England U21s ended their European Championship campaign with another error-strewn display as they drew 3-3 with Croatia. What does the future hold for Aidy Boothroyd and his Young Lions?
Lessons to learn
England went into the tournament as favourites to lift the trophy, but they leave it with their tails between their legs having only taken a single point from three group games.
It is a bitterly disappointing outcome but it should also serve as a valuable lesson. Boothroyd's side were punished for a failure to take their chances at one end and a glaring lack of focus at the other. After a string of costly individual errors against France and Romania, England were similarly careless against Croatia.
Three times England were ahead, and three times they blew it. For Croatia's first goal, Jonjoe Kenny was far too easily beaten by Josip Brekalo. For their second, Lloyd Kelly lost possession deep in his own half. For the third, England allowed Luka Ivanusec to carry the ball forward completely unchallenged.
"I'm all for expansive football, technical football, exciting football, but if you don't get the fundamentals right, you don't win matches," said Liam Rosenior in the Sky Sports studio.
"That's what football is all about. You have to enjoy defending. I don't know how many players I saw tonight who really enjoy defending. Even on the third goal, the reaction in transition to get back in and make a block, that extra bit of intensity, it's not there."
Danny Mills added: "They're not giving the ball away because they are being pressed. It's just sloppy, too casual, and not keeping the ball in the right areas. To concede nine goals in three games, it's not good enough. Defensively, they have let themselves down."
Kenny described the tournament as a "massive learning experience" in his post-match interview with Sky Sports, with James Maddison offering similar sentiments, but many of these players - Kenny and Maddison included - will be too old to represent England's U21s when the next tournament comes around. It is a missed opportunity for a talented group.
"You want to see them learning throughout the tournament," said Mills. "They didn't close out the first game, which they should have done. The end of the second game was just chaos. They should have learned from that.
"They are young players, but they are in a position now where they are looking to play first-team football. A lot of their managers will be looking at that and thinking, 'Can I trust him next season? Can I put him into a big-game environment?' I think there will be some doubts.
"The first rule in football is: Don't follow a mistake with the same mistake. England have done that three games running and it's not good enough."
Boothroyd under pressure
"They'll have to carry me out," said Boothroyd when asked about his future following England's 4-2 loss to Romania on Friday. The 48-year-old is determined to continue his reign as U21s boss but their failure to beat Croatia - albeit in a game of little consequence - is unlikely to help his cause.
Boothroyd may live to regret not playing Foden from the start in the 4-2 loss to Romania which ended their hopes of progression, and England's error-strewn performances do not reflect well on him either. In his post-match interview with Sky Sports, he was at a loss to explain the complacency.
When asked why they hadn't learned their lessons, he said: "It's a good question which I'll be asking tomorrow before we depart. I think at this level, if you make individual errors, you get punished. We've clearly got the talent, but talent needs structure and steel.
"The teams we've played so far have been street-wise, and we're not, and we need to get that into our game. I think it's more to do with the organisation on the pitch and match-management, what's expected from our players in each situation."
Boothroyd is right about the lack of structure, organisation and match-management, but they are factors which fall firmly on his shoulders. This was one of England's most talented U21 squads in years. Their under-performance in Italy leaves Boothroyd with questions to answer.
The new generation?
Boothroyd's most notable change against Croatia saw Foden replace Mason Mount after he was controversially dropped for the game against Romania, and there was also a start for fellow 19-year-old Nelson, who lined up on the right flank for his first appearance of the tournament.
The Arsenal youngster enhanced his reputation last season with some impressive performances on loan at German side Hoffenheim, and this was another eye-catching display from a player who now boasts four goals in seven appearances for the Young Lions.
Boothroyd told Sky Sports he wanted Nelson to go out and express himself at the San Marino Stadium and it was that willingness to beat his man that allowed him to win the penalty for the opening goal. After collecting Foden's superb through ball, Nelson drew the foul from Branimir Kalaica then coolly converted the spot kick.
England will hope the combination between Foden and Nelson bodes well for the future.
The majority of this U21 squad will be too old to represent the Young Lions at the next European Championships in 2021, but Foden and Nelson were not the only teenagers to feature against Croatia, with Wolves prospect Morgan Gibbs-White coming on for his debut in the second half.
All three could play important roles for England's U21s in the years ahead, and they are not the only talented players in England's youth ranks. What this European Championship campaign has taught England, however, is that talent will only get you so far. England's new generation will need to be more savvy and streetwise than their predecessors.
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