Wednesday, July 1, 2009
The final analysis
Poor Scott Loach. Hundreds of scouts from all Europe's top clubs in attendance, a trophy at stake against one of England's big rivals, and his major contribution was an agonisingly desperate off-balance attempt to save Mesut Özil's long-range effort.
Unlike many of his England team-mates, Loach does not have the consolation of an annual salary in the millions, or an enticing Premier League fixture list to pore over when he gets back to pre-season training, so any consolation may be slight for the Watford goalkeeper.
It's tempting to suggest that England wind themselves up too much for games against Germany, even at under-21 level. Captain Mark Noble explained this obsession with the obligatory Second World War reference (''e all do history at school''), but maybe it's time England as a nation and a football team got past their German complex.
The players wind themselves up, the coach possibly puts undue pressure on his charges (before the Germany match in the group stages Pearce said ''Whenever England play Germany, there's always a lot riding on it'' when in footballing terms the match was a dead rubber), and in the end, as Gary Lineker once said, the Germans win.
This German side were fast on the break, inventive, excellent in possession and defensively strong. The star of the show on Monday night was Werder Bremen's Özil, but the depth of talent on display was impressive. When you consider that Germany are the champions of Europe at under-17, under-19 and under-21 levels, it becomes clear that the learning experience for England should probably go a lot deeper than a lack of performance in the final.
In 1999 Franz Beckenbauer instituted a system of 1-2-1 local academies for players aged 13-17 under the auspices of the DFB, concentrating on developing their technique. As the FA's development plans are still largely in the hands of professional clubs, who jealously guard their privileges, maybe it is now time for England to re-evaluate and implement a similar system to the one that has brought success for France and Germany?
Whatever they decide to do, they will need to learn how to pass the ball a little better.
Eleven of their players will be eligible for the next tournament in Denmark in 2011, there will be another opportunity for Stuart Pearce to prove his coaching credentials. The former Manchester City manager has been touted as a future England manager, and his treatment of Theo Walcott had more than a hint of Fabio Capello's 'no stars' policy about it. Walcott was dropped when necessary, made to serve the interests of the team despite the huge media interest in his appearance in Sweden.
That paid dividends in England's best performance of the tournament against Spain, when Walcott came off the bench to set-up England's second goal; but there is clearly work to do if Pearce's side are to match the creativity of several other teams that competed on Sweden's west coast.
The most impressive performance relative to expectations was Sweden's. Their reinforcements from the senior team - tournament top scorer Marcus Berg and Kalmar FF midfielder Rasmus Elm - combined with Emir Bajrami, Ola Toivonen and Pontus Wernbloom to form a potent attacking unit, and excite the home crowd.
On the eve of their do or die group match against Serbia, Swedish journalist Simon Bank asked in Aftonbladet if this was to be just a summer holiday romance, an enjoyable sideshow from the somewhat grimmer and probably unsuccessful World Cup qualification campaign the senior team is currently going through.
The answer came with a wonderful performance from Sweden, taking apart the much-vaunted Serbian side with wave after wave of attacks in a highly charged atmosphere.
These players have the big match temperament and footballing ability to move up to the senior team, and some of them will surely change clubs after such a successful tournament. Berg is rumoured to be on his way to Ajax, with bigger names also now interested, while the Allsvenskan-based players will be able to leave Sweden full of confidence, should they decide to do so.
The Swedish complex of how attacking they should be once they have qualified for a major tournament was cast aside by Berg, who announced his goal of becoming the top scorer before the tournament and duly achieved it, but the Swedes were for once undone by a lack of defensive organisation rather than a paucity of attacking talent.
Their semi-final against England was marked by errors in the first half, but their second half performance was one of the highlights of the tournament. That they lost on penalties after not quite finding the fourth goal to complete the comeback should not be dwelt on, this is a special generation of Swedish players and they showed their potential in abundance.
Finishing as the top scoring team at the tournament, averaging three goals per game and exciting their home crowd and media; you will hear more from them.
Other teams at the tournament didn't have quite the energising effect as the Swedes. It helps, of course, that many Swedes are disillusioned with Lars Lagerbäck's senior side and the perceived dullness of their football. Finland's fans were looking for inspiration after their senior side were all but eliminated from World Cup qualification, but the team just about avoided humiliation.
Individuals like Tim Sparv, Jukka Raitala and Berat Sadik all impressed and will be promoted to the full squad, but a wholesale change is unlikely. The Finnish fans offered a spectacle at all three of their games, taking full advantage of the first major tournament they have qualified for. There were thousands of them there, all enjoying the show and slightly bewildered at the sight of their own team playing at such a high level.
When defeat came - and it came early, often, and predictably for the Finns - they unveiled a flag reading 'Ei mitään hätää', 'Nothing to worry about'.
Not many countries could lose all three matches, fail to score a goal from open play, and still receive adulation from their fans, but after a tournament in which they were not heavily beaten by any of the big names they played, the Finns were in general quite pleased. Maybe that's something England could learn when it comes to under-21 football - forget about the war, forget about winning the whole thing, and just try to play better than last time.
Having advanced a little bit further than they did in Holland two years ago, England might believe they have achieved that, but they will need more than set pieces and crosses from the wings if they are to make that final step.