The FIFA U20 World Cup begins tomorrow morning and, for once, it seems England will be sending a strong squad.
Of the various youth tournaments England participate in, the U20 World Cup is the one the FA seem to care the less about. The tournament clashes with the UEFA U21 European Championships, which receives higher priority as the most prestigious showcase of youth football in Europe. The FA argues that it’s for England’s finest young players to gain big tournament experience playing against the very best.
That’s all fine, but it does ignore the fact that it limits players to just European opposition in European conditions. This, combined with clubs’ reluctance to release youth players because they “need rest”, has resulted in squads sent to the U20 World Cup that are depleted and representative of a lack of depth in the talent pool.
So you won’t be surprised to know, then, that England have a terrible record in this tournament. Since its inception in 1977, England have managed one third-placed finish, have never reached a final and, as their profile on FIFA’s website points out, haven’t progressed past the Last 16 for 24 years. England didn’t even qualify for New Zealand 2015. No matter the attitude towards the tournament, that’s an appalling record to have.
It was a huge relief to coach Paul Simpson that he would have some of the bigger talents in his squad this time around. “Our history in the competition shows it has been very, very difficult to put the strongest squad together that the FA would like,” he told the Guardian. “But this year it is absolutely brilliant that all the clubs’ management teams believe it is good for their players’ development to be involved. That is superb for us as an organisation. We believe we have travelled to South Korea with a squad strong enough to compete at a World Cup.”
The squad travelling to South Korea contains several players with first team experience. Everton’s Dominic Calvert-Lewin has featured regularly in the last couple of months, and teammate Ademola Lookman has made appearances off the bench and scored against Manchester City earlier in the season. Josh Onomah (Tottenham), Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Arsenal), Ovie Ejaria (Liverpool), and Sheyi Ojo (also Liverpool) have featured in domestic competitions for their clubs. Dominic Solanke (Chelsea) spent the year playing reserve football, but does have a season at Eredivisie side Vitesse under his belt. The likes of Axel Tuanzebe (Man Utd), Patrick Roberts (Man City – on loan at Celtic) and Izzy Brown (Chelsea – on loan at Huddersfield) could have also featured if not for club commitments.
However, Simpson and his boys must be aware that experience alone won’t give them the edge over the competition. England took what was, on paper, a very experienced and talented squad to Turkey 2013. It had players such as Eric Dier, John Stones, Jon Flannagan, Luke Garbutt, James Ward-Prowse, Ross Barkley, and Harry Kane. They finished rock bottom of a group containing Iraq, Chile and Egypt.
Flattering to deceive is a prevalent trait amongst all England age groups. That same year, the U21s travelled to Israel for the U21 Euros and also finished bottom of their group.
The key for England’s youth teams isn’t winning tournaments so much as putting on a competent showing. In recent years, our teams have been muddled by poor coaching and a failed implementation of a possession-focused style ripped off from Germany and Spain. In their efforts to play the game “in the right way” and distance themselves from the kick-and-rush stereotype, England have yet to find and settle on a style that suits their players. So one of the goals for Simpson’s team is to demonstrate it can play as a cohesive unit and that it can adapt to different styles. Beyond that, it’s important to give our players experience of playing knockout football against opposition from around the world, not just in Europe.
England’s group is a tough one. Argentina have won the tournament a record six times and have sent very strong squads. In the past, the likes of Diego Maradona, Sergio Aguero and Lionel Messi have led Argentina to success. Guinea are more modest opponents but the African teams tend to be quick and powerful. South Korea are the hosts and will be buoyed by home support.
But, if they make it through, they could receive a kind match-up in the Last 16 and have the opportunity to progress further than any England U20 team has for over two decades. That alone would represent a successful tournament.
The England U20 squad, in full:
Freddie Woodman (Newcastle), Luke Southwood (Reading), Dean Henderson (Man Utd)
Jonjoe Kenny (Everton), Callum Connolly (Everton), Fikayo Tomori (Chelsea), Jake Clarke-Salter (Chelsea), Rico Henry (Brentford), Kyle Walker-Peters (Spurs), Dael Fry (Middlesbrough)
Lewis Cook (Bournemouth), Josh Onomah (Spurs), Ainsley Maitland-Niles (Arsenal), Kieran Dowell (Everton), Sheyi Ojo (Liverpool), Ovie Ejaria (Liverpool)
Adam Armstrong (Newcastle), Dominic Solanke (Chelsea), Ademola Lookman (Everton), Dominic Calvert-Lewin (Everton), Harrison Chapman (Middlesbrough)
20 May 2017 – 08:30 – Argentina vs England
23 May 2017 – 09:00 – England vs Guinea
26 May 2017 – 12:00 – England vs South Korea