Mark your diary. In twelve months’ time there will be an inquest to why England failed at yet another major football tournament while Spain, Germany and all of the major rivals have flourished. The reason for all this is unfolding right now!
Spain have a concept; they keep their emerging players at under-21 level until they have benefited from every possible minute of competing with their contemporaries. The “next generation” are currently in Poland as part of their final graduation ceremony.
In England, once players are promoted to the senior side, we are told that they have outgrown playing at under-21 level. That’s why Raheem Sterling, Dele Alli, Marcus Rashford, Eric Dier, Luke Shaw and John Stones are wearing flip-flops instead of football boots. Those six players are all in strong contention to play at the 2018 World Cup but are spending the summer of 2017 resting.
Meanwhile their Spanish equivalents are going through valuable tournament experience and staging a rehearsal for Russia.
Marco Asensio, Saúl Ñiguez, Héctor Bellerín and Kepa Arrizabalaga are already established at major clubs and part of the Spain senior squad but there is no contention when it comes to representing the under-21s in the Euros. The above mentioned are almost certain of making the plane to Russia once they have gone through finishing school.
Asensio in particular is benefitting from the competition. He scored in every major competition for Real Madrid last season in a campaign he never wanted to end. It hasn’t ended as he’s continued his remarkable progression with a stunning hattrick against Macedonia. While the future of Ronaldo is uncertain, it looks like they’ve unearthed a possible successor. This kid is special.
Saúl is a star at Atlético and is showing even greater authority in a Spain shirt; Bellerín is one of the best full backs in the English Premier League but must be lucky he isn’t English or he’d be bathing in sunshine rather than potential glory; and keeper Kepa, who has established himself at Athletic Bilbao, is showing that he may be the pick of the multi-million shot-stoppers at the Euros.
An argument was offered that Germany haven’t sent their strongest under-21 squad and I agree. They’ve sent their ‘next generation’ to the Confederations Cup instead to further their experience.
There are some Spanish players who have the chance to take themselves to the next level. Sandro Ramírez, about to head to Everton from Malaga, hadn’t featured at any level of international football for almost three years so this is a rewarding trial for him. Iñaki Williams is another who is improving and must be on the periphery of the senior side.
Meanwhile it is a time of examination for Denis Suárez and Gerard Deulofeu who are at a crossroads in their career. Suárez was hit and miss for Barcelona last season and needs a good tournament to rebuild his career. Deulofeu is a player of immense talent but seems to lack the staying power in games. Potential suitors will be watching for greater consistency in games.
We don’t send postcards these days but if we did my message to the English lads would be: “Having a great party in Poland, wish you were here!”