England simply weren't good enough to avoid Euro U21 elimination vs Italy
Linear and lacking in ideas, organisation that collapsed as soon as serious pressure was placed upon its structure, concentration lapses, snatched finishes and hard-luck stories: England's exit from the European Under-21 Championships was a classic in a footballing nation's genre of delivering failure at international tournaments.
The boys of 1984 (the year England last won this competition) are now in their 50s and as much of Gareth Southgate's team passes the age of eligibility for the U21 level, their next international involvement will have to be for the senior side, if at all. Not many of them will have truly caught Roy Hodgson's attention ahead of Euro 2016.
Raheem Sterling, Ross Barkley and Luke Shaw, England's best young players in the U21 range, are already cosseted within Hodgson's squad and have not been available to Southgate. A damning statistic said plenty. His starting team had 136 total top-division appearances among them to Italy's 264. Each of the seven finalists playing in the Czech Republic this June had more such experience than England.
"A cruel lesson for them," said Southgate of a group, "hurting enormously in there." England's coach chose to talk of a squad that had tried its best for him. "You cannot be critical of their attitude, their application or their effort," he said. "They have been a tremendous group to work with."
The subtext could only be that those players placed at his disposal were not good enough. The Premier League's wealth and its top clubs' calculated harvesting of foreign talent can only result in future doom for England's representative teams. Only a highly select group now make breakthroughs at top English clubs; it is in this age group that English football's developmental problems are most starkly revealed.
Though Spain and France, two of the continent's most proficient production lines, didn't even make the finals of this tournament, this meek exit can only register as another international disappointment, and a crashingly familiar one at that. England have won just one match at this tournament in three visits and nine matches since 2009.
For the third match running, there was no repeat of Harry Kane's Tottenham heroics. Though if Hodgson wants to locate that player, he will need to be more adaptable to Kane's strengths than leaving him as isolated as he has been at these championships. Furthermore, Kane was betraying understandable signs of fatigue after carrying Tottenham last season.
A 13th minute flick that put Danny Ings through on goal emphasised how Kane is more than a straight front man. Liverpool, meanwhile, will need better finishing from Ings if he wishes to line up with Roberto Firmino et al. Kane's 23rd-minute piece of control to kill the ball dead, cut inside and shoot, which required a fine save from Italian goalkeeper Francesco Bardi, reminded why he scored 19 goals last season.
With Everton's John Stones back in defence after his enforced concussion absence, England had a Premier League regular to call on but the Italians, like the Portuguese in England's first game, made their own far greater level of experience tell, even if they themselves also exited the tournament after Sweden rescued a 1-1 draw from Portugal in Brno, the Czech Republic. Stones, for his part, looked disturbingly rusty. The Italians swiftly got wise to his desire to play the ball out from defence.
Italy were so much less naive. Commanding centre-back Daniele Rugani was the only player in the entire league to play every second of Serie A for his team last season, loaned by Juventus to Empoli. He will be back in Turin next season, where he will soon be joined by the prodigious Domenico Berardi, the Italians' star forward, who can boast two full campaigns in Serie A at Sassuolo behind him.
It was Berardi's creative thinking that carved Italy their lead, his lofted pass putting Andrea Belotti in position to steer home in the 25th minute. England's defending for Italy's opener was statuesque, failings repeated two minutes later as Marco Benassi arrived from midfield to get his shot deflected into the net by Ben Gibson. That second would not have occurred had Nathaniel Chalobah put in any kind of challenge to stop Lorenzo Crisetig's surge.
"It was completely avoidable," admitted goalkeeper/captain Jack Butland. "Stuff we knew that they'd do. No excuses."
That quick second proved a passion-killer for England, whose over-deliberate passing now took place ahead of Italian opponents willing and able to defend in the entrenched style familiar from watching their senior colleagues. Meanwhile, England replicated the facets of their own big brothers, labouring to create openings and relying too heavily on Kane and Jessie Lingard's solo runs and shots wide to locate unlikely moments of magic. Once Benassi was allowed the freedom to score his second goal after Marcello Trotta's speculative overhead kick, the game was up. So was their trip.
Nathan Redmond's fine injury time goal arrived only after the Italians became aware that events elsewhere had killed them off. It came after a moment of Ruben Loftus-Cheek skill, a belated glimpse of the innovation the English lacked at this tournament and so many others prior.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.