UEFA European U21 Championship -
English shortcomings come to the fore again
The England v Spain U21 clash had been billed as the match of the tournament.
The two largest football nations on show had also just met in club form in the Champions League final. And while Spanish football is on a crest of a wave and England's groping for a crumb of comfort, the 1-1 tie belied a gulf in quality.
Spain should have won and paid the price for not turning the screw in the second half. England's late equaliser was well-worked but profited from a centre-back misunderstanding, forcing an error at a critical moment.
But the overall picture was of Spanish class and English pluckiness. I spied Stuart Pearce before kick-off watching the Czech Republic v Ukraine match like a hawk, and no-one can accuse 'Psycho' of not taking his soccer completely seriously, but the lasting impression from watching 90 minutes of his proteges was that England U21s have regressed in ability from two years ago and reverted to traditional Anglo-Saxon football values of grit, power and determination.
Those same attributes had given Pearce, a technically limited player with only one foot, so much success as a rugged tackler and marauding left-back for Nottingham Forest and England. Pearce managed Forest and Manchester City before joining the England set-up, and never have his sides played with any real verve or elan. Should he coach the UK Olympic Team or England's national team, there is little evidence so far that they would challenge for honours. In his defence, Pearce had a balanced and tight formation and clearly inspires as a motivational leader, but those assets are not enough for victory.
Old England should be in the history books, not playing in this year's European Championshp. The world outside the British Isles learnt long ago that muscle only works at youth and non-league level, where technical skills have not been honed. The benchmark the Spanish have set since 2008 - two Champions League trophies, a European Championship and a World Cup, is surely the one to emulate. So where were the ball-playing technicians in England's ranks on Monday? One of them, Jack Wilshere, was at home, after Arsene Wenger's bullied the FA into dropping him.
I cannot think the dozens of scouts watching the game would have scribbled down any English names, with the exception of Tottenham's raiding right-back Kyle Walker, whose penetrative power did pay dividends down Spain's left.
The over-reliance on pace and muscle which Laurent Blance lamented recently among French youngsters, in contrast to the Spanish approach, was ubiquitous. Danny Rose, Jordan Henderson, Daniel Sturridge and Daniel Welbeck won full marks for effort but had embarrassingly poor first touches. England managed to muscle their way into Spain's half on many occasions only for an overhit pass to be miscontrolled and the move break down.
A Fabrice Bertrand cross which cleared the players and sailed high into the stands in the 55th minute typified their dilemna - an ability to get into dangerous positions ruined by a lack of technique when it came to the final ball. Another cross seven minutes later from Rose almost came down with snow on it.
Spain's U21s were not as golden as their senior colleagues and rarely got their tiki-taka going, but their willingness to play quick balls to feet and weave through the middle was in noticeable contrast to their opponents' antique approach of using power down the wings or pumping long balls to a big centre-forward. Indeed it was easy to forget Spain even had a No.9 playing until Adrian was substituted in the 72nd minute.
The Under-21 level on this evidence is too late a developmental stage to correct the deep-set errors in the English game. As long as we obsess about the Premier League we will continue to ignore the youth set-up and complain again when the national team is outclassed by more skilful opponents.
(c) Sean O'Conor & Soccerphile