Pearce May Go, But Problems Will Remain

Jon Holmes reflects on England Under-21s' disappointing performances at the European Championship and the future of coach Stuart Pearce...

Last Updated: 09/06/13 at 14:40 Post Comment

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Stuart Pearce has thicker skin than most English managers and he needed his rhino hide in the sweltering heat of Petah Tikva on Saturday night.

Inevitably, the England Under-21 coach's future is on the agenda after his side's dozy defending somehow allowed Norway U21s to come away as 3-1 winners in a match in which they barely scraped over 30% possession.

After six years and four finals tournaments, Pearce has regularly kept the Young Lions in the mix for biennial honours only to see them fly home empty handed. The progress made by semi-final and final outings at Holland 2007 and Sweden 2009 has been curtailed by uninspiring error-strewn performances in Denmark two years ago and now in Israel.

It's more than likely that Sir Trevor Brooking will tell Pearce it's time for a change after his long tenure in charge. However, waiting in his successor's in-tray at St George's Park will be the same pending documents and reports - the dearth of opportunities for young home-grown talent with our elite clubs, technical shortcomings in the players, the difficulty of blending traditional English values of speed, physicality and directness with more refined continental methods, and the continuing tug-of-war between clubs, players and the FA over post-season international football.

While 16 members of Pearce's 23-man squad were performing in the Championship last season, the likes of Holland, Spain and Germany (and to some extent, even Norway) have brought parties of players who have made appearances at the top level of domestic football and in UEFA club competitions. The Football League is exciting and entertaining but as preparation goes for international football, those matches cannot compare to a Champions League or Europa League night and what that sense of occasion and focus can teach a young player, even for a lower-key U21 Euros such as this.

I spoke after the game to Norway goalscorer Magnus Eikrem - a former Manchester United youth-team captain who went back to his country to play for Molde rather than hang around at Old Trafford waiting to be loaned out to Peterborough or similar. Certain differences in his development were clear. He may be 'only' playing in the Tippeligaen, but he has won two titles with Molde and as a result has a string of appearances in UEFA competitions under his belt. More importantly, he has won nine senior caps at the age of just 22 and is still back with the Under-21s at this tournament.

The Norwegian FA's player management is such that they have been happy to get by with only a 19-man squad until the second half of the match against England, when Havard Nordtveit (another player who chose to leave the security of a Premier League club, Arsenal, and boost his chances of playing regular first-team football at Borussia Monchengladbach) came off the bench. Nordtveit was one of four Norwegians who jetted in from senior duty in Albania at sunrise of the England game; the midfielder having played the full 90 minutes in Tirana the night before.

Norway's press officer Ole Askeland told me Nordtveit had been able to have a decent nap at the hotel and then join his team-mates mid-afternoon. Hours later, he was substituted on to help bring poise back to the U21s' midfield and see out a victory that, barring two surprise scorelines with almighty goal swings, will be enough for a semi-final berth.

Meanwhile, for England Craig Dawson looked rather bleary-eyed as Norway raced into a 3-0 lead and Steven Caulker was caught napping on more than one occasion. You can't legislate for sleepiness like that - especially from a defence that had previously seemed one of the strongest in recent history for the U21s - but the overall picture shows how Norway have geared themselves more towards success.

As media and fans, we must be careful to avoid damaging the mentality of our young players after the letdown of this tournament. The likes of Nathan Redmond will come away from Israel having learned a great deal, whereas players who have been at previous U21 Euros (such as Danny Rose, for example, who is at his third), are not going to experience significant damage to their development.

That's perhaps why it's such a disappointment that Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain wasn't a part of this squad, especially as he made such a big impact in qualifying and is seen by many working out here as a character and talent that would have lifted those around him and, in turn, elevated their individual contributions. He won't turn 20 until August and only made 11 Premier League starts for Arsenal in 2012/13, so it doesn't feel like a huge demand on his time and his club's to have brought him over after his magical Maracana moment.

There have been suggestions of mandatory call-ups, which certain other countries currently have in place, but forcing the matter won't fit with clubs at all - the power lines being drawn where they are.

Should Pearce be replaced, England need to find a coach on the same wavelength as the FA's new director of elite development Dan Ashworth, playing the long game (and not the long-ball game) with players and clubs, with patience as important a quality as tactical acumen.

We've allowed ourselves to fall behind, but 'education, education, education' is front and centre of the FA manifesto once more. St George's has barely opened its doors to the players and coaches of tomorrow; we have to trust in the syllabus, even if we're still left scratching our heads over England U21s.

Jon Holmes - follow him on Twitter.

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