Stuart Pearce believes his England squad has improved since their last Finals showing in Holland last year.
Wales v England
2009 UEFA European Under-21 Championship Play-Off First Leg
7.45pm, Friday 10 October 2008
Ninian Park, Cardiff City FC
Second Leg: 7.45pm, Tuesday 14 October 2008, Aston Villa FC
As Stuart Pearce prepares to guide his team into a two-legged European Under-21 Championship Play-Off with Wales on Friday, he believes his squad has improved a great deal since their last Finals showing in Holland.
Pearce has been in charge of the Under-21s for 18 months, leading them to the Semi-Final stage of the Championship in 2007, only to lose in a dramatic penalty shootout to the hosts.
Since that June night in Heerenveen, Pearce has been fully focused on getting England back to the Finals in 2009, this time in Sweden, with the aim of winning. During that period, he has used 36 different players, and not only that, the side has remained unbeaten as they topped their qualification group.
In addition, his current squad, who are aiming to complete qualification for the Finals against Wales, has five players yet to earn their first cap. With a solid pool of around forty players to choose from, Pearce has reason to be cheerful.
"If you play the numbers game, it straightaway gives you an indication of how well the squad has developed," he said. "A year ago I couldn't have named 36 players who I think could have been in contention for an England Under-21 cap. Now we've used 36 players that can.
"There's still one or two outside of that so if we get through the Play-Off situation, the next six to eight months are going to be vitally important for the players to (a) maintain your place, and (b) to fight for a place if you get an opportunity."
Pearce continued: "Without a doubt we've matured. The six or seven players who were out with us in Holland in 2007 have really given me a cornerstone to build a squad on and the others have come in and supplemented that."
Pearce, who admits he's a very analytical coach, believes his side is improving all the time. Extensive work on the training ground is being seen on the pitch.
He now hopes that with so many players vying for a place in the squad, the competition for places will continue to improve the team's performances.
"I think we're getting better. The most pleasing thing for me as a manager is whenever we've worked on anything on the training ground, we've had full focus and seen what we're asking of them bearing fruit in a match situation.
"That for any manager is fantastic. Sometimes it's been enough and it's been everything we've asked for, and sometimes they've tried to implement what we've asked but it has not been quite there."
He added: "For me I want a situation where the squad picks itself and they take the mantle from there.
"As I know from my playing days, everything comes from the dressing room. They have to keep pushing their standards up against each other, to make competition for places and to improve as a team."