On Saturday afternoon, England’s U21 team will be looking to win the Toulon Tournament for the third year running when they face Mexico in the final.
Their progress in France is the latest in a long-line of successes for the various English youth teams, which include world titles at both U20 and U17 level last year.
Their success reflects a remarkable turnaround in their overall tournament performances compared to earlier in the decade. In the 2012 and 2013, they only managed to win one competition at any age level (the 2012 Algarve U17 Tournament) and played fewer youth international matches than any other major European nation.
However, since then it appears that England have made a sustained effort to not only increase their youth fixture programme, but have placed a clear emphasis on exposing their players to tournament football.
As we can see by this chart, England increased the number of youth fixtures they played during 2016 and 2017 by over a third compared to the same period in 2012 and 2013. They went from having the fewest to having the joint-highest number of matches across nine major European nations.
What’s more, they have doubled their overall tournament participation. Only Portugal played in more tournaments during 2016 and 2017, which is due in part to the number of friendly tournaments they host each winter.
Tournament performance since 2014
Excluding UEFA Development Tournaments, England won 14 tournaments at youth level between 2014 and 2017, 10 of which occurred during the last two of those years.
Here is the full list of competitions they won:
|U21||2016||Festival Espoirs de Toulon|
|U20||2017||FIFA World Cup|
|U20||2017||Tournoi des 4 Nations|
|U19||2017||UEFA European Championship|
|U18||2017||Festival Espoirs de Toulon|
|U17||2017||FIFA World Cup|
|U17||2017||FA St. George’s Park Four Nation Tournament|
|U17||2016||HNK Four Nations Tournament|
|U17||2014||UEFA European Championship|
|U16||2016||FA St. George’s Park Three Nation Tournament|
|U16||2015||Tournoi de Montaigu|
|U16||2015||Nike International Cup|
England’s success is also demonstrated by their win-to-games ratio in tournament fixtures, which during the last two years matches Spain and is substantially higher than any other major nation.
How do England compare against other nations?
During the last two years, only Portugal have won more age group tournaments than England.
As we can see in the table below, between 2014 and 2015 England were at the same level as France and Spain in terms of tournaments won, but between 2016 and 2017 they surpassed Germany as Portugal’s closest challenger.
Whilst Spain and Italy’s tournament record appears modest, it is important to state that both nations have entered fewer friendly competitions than the other major countries for a sustained period. Italy in particular have shown a preference for playing international friendlies during training camps instead of tournaments.
|Country||Tournaments won in 2016 and 2017*||Tournaments won in 2014 and 2015*|
*from U21-U16 level. Not including UEFA Development Tournaments
Laying the foundations for a future World Cup challenge?
Of the players called up to England’s 2018 World Cup squad, only two have appeared in one of their recent youth tournament successes. They are Jordan Pickford and Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who both played at Toulon in 2016.
This suggests that the generations who are helping England to unprecedented success at youth level are more likely to be on the fringes of selection for the 2022 and 2026 World Cups.
One stat which suggests that England’s youth tournament programme has future World Cups in mind is the number of games they have played against opponents from outside the UEFA Confederation.
During the last two years they have played 45 games against non-European opposition at U21-U16 level, substantially higher than any other European country and more than six times their total from 2012 and 2013.
Whilst England’s success in the U20 and U17 World Cups will have played a part in the volume of matches they have played, regular participation in genuine global friendly tournaments, such as Toulon and Tournoi de Montaigu, suggests that finding regular South American, Asian and African opposition has been prioritised.
In addition to playing against different styles, these competitions also feature officials from all FIFA confederations. The importance of experiencing different refereeing styles has been highlighted during England’s World Cup preparations this year, so giving players early exposure to non-European officials is another key aspect of their overall tournament experience.
Based on the change in approach to tournaments during the past four years, it looks like England have left no stone unturned in ensuring their players get vital experience, early in their careers, to prepare them for potentially turning out for the senior team on the world’s biggest stage.