England open Under-21 Euro 2021 with defeat as history threatens to repeat itself

A 1-0 loss to Switzerland has echoes of two years ago when a star-studded team were sent crashing out of the group stages

Switzerland's Dan Ndoye (second right) celebrates scoring their side's first goal of the game as England players look dejected during the 2021 UEFA European Under-21 Championship  group D match at Bonifika Stadium, Koper. Picture date: Thursday March 25, 2021. PA Photo. See PA story SOCCER England U21. Photo credit should read: Luka Stanzl/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Use subject to FA restrictions. Editorial use only. Commercial use only with prior written consent of the FA. No editing except cropping.
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Given the senior England team’s historic propensity to underachieve, perhaps time in this Under-21 side amounts to perfect preparation for an anticlimactic international career.

England have one of the most enviable assortments of youthful talent but their 2021 Under-21 European Championship began just as the 2019 tournament did, with a defeat, and ignominy beckons again. The knockout stages will be held in June, but England could be eliminated without requiring to return to Hungary and Slovenia.

They were beaten in strange fashion. “You expect a 0-0 in a game like that and then there is a freak goal,” said manager Aidy Boothroyd. Dan Ndoye slipped as he shot, deflecting the ball on to his other foot and allowing it to loop over Aaron Ramsdale, but it was a deserved victory for Switzerland nonetheless. They enjoyed the better chances, felt the more coherent outfit and made the most telling substitution, by bringing on the influential Kastriot Imeri.

Now history threatens to repeat itself. Two years ago, England’s campaign was over in two games and two defeats, the talent of James Maddison, Tammy Abraham, Dean Henderson, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harvey Barnes, Mason Mount and Phil Foden not enough to avert an early and ignominious exit.

That a side with a contingent of the 2017 Under-17 World Cup winners stumbled reflects badly on Boothroyd; once again, his team feel less than the sum of their deluxe parts. As it was, Ramsdale and the woodwork may have spared them from a heavier loss.

“We played a safe game today and if you want to win you have to risk the ball in the right areas,” Boothroyd said. Instead, they risked it in the wrong places. England created more chances for Switzerland than themselves with their passing.

Boothroyd was a byword for long-ball football in his Watford days and, while he has tried to reinvent himself, England’s policy of trying to play out from the back backfired as Evertonians erred. First Ben Godfrey gave the ball away, Andi Zeqiri had a glorious opportunity and Ramsdale made a fine save. Then Tom Davies was the culprit and Bastien Toma hit the outside of the post. Ramsdale also tipped Ndoye’s header away and produced a fine parry when Imeri’s shot dipped awkwardly.

In contrast, it felt telling that Anthony Racioppi’s only save, from Callum Hudson-Odoi’s free kick, came after 64 minutes. The Chelsea winger, who made a series of skilful darts, also shot wide after a bright run from the debutant Emile Smith Rowe while Lloyd Kelly headed past the post from a corner by Dwight McNeil, a winger miscast as a wing-back, and a Davies shot landed on the roof of the net but England were muted.

Eddie Nketiah is their record scorer at this level but he scarcely had a chance. England’s possession was ineffectual. They had too little idea of what to do with the ball. “I don’t think we created enough,” said Boothroyd.

Some of their most creative players were absent. Some of England’s next generation have been too precocious for Boothroyd’s good. The senior squad features plenty eligible for the Under 21s: Foden, Mount, Bukayo Saka, Reece James, Jude Bellingham.

Jadon Sancho and the omitted Trent Alexander-Arnold are still young enough, along with the former Ireland Under-21 international Declan Rice. Yet, even without the injured Mason Greenwood, Boothroyd could still name a starting 11 without Curtis Jones and Eberechi Eze, who both came on. England’s display was so mediocre there was no mitigation.

“We lick our wounds and focus quickly on the next game,” said Boothroyd. But that is Portugal, followed by Croatia. And that might be the end of England’s tournament.