished fourth. So much for top flight experience. Maybe it’s not the low numbers of good young players that we should be worrying about, but the chronic shortage of qualified coaches that are on hand to develop them. This damning analysis from Soccer by the Numbers reveals that while elite Spanish coaches have on average 17 players to look after, a typical English coach qualified to the highest UEFA levels is outnumbered 812 to 1 by confused, technically and tactically inadequate youths.

Ach well… it doesn’t mean anything anyway!

Those teams who came out on top of England did so by virtue of displaying the usual qualities that fuel successful tournament teams: organisation, teamwork, some individual quality and a bit of luck. That’s what gets you by and wins matches, even if your player pool isn’t swollen to the bounteous proportions of your rivals. But even if England had won the whole thing, as France eventually did, that would feel good for a few months only to be swallowed up the next time the senior team had a bad night.

Prior to Brazil’s success in 2011, which is a bit too recent to use as a yardstick (although Oscar and Coutinho look alright – must be all that Premier League football), only six players from the last three U20 World Cup Winners have gone on to win more than 40 caps for their country. Given that one of those was Leo Messi anyway and that Ghana have consciously leaned on youth, it shows that success at this level is no guarantee of ‘real’ success.

Thing is, it’s not about the players, is it? Players, by and large, don’t win tournaments; teams do. Since winning the World U20s, here’s what each team since 2000 has gone on to achieve:

  • Brazil (2011): Confederations Cup winners, Olympics Runners-Up
  • Ghana (2009): World Cup Quarter-Finalists, African Cup of Nations Semi Finalists three times.
  • Argentina (2001, 2005, 2007): World Cup Quarter-Finalists twice, Copa American Runners-Up, Confederations Cup Runners-Up.
  • Brazil (2003): Confederations Cup Winners twice, Copa America Winners twice

So, while it’s no guarantee, it looks like winning the World Cup at youth level is a good sign.

The Clubs are top strong! We didn’t have our best players!

This is a muddy one, but while we’re at it, here’s arguably the best possible first 11 that England could have fielded in the group stages, injuries and unavailability aside:

Jack Butland

John Stones       Andre Wisdom                  Eric Dier                Luke Shaw

Nathan Redmond            Josh McEachran                Ross Barkley       Raheem Sterling

Connor Wickham             Wilfried Zaha

Not bad, eh? Well the issue of clubs releasing players at youth level isn’t such a big one, in reality. The problem here is that there was an U21 European championship to contest in mid June. It would be understandable if the FA had decided that the two tournaments were too close together for players to slog through both arduous fixture lists back to back. The thing is, England were knocked out of the tournament three days before the deadline for naming an U20 squad. Surely six games in twenty four days isn’t too much of an ask. After all, if the U21s had actually performed, they would have had to play a much tighter run of matches. Six of the above team could have gone on to play in Turkey, as well as Jack Robinson and Nathaniel Chalobah. The one thing that any player at any level wants to do after a defeat is to get back onto the pitch and make amends – at the first opportunity.

So what are we left with after a summer of not one but two disappointing tournaments for England? Well, slim pickings really. In truth the England players were very unlucky against Egypt and could have been several to the good before and after falling behind. Kane, Barkley, ‘keeper Sam Johnstone, and Liverpool product Conor Coady all played well, although it’s hard to decide which of them might be in line to step up for the senior team. In the end, this is no worse than par for the youth team’s recent efforts. England haven’t won a game in this competition since a Michael Owen goal beat Mexico in 1997, and have failed to qualify for half of the tournaments since they began in 1997. Overall record? Played 38, won 8, drawn 14, lost 16.

So things are much as they ever were. As for the players, while the likes of Zaha, Sterling, Wisdom, Kane and Bigirimana will be vying for games at top-half clubs this year, it’s more than likely that most of the others (Garbutt, Stones, John Flanagan…etc…) will be off out at Football League clubs again. The pressure to succeed and the financial consequences of failure at the top level, where our good young players are expected to prove themselves will continue to grow. We will continue to be a nation who struggle to shake the earliest origins of our sport; the hoofing of a sack from village to village still springing to mind when players are forced back to their base instincts. We will continue to lambast players for being spoiled millionaires who don’t know the meaning of pride, when their lives for as long as they can remember have been built around striving to succeed on the pitch with ten others. Our uneasy regard for the long, thudding attrition of our players’ natural tendencies will roll on, as we lack the coaches to inculcate anything higher or the conviction to embrace the more lumpen game in which we so often dully thrive. Still, at least we get to play against some of the more technically assured nations, and maybe that will be good for our young players. Judging by Trezeguet and Koka’s finishes for Egypt’s two goals, we could learn a thing or two.

The Two Unfortunates
The non-partisan website with an eye on the Football League


  1. Olly
    August 15, 2013

    Super article, debunking many of the specious narratives that so often surround international failure.

    Here are two others that don’t seem to get the billing they deserve, and at which you hint:

    – We don’t have a core of outstanding players. There’s no Owen, Pogba or Messi here.
    – We were a bit unlucky.

  2. Pigo
    August 15, 2013

    Agreed on both. The absence of an outstanding player probably further highlights the need for a good team structure and cohesiveness. At this level it’s not AS important to fit the star player into a functional team (cf: Neymar in the current Brazil squad), but in their absence it’s nice to have something solid to fall back on.

    The luck is an interesting point too. Maybe in five or six years we’ll be lookng back on the amount of unrewarded possession that England had and seeing it as the first step in a process, but at the moment it comes across as bluntness.

  3. Blog- und Presseschau vom 16.08.2013 | Fokus Fussball
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