England Under-21 head coach Aidy Boothroyd looked baffled as he tried to explain what had gone wrong in Sunday’s 2-0 defeat to Portugal, which left his side on the verge of European Championship elimination.
But the situation England find themselves in has a touch of inevitability about it. Two losses from two group matches mirrors the performance from the 2019 tournament.
Only, this time, it is actually a bit worse. Yes, England can still mathematically qualify when they play Croatia on Wednesday, but to have any chance of doing that they will have to do something they have failed to do in those two games - have a meaningful shot on goal.
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A team full of young Premier League players has failed to register an effort on target in open play in either of those fixtures, having scored 34 in 10 qualifying games.
That’s despite having England’s all-time record goalscorer at Under-21 level, Eddie Nketiah, and the talents of Arsenal’s Emile Smith-Rowe, Crystal Palace winger Eberechi Eze, Burnley’s Dwight McNeil and Liverpool midfielder Curtis Jones, as well as Chelsea’s full international Callum Hudson-Odoi (against Switzerland) - all of whom have attracted rave reviews in recent months for their clubs.
What is going wrong?
Clearly both the players and the coach have to take responsibility, but look closely at the results, and this dismal showing has been coming.
Two years ago, an England side with the likes of Phil Foden and Tammy Abraham went out of the tournament following defeats to France and Romania, finishing with a draw against Croatia.
Boothroyd’s future looked to be in doubt then too, but he had only signed a two-year contract extension months before. Even though you would think the Football Association had learnt its lesson from giving Fabio Capello a fresh deal weeks before a disastrous 2010 World Cup, Boothroyd was awarded the same just before the 2019 Euros.
If his employers did want to make a change, those new terms made it much more difficult to do so, even if it was justified.
England's Tom Davies watches on as Portugal score
Image credit: Getty Images
The problem Boothroyd seems to have had over the past few years, at least from an external point of view, is following the ‘England DNA’, the philosophy from which all national sides are supposed to follow.
In a perfect world, the tactics and direction of the senior team filters down throughout all the age groups. But the Under-21s at this tournament have looked clueless, tactically ill disciplined and short of ideas in attack.
The other side to this argument is that Gareth Southgate will steal away all of the best Under-21 qualified players, but Boothroyd has been left with a strong squad of players to choose from, even if Trent Alexander-Arnold was for some reason not considered for the group stage after being left out of the senior squad.
If you look back at games since the 2019 tournament, the results have not been particularly impressive. Thumping wins have come against the likes of Kosovo, Austria and Albania, while they have only edged a victory and drawn against minnows Andorra and lost to the only top tier nation they have faced - the Netherlands.
While the senior side still has a degree of excitement around it, the Under-21s have picked up the mantle of ‘biggest underachievers’ over the past few tournaments. The talent is there, but the players have not been brought together in any cohesive manner. Boothroyd, in both finals, has made wholesale changes to his line-up in consecutive games, as if they were friendlies.
It is possible, but unlikely, that England will somehow escape the group and go on to lift the trophy. The more realistic scenario is they crash out and have the summer off.
Boothroyd is a likeable man, with a whiff of Nigel Adkins optimism about him, but it is probably time for the former Watford boss to move on when his contract ends this summer.
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