October 23, 2021

Real worries for ‘toothless, disjointed’ England U21s

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England U21s’ defeat to Portugal on Sunday has left them on the brink of exiting the Euros at the group stage for the fifth time in six tournaments – so how has it gone so badly wrong for this talented group of players?

After losing to Switzerland in their group opener on Thursday, Aidy Boothroyd switched his side from a back three to a four-man defence and changed four players against Portugal – but the Young Lions were once again outperformed and defeat has left them rock bottom of their pool.

They need to beat Croatia by two clear goals and hope Portugal beat Switzerland in the final round of games to progress to the knockout phase but after managing just one shot on target across their two fixtures so far, that appears to be a tall order.

Here, Sky Sports pundit Andy Hinchcliffe assesses the problems facing the England U21s, who breezed through qualifying and were tipped to deliver at these championships, given the pedigree of the players in their squad…

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Highlights of Portugal against England in their Group D match at the European U21 Championship.

‘England have looked completely toothless’

It was such a struggle against Portugal. Again, they were up against a better team than them. That was pretty obvious. But even so, you’d normally expect an England team with the players they had to create something to worry Portugal a little bit.

There were odd occasions where they did threaten but it was just so sporadic and Portugal were in control of the game. I was surprised it took them as long as it did to score because they had two or three good opportunities. If not for Aaron Ramsdale and Ben Godfrey they would have scored in the first half.

It’s worrying. Even when you don’t play well or lose games, you normally say, ‘well at least we’re creating a chance or two or the goalkeeper made a save’ but in two matches now, against very different opposition, England have played two different ways, with different personnel and yet they’ve looked completely toothless.

England have played two different ways, with different personnel and yet they’ve looked completely toothless. They’re way, way off what Aidy would be expecting.

Andy Hinchcliffe

You have to say they have played against better teams than them but from their own performance point of view, they’re way, way off what Aidy would be expecting.

It’s whether they can suddenly turn it on in the last game and get it right but from what we’ve seen it’s going to take something special for Aidy to get the formation right, personnel right, and then those players creating chances and working goalkeepers because it’s just not happened for two games now.

England U21 boss Aidy Boothroyd was deeply disappointed by his side’s 2-0 defeat to Portugal which left their Euro U21 Championship hopes hanging by thread.

No signs of a clear plan

They’ve played two different formations, lots of personnel, and normally there’d be some kind of signs in one game or the other that ‘if it clicks it could work’ but there haven’t been any signs of that. They’ve been so disjointed.

They’ve caused themselves problems as well. I know this philosophy of playing out from the back and understand it completely but whether it’s a back three or a back four, they gave opponents opportunities when they had the ball, which was worrying as well.

Oliver Skipp has done as much as he could do as an individual but apart from that, there’s nothing else you’d really say gives you a great deal of hope for the Croatia game – although football can be strange and, suddenly, how the Croatians approach it could give England a chance.

They could suddenly find a formation and personnel that works for them – but there have been no signs of it in those two games. One shot on target from a free-kick in two matches, no matter who you’re playing against, surely you have to do more than that?

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‘Switzerland, Portugal not even best sides at Euros’

Switzerland and Portugal are not going to win this tournament. They’re not even in the top three or four in my opinion from what I’ve seen so far. So it’s a worry if you’re looking further down the line but England can’t even afford to do that.

You look at England and think, ‘there’s surely something there you can cling onto’ but apart from a goalkeeper making a save or a defender making a clearance… is there fluidity there? Is there understanding? Are the departments of the team joined up and playing together as a team? There haven’t been any signs of that whatsoever.

Eddie Nketiah hasn’t had anything to feed off at all. You can’t see how England are looking to break teams down, whereas the teams they’ve played, it was pretty obvious what the game plan was and they’ve been pretty effective doing it and playing in different ways.

And then there’s been a lack of quality, giving the ball away cheaply. Players that are better ball players than we’ve seen have made mistakes, that happens but it’s continually happening.

England players react after Portugal U21 score
Image: England players react after Portugal score

‘A perfect storm, where nothing has gone right’

It’s been a perfect storm where nothing, absolutely nothing has gone right. Then you’re thinking, ‘hopefully in that final game that will change, maybe it will all come together and they’ll have a bit of luck’ but, how they’ve played, they look a million miles away from getting the job done against Croatia.

It’s looked like a squad put together which don’t know each other’s games and asked to work it out as they go along. It just looks so disjointed compared to the teams they’ve played against.

It’s not a lack of togetherness – they want to do well and they want to play well for each other. But there seems to be a lack of belief, conviction and confidence, they just looked to really struggle right from the off. They just didn’t seem comfortable at all.

There seems to be a lack of belief, conviction and confidence. They just didn’t seem comfortable at all.

Andy Hinchcliffe

I think with Aidy, he’s tried. If you look at the bunch of players he’s got – apart from the players he was denied who have gone to the senior team, because this group of players could be stronger – he’s still got a very talented bunch of players. You can’t argue with the squad he’s got.

The signs have been good but whether it’s the mentality of tournament football that we don’t seem to be able to handle, maybe the mentality of the situation is too much to cope with? Only Aidy will know and he can only do so much.

They’re experienced enough, even though they’re young they’ve played enough football. Maybe they need a team meeting themselves and get together to say,’ look, what do we need to do?’ It can’t be all Aidy – the players have to take that responsibility too, even at a young age, to turn this around and pull together. Because if it doesn’t change they’ve got no chance.

How do England save themselves against Croatia?

It’s going to take a huge leap from everybody to turn it around on Wednesday.

‘How do we get our first goal? How do we create our first meaningful chance?’ That’s what they’ve got to look at and go from there. They need to get some kind of function in the team and flow between the players. They need to go back to basics and get the team functioning as one and that’s going to be difficult enough.

I’ve seen the two Croatia games. They have a bit of everything – some style and tenacity. I think they are a team you can score against but the worry for England is they might hurt you.

I think Croatia are the poorest of the three teams they’re going to play but with what they’ve got at stake, they’ll run through brick walls to get a result against England.

At least they’re in with a chance. Callum Hudson-Odoi will come back into the team if he’s fit. That’s a no-brainer. But where do you play him? What formation do you go with? Because nothing we’ve seen so far has looked effective at all.

It’s massive decisions for Aidy and his contract is up in the summer so he’s got to get it right for himself as well. There’s got to be signs there that there are some redeeming features within this squad that can keep moving the team forward and Aidy forward into his next contract as well.

There’s so much at stake for everybody going into this final game.