Where did it go wrong for England?

A lack of top-flight experience and mistakes in both boxes rank high among the reasons for their U21 EURO exit although coach Gareth Southgate took positives from England's campaign.

England goalkeeper Jack Butland shows his dismay as he leaves the pitch after defeat by Italy
England goalkeeper Jack Butland shows his dismay as he leaves the pitch after defeat by Italy ©Getty Images

History repeated itself in Olomouc on Wednesday night. A year to the day after England and Italy exited the 2014 FIFA World Cup at the close of the group stage, their Under-21 sides suffered the same fate. For England, though, there were more dispiriting echoes of the past.

This was the third successive U21 EURO where they had fallen at this stage, prompting the English media to question how it went wrong for an England side who beat Portugal and Germany in pre-tournament friendlies, were more united than in 2013, and yet still ended up bottom of Group B.

A glance at the stats tells you that England scored 35 goals in 12 qualifying games but managed only two in the Czech Republic from 56 attempts (more than any other side). Against Italy on Wednesday, as against Portugal in their opening loss, they had more chances than the opposition, but failed to take them.

At the other end of the pitch, they could have defended better for the goals conceded in both losses. As one newspaper correspondent noted, Italy's third goal came from that old English staple – a long throw into the box where neither the man flicking on nor the man finishing was properly marked.

Lack of knowhow
Gareth Southgate's verdict was that it "comes down to small details and concentration" – in other words, game management. That knowhow, that ability to win football matches, comes with experience and it is worth noting that of the two starting XIs in Wednesday's crunch game, Italy's players had made 264 top-flight appearances in 2014/15; England's had made 132 – exactly half that amount.

England 1-3 Italy highlights
England 1-3 Italy highlights

During what Southgate called England's "two minutes of madness", Italy were able to punish them with two goals so little wonder he felt moved to declare afterwards: "We need to expose our players more to this type of environment, where there is intense pressure, where they have to produce."

England are committed to developing a passing style, which yielded here the highest average possession (55 per cent) of any side in the group stage. Yet Jack Butland admitted that their players had failed to produce in the pressure cooker of international competition, particularly where it counts, in the two penalty boxes. "You can't fault anyone's efforts and ability, this squad has got it, but you've got to bring it when it matters. These are knockout competitions and you can't afford mistakes."

There was an element of bad luck for Southgate who lost his best defender, John Stones, for the first two matches through concussion and on the eve of the opening game, had Saido Berahino – the top scorer in qualifying – drop out injured. "We had a lot of setbacks go against us before the game with Portugal, which didn’t help for that one," he said.

The loss of Alex Pritchard to another tournament-ending injury after a hitherto promising display in the win against Sweden was another setback but there were positives. Harry Kane, despite not scoring, showed his vast potential. Jesse Lingard, praised by Southgate on Wednesday night, hit an excellent goal against Sweden and arguably deserved another against Italy for a livewire display in which he beat players and brought a shooting threat. Carl Jenkinson and Nathan Redmond were two other players whose contributions were highlighted by rival coaches.

Southgate, naturally, sought to point to the positives, citing how his players "have progressed individually and progressed as a group" during his tenure, which runs to 2017. "We've got to the last eight of a major championship and come up a little bit short," he added. "I don't really think the teams that have gone through are particularly better than us but they deserve to be there because they've got the results." Something that England failed to do.

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