U21 success a key yardstick

With England under-21s in tournament action, we look at the statistical relationship between under-21 performance and the subsequent success of their senior National sides in major tournaments.

Germany won last year’s World Cup, having won the under-21 tournament in 2009, and with several players progressing to the senior side. But is this representative? We originally looked at this in a full research report a couple of years, ago, and have updated some of the analysis here.

First, we look at the European winners of the major tournaments (ie the World Cup or Euro Championships), and see whether they won any of the preceding under-21 tournaments – see the left-half of the below chart.

FE u21 Chart Final

Whilst only one in four (25%) of European major tournament winners had won the under-21 in the past 8 years, the striking element here is that almost two thirds of winners (ie 64%) won an under-21 tournament in the previous 12 years.   Put the other way around, only 1 in 3 European winners of major tournaments did so without winning an under-21 tournament in the preceding 12 years.

If we look at whether senior winners reached the semi-final of an under-21 tournament (right half of the chart), less than 1 in 5 European winners (18%) of a World Cup or Euro Championship did so without reaching the semis of preceding under-21 tournaments.  Similarly, 6 out of 10 (58%) reached the semis in the previous 8 years.

England’s tournament performance and prospects

The below chart records a 5 for winning a tournament, 4 for reaching the final, 3 for the semi, 2 for the second round or last sixteen, 1 for reaching the group stage or 0 if the team did not qualify.

England tournament performance

*Note that after 2006, the under-21 tournament was put back a year to odd years. In the chart 
 these appear against the previous year (ie the 2009 under-21 tournament is charted as 2008)

England’s 2009 under-21 final appearance stands out as the only recent foray into the last four of that tournament since the 1980s. The 2009 side contained a number of current England internationals including Joe Hart, James Milner and Theo Walcott. The under-21 wins in 82′ and 84′ were followed by two of England’s stronger performances in Italia 90′ and Euro 96′ – although as our full report shows, those senior performances only featured 3 players from the winning under-21 teams.

So, in summary then, it’s rare for a national team to win a major tournament without having reached at least the semi-finals in one of the previous six under-21 tournaments.  History suggests England’s 2009 under-21 final appearance may still has some relevance to the performance of the senior team – and the progression of players in the 2009 group to the senior team appears higher than in the 1980s.