Gulf in class leaves England adrift of Portugal in Under-21 opener
If this was the England of the future, then it looked disturbingly like those of the past. Already, the under-21 team's chances of progressing beyond the group stages of the European Championship lie in serious doubt.
As at the senior level, a distinct gap in technique between England and their Portuguese opponents proved the difference. The young Englishmen were driven to the type of distraction that befell their older brothers during major tournament exits in 2000, 2004 and 2006. Once Portugal had gained control of midfield, which they gained from the beginning of the second half, the result looked headed in a single direction.
Coach Gareth Southgate's pre-tournament proclamations made his team out as one that operates as a unit, but Portugal's 57th-minute winner owed plenty to a breakdown in communication that will be jarringly familiar to followers of the Three Lions during any month of June. When a pressure point was pushed, England submitted far too meekly. There were recriminations aplenty as Portugal celebrated.
Chaotic defending in which neither England's defence nor goalkeeper Jack Butland took responsibility allowed Ricardo Pereira, Bernardo Silva and Joao Mario a chance each, and the last of them slid into an empty net, after a deflection off Luke Garbutt's heel put a goal on a plate.
"It was a lucky break," said Butland afterward, and England looked far too accepting of their fate. Having taken the lead, Portugal continued to dominate possession until late on.
Southgate's 4-3-3 formation had placed great emphasis on Manchester United's Jesse Lingard and Norwich's Nathan Redmond as flank forwards on either side of Harry Kane. With the majority of England's attacks arriving through counters, their pace began as a significant danger to Portugal, but did not endure. Once the first half ebbed to a stalemate, Portugal were rarely threatened by such attacks, with Redmond especially negligible.
Without support, the young man from whom so much was expected could not deliver anything like the miracles he had been earmarked for before the tournament. Kane is the star name on the lips of many of those following the championships in the Czech Republic, but of his colleagues, only Carl Jenkinson could be called a Premier League regular. Made up of young hopefuls, serial loanees and Championship players, England ended up looking overawed by opponents with fuller experience in both the Champions League and Europa League.
The withdrawal of Saido Berahino, qualifying's top scorer, on the morning of the tournament had robbed England of Premier League experience, and Kane of a foil with whom he might be able to interchange. The arrival of Danny Ings, set to join Liverpool next month from Burnley, did not occur until 17 minutes from the end, and by then Portugal had retreated into a defensive shell. Everton's John Stones, suffering from concussion, cannot play until the final group match with Italy next Wednesday, and was missed in defence.
"You have to adapt and adjust," suggested Southgate in postmatch reflection, but too many of his players wait to make breakthroughs in top-level football. Meanwhile, a number of their opponents are being eyed by English football's elite. Sporting Lisbon's William Carvalho is the defensive midfielder linked with Arsenal, Manchester United and Chelsea in recent transfer windows, though none have taken the plunge. Perhaps they now might. Static performances in last year's World Cup failure might have turned them off, but at this level his experience -- he is 23 -- and poise were striking.
Nathaniel Chalobah is still yet to play a match for parent club Chelsea, but wherever his future lies, he should learn plenty from the towering presence mastering his position. Carvalho, operating in front of his defenders, occupied the territory where Kane often makes hay, and the Portuguese's power was the dominant force, his loping, long stride eating up acres of space.
Tottenham's talisman had a pair of first-half sighters from long distance, but England's sorties were too fleeting in a first half that suggested neither team would bet the farm on all-out attacking. Instead, following the break, Portugal chose strangulation as the method of victory.
"We knew that England will push us and we tried to stand up," said Portuguese coach Rui Jorge, who on this evidence is blessed with rich talent with which to work.
Bernardo Silva, 20, is one of the young stars from superagent Jorge Mendes' stable of talent, and is currently parked with his representative's friends at Monaco. With the No. 10 on his back, he at times looked capable of one day emulating Rui Costa, a predecessor in the shirt. Central defender Paulo Oliveira of Sporting has a hefty buyout clause against his name, to ward off prying eyes, but there must be significant interest. He looked assured whenever confronted by England's usually rushed attacking. That the half-chance became the most obvious route to rescue spoke much of the game's momentum, and with that, Portugal's game management.
"We restricted them to few chances on goal," said Butland, but it was the quality of opportunities, and a jarring gulf in technique, that left young England on a highly familiar knife edge.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.