A review of the European Under 21 Championships

Those in Canada will be aware that during the European Under 21 Championships in Israel I worked as an analyst for TSN. Since the tournament ended last week I have been busy with MLS work for TSN but now that has finished here is my review of the tournament:

Francesco Bardi couldn’t handle it anymore. At the final whistle he sunk to his knees and looked up at the Israel sky turning dark.

The Italian goalkeeper had conceded one goal in four games before the final, and that was a penalty, yet on this night in Jerusalem he allowed four goals to a very special team. You could forgive him for needing a lie down.

In fact, the month of June is often spent lying down for the majority of footballers. Dubai, the Maldives and the USA are hotspots for footballers after a long 10 month season. Israel? Not so much. Just hot.

However, the small country, sitting on the south-eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, hosted close to 200 players from eight different countries for two weeks for a 2013 European Under 21 Championship tournament that provided onlookers with a picture perfect view of the international game’s future.

For a time much of the discussion focused on the players who were eligible to be there, but instead chose to be lying on beaches away from Israel. The likes of Jack Rodwell, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Phil Jones and Danny Welbeck could have been there for England. They weren’t and England used it as an excuse to shield a woefully poor squad from further embarrassment after three losses in three games.

The likes of Toni Kroos, Mario Gotze, and Ilkay Gundogan, all born after the tournament’s cutoff date of January 1st 1990, also chose to rest elsewhere, only this time the decision from the players and their country’s footballing association was right, despite Germany failing to qualify from a competitive group B. The quality shown by each of those players in the highest club competition in the game, the Champions League, this past season showed the only thing they needed at this time of the year was to be horizontal champions, not football champions again.

Instead it was a time for other people to have their moments in the sun.

There was the image of Israel coach Guy Luzon sinking to his knees with his arms raised aloft after his host side had upset a desperately inept England side. As Luzon, who now heads to Standard Liege, gazed into the dark sky content with a glorious finale, across the pitch there was no lying down on the ground for the England players, following their third successive loss in Group A. Their lack of quality had already ensured they had done that.

Once England departed the stories spoke for themselves. Norway, whose technically improved side had put on a counter attacking clinic against Stuart Pearce’s side to beat them 3-1 in group A, played the part of unlikely sleeper, a character almost every tournament creates. The Norwegians, whose tournament ended in a semi final loss to Spain, were a breath of fresh air, showcasing to the continent a highly technical style that looked nothing like the style a nation, once so heavily influenced by England, showed over a decade ago when their senior national side’s more direct systems led to success in tournaments. Forced, by some poor scheduling by UEFA, to play two of their three group games without four of their best players (who played for the senior team in a World Cup qualifier during the tournament) Tor Ole Skullerud’s side matched their best ever performance at this level by reaching the final four for just the second time in their history. Producing players comfortable on the ball like Markus Henrikson and Magnus Eikrem, direct and powerful forwards like Marcus Pedersen, and skillful, intelligent defenders such as Omar Elabdellaoui and skipper Stefan Strandberg, not only shows their national team are on the right track but also validates the country’s stance on producing home grown players through their clubs, originally forced upon them during the 2009 financial crisis.

Three hours after Norway’s ticket home was stamped by Spain they were joined in the departure lounge by the Netherlands. The Dutch team, whose best XI started all three of their important games in the tournament (their final group game saw them play their second XI), boasted a combined 56 senior caps and looked like the tournament’s best team during the group stage. Cor Pot’s side raced into a 2-0 lead in their opening game against Germany and still had enough firepower to win it at the death after allowing two second half goals to their rivals. In the second game they dismantled an undisciplined Russia side 5-1 and headed into the game against Spain as the pure entertainers on show in Israel. Pot’s decision to rest his best team denied them of top spot in group B and denied the rest of us a tasty encounter against the Spanish. Some thought that would come in the final but it never arrived as the Dutch team lost 1-0 to Italy in a semi final that was the competition’s dullest match by some margin.

For the Dutch is was an all too familiar finish to a tournament. They had so much talent on show and dominated the game but they couldn’t put away their chances and ultimately allowed the Italians to suck the life out of the game, turning it into a physical encounter that they edged through a late Fabio Borini winner. There may have been no trophy but the future looks to be now for many of the Jung Oranje players. Feyenoord centre backs Stefan De Vrij and Bruno Martins Indi were formidable, showcasing excellent skills on the ball and strength off it and you could make the case the pair are the country’s best at their positions already.

In front of them sat brilliant young midfielders Kevin Strootman and Marco Van Ginkel. Strootman’s elegance is admirable in a deep position as he almost glides through a game with wonderful ball control and distribution before exploding into dribblers with a physical side that gives him the potential to soon be the perfect deep lying midfielder. Alongside him, 20-year-old Van Ginkel may be even better. He had the greatest engine in the tournament, driving in top gear from deep positions and into space that has allowed him to score so many goals in the Erevidise this season. His tactical discipline at such a young age was outstanding, making him a perfect partner for Strootman. Ahead of them was 19-year-old playmaker Adam Maher, the AZ Alkmaar man who knew when to make up a three in midfield before exploding into the final third with a pinpoint pass or a shot from distance. For sixty minutes the trio dictated their semi final but Italy’s physicality wore them down and a game with no flow sent them to lie on the beaches elsewhere. As they did, the future of the Dutch midfield, just three years on from a Mark Van Bommel, Nigel De Jong Royal Rumble in Soccer City, looks breathtakingly fresh.

A year on from meeting twice at Euro 2012, including the final, Italy met Spain in this final hoping to change their fortunes. Bardi’s constant returns to the back of the net to retrieve the ball was not what Italy imagined but indeed brought back memories of their senior team being dismantled in last summer’s Euro 2012. That day a formidable Spanish midfielder, who never really made his mark on the tournament until the final, took over the match for his team. Like Xavi in Kiev, Thiago Alcantara, his Barcelona team-mate, did the same in Israel, blasting in a first half hat-trick that put the final beyond doubt at the interval.

If it was Thiago’s final then it was certainly Isco’s championships. The Malaga magician was by far and away the best player on show, particularly after game one when his coach, Julen Lopetegui, moved him further up into a front three and gave him licence to go anywhere. Up 3-1 in the final, the selfless Thiago could have added a fourth goal from the spot but rightfully handed it to Isco to get his moment in his final match at this level. Throughout the tournament his name was linked with Real Madrid and Manchester City followed by internet chatter that he would struggle to get minutes at those clubs. He has things to learn but, to me, he certainly could walk into those teams and play often. He may not yet have the lateral movement of Mesut Ozil or the passing ability of David Silva but he is stronger than both on the ball, just as good at dribbling and could one day be better than both. He certainly has the ability to challenge Cesc Fabregas as the impact substitution his senior team needs. Watching Spain dominate the tournament for the second successive time it is easy to see their players and think one day that they could challenge for senior caps and that might be the greatest compliment they can receive considering just how many legitimate world class stars Spain produces. Right back Martin Montoya, and reserve Daniel Carvajal for that matter, both look players who will one day soon be better than Alvaro Arbeloa. Centre back Inigo Martinez has the technical ability of a midfielder and is one of the most comfortable defenders on the ball I have seen, a player who loves to drive into space and spread an accurate cross-field ball to the right back. His Real Sociedad team-mate Asier Illarramendi is a marvellous midfielder, a young man who reads the game quite superbly, a player comfortable dropping deep and allowing his centre-backs to split (in the Sergio Busquets role) but is actually better when he plays further up the field where he can tackle, pass, shoot and drive his team forward at the opportune time. If Real Madrid need to replace Xabi Alonso in a year this is their man.

And yet without Alvaro Morata, Spain may not have been allowed to show their brilliance late in the tournament. Like David Villa did in South Africa 2010, Morata scored valuable goals early in the tournament when games seemed to be heading to a 0-0 draw. Morata, who had never made his debut at this level until these championships, who was more direct than Rodrigo, pounced when his opponents were at their weakest moment. It was no coincidence that six of Spain’s eight goals on the way to the final came in the last few minutes of the half, a time when their rivals were physically and mentally exhausted against the possession-dominated style shown by the Spanish.

That wasn’t the story in the final, however, as Italy were simply not good enough, although there is no real shame in that. This Spanish Under 21 side could beat most senior teams in Europe. Italy’s team in Israel gave their country hope as the likes of Lorenzo Insigne, Alessandro Florenzi and Matteo Bianchetti certainly showed they could join Marco Verratti one day for the Azzurri.

For their final night in Israel, though, their aim was to pick up their goalie from the floor as Spain celebrated around them.

Tournament Best XI

GK – David De Gea (Spain) – had very little to do in over half of his games but was outstanding vs Russia and brilliant with his distribution from the back.

RB – Giulio Donati (Italy) – Brave and physical at right back, harshly adjudged to give a penalty away in the final. Just gets the nod over Montoya.

CB – Matteo Bianchetti (Italy) – Was the real leader of their impressive back four, commanding in the air and good on the ball.

CB – Inigo Martinez (Spain) – Another future world class star in the making.

LB – Bruno Martins Indi (Netherlands) – Plays mainly at CB but has a great left foot, good technique, very powerful and exceptional at running back to his own goal.

M – Asier Illarramendi (Spain) – Will be surprised if he is playing Champions League for Real Sociedad this season. Bigger stage is coming.

M – Marco Van Ginkel (Netherlands) – Covers so much ground, remarkable football IQ for a man so young. Ideal midfielder to play as the attacker in a 2 of 4231.

M – Thiago Alcantara (Spain) – Motored his way through the tournament in third gear and was impressive until exploding into top gear when the world watched.

F – Isco (Spain) – Introduction of Koke deeper allowed him to get forward and terrorize defenders who were often drawn out towards him, leaving space behind.

F – Lorenzo Insigne (Italy) – Just edges out Florenzi into the best XI. When Italy were at their best it was because of him. Excellent in field runs from wide areas.

F – Alvaro Morata (Spain) – Unlikely Golden Boot winner was there when his team needed him the most, allowing them to just get across the line twice in the group stages.

Top three games

1. Netherlands 3 Germany 2.

2. Spain 4 Italy 2.

3. Israel 2 Norway 2

Top three goals

1. Isco vs Norway

2. Wijnaldum vs Russia

3. Insigne vs England