England have qualified for every U21 EURO tournament since 2007 but have not reached a final since 2009. In case you didn’t feel old enough, that side had the likes of James Milner and Theo Walcott in it. The teams managed by Stuart Pearce, Gareth Southgate and Aidy Boothroyd since always seem to be overwhelmed by the occasion which is ironically similar to their senior counterparts.
The U21 sides have not been able to assert themselves on the international stage in recent years. With the talent that they’re endowed with, no article about England “not taking their best players” will be able to reduce the disappointment this time around. I have watched every tournament since 2011 and England sides typically labour against the lesser teams, are overrun by underdogs or are outclassed by the giants. The attacking talent present in Aidy’s Boothroyd’s squad and top-level experience throughout it makes the desire for a stronger showing even greater.
Aaron Ramsdale – The Sheffield United shot-stopper is the clear No.1 going into this tournament. In his last two seasons I have felt that Ramsdale’s errors are often down to his own misjudgement, but there is a hope that he will benefit from standing behind a much sturdier defence than the ones he has been used to.
Josef Bursik – Bursik was the starting ‘keeper at the U17 Euro in 2017 although he lost his place to Curtis Anderson for the U17 WC. Bursik has enjoyed a strong season at Doncaster on loan and now as a mainstay in between the sticks at Stoke. He has deputised in place of Ramsdale twice but will be hoping his form of late will push him closer to starting.
Josh Griffiths – Josh Griffiths is currently on loan at Cheltenham from West Brom and will likely be in reserve of Ramsdale and Bursik in the group stages. He has not made an England youth appearance since March 2019 but it is clear that his 35 appearances in League Two have earned him his first U21 call up.
Ben Godfrey – Godfrey is one of the senior figures in the squad, but this will be his first European Championships after missing out in 2019. The Everton defender is athletic, rugged in his defending and is comfortable playing under pressure. He seems incredibly confident and at times he can be overly aggressive, but I am hoping Marc Guehi’s style will complement and curb this.
Marc Guehi – The on-loan Swansea man is an imposing figure despite not possessing the height typically expected of centre halves. He is incredibly composed on the ball but should not be labelled as someone who “doesn’t want to defend”. Guehi delays opponents well and uses his stocky frame to jostle, tackle and block where necessary. If the team make it through to the next round, fans should prepare themselves for the one-step penalty he has in his locker.
Lloyd Kelly – After breaking through at Bristol City as a full back, it is clear that his left-footedness is more the reason for his role on the flank than his strengths. With the play ahead of him, Kelly is capable of stepping out and has the height most defenders dream of. He will likely be used as a full back but is best suited to playing in the heart of the defence. Kelly is said to back himself on the ball so much that it can lead to dwelling and eventually overplaying which I imagine Aaron Ramsdale won’t be massively keen on.
Japhet Tanganga – Tanganga’s rise is almost the same as many other modern-day youngsters; thrown into the dungeon because of injury to a first-team player. Athletic and humble, Tanganga is a bit of a surprise inclusion considering how little he has played this season. His lack of elite level playing time is the biggest worry, but he has both great raw attributes and the experience of an U19 Euro to lean on.
Ben Wilmot – Ben Wilmot is one of the lesser-known names in the squad due to his formative years as a player coming outside of a top Premier League academy. Despite this, he has made his way into the squad after a great headed goal in qualification and his 25 appearances for Watford this season. He poses more of a threat from set-pieces than any other defender in the squad but his lack of playing time may suggest he is not likely going to be in Aidy Boothroyd’s starting XI come Thursday.
Max Aarons – Moulded in Daniel Farke’s furnace of high intensity and high-risk football, Aarons will deservedly be the starting right back in the coming group stage games. The Norwich man has the close control, composure and technique to combine well with whoever starts ahead of him to match his willingness to bomb forward. In possession he will be an asset but I am fearful that in defensive situations his slight frame and lack of explosiveness may be exploited.
Steven Sessegnon – This U17 World Cup winner has found club success much harder to come by than a lot of his teammates but has more recently found favour in new manager Nigel Pearson. He has always been comfortable on the ball and capable of playing in more than one area but settled as a full back as he got closer to first-team football. His energetic displays in India in 2017 saw him eventually displace Timothy Eyoma and he’ll be hoping to do the same to Max Aarons this time around.
Ryan Sessegnon – Ryan Sessegnon’s rise was one football players would dream of, the plateau that followed his ascension is one many would not have been able to predict however. The majority of his England youth caps and club appearances (in England) have come as a winger, but with so few left backs in the national pool, I expect to see Sessegnon overlapping as he did as a young boy at Fulham. His relentless energy, speed and ability to whip the ball first time make him better suited to coming onto the ball with the play ahead of him which has been more prominent in his current loan. Still, few wingers at his age make movements into the box to meet crosses like him so it is still possible that he plays further ahead.
Tom Davies – At 22, Tom Davies will be another experienced head in the camp similar to Ben Godfrey and one Boothroyd will lean on. However, his role in the squad on the pitch is a little more contentious to me. Seeing him deputise for Allan at club level has made me certain that he is significantly better in phases without the ball than when he is on it. The energy he displayed in his early days under Koeman has been redistributed. He is now covering ground to protect rather than to burst forward and England will need his steel in midfield. Whilst he is composed, his ability to pass and weave forward is limited but he will likely start given his Premier League form and experience.
Oliver Skipp – Four words; Oliver Skipp can play. The Spurs man is comfortable receiving under pressure and feeding those ahead of him in pockets and switching the play. His spell at Norwich has shown that he’s capable of fulfilling the deep playmaker role in both a high-octane fashion and a metronomic one. He gets through a lot of terrier-like ball retrieval work but combines it with the deft touches and drives needed to get the ball forward.
Connor Gallagher – Gallagher’s loans last year showed the breadth of his skillset. From all-action, swashbuckling stuff at Charlton to more controlled displays at Swansea under Steve Cooper. He loves getting on the ball but will also break forward to feint and chop before striking or releasing the ball. At this stage, it’s his ability to do elements of everything (some better than others) that makes him an option as a box-to-box midfielder.
Todd Cantwell – Cantwell’s inclusion came as a result of Mason Greenwood’s withdrawal from the squad and whilst the United man will be missed, Cantwell’s talents should not be overlooked. He plays in a team that excels in areas that England as a team have typically struggled with. He can play at a quick tempo, can carry the ball and execute in the final third. His game is easy on the eye and there was a finish on the against Sheffield Wednesday off his weaker foot that showed there can be substance too. He may not be one of the first names on the team sheet but he has the ability to make an impact.
Curtis Jones – To describe Curtis Jones in a way that I felt was truly befitting of him would require me to use a lot of positive adjectives twice. The boy from Toxteth has talent, technique and a confidence about him that only the best players have. His willingness to be on the ball, the passes he opts for and the things he tries are evidence of this. At times it means he comes short more than you would like but as the only offensive midfielder to have played as a central midfield player regularly, Jones absolutely has to start in the centre of the park.
Emile Smith-Rowe – Despite being listed as an attacker, Emile Smith-Rowe or “The Croydon KDB” as he is being more commonly referred to these days, is a midfielder by trade. The energy in his game and the work he goes through simply to find space encourages movement from his teammates and enables the continuity of play around him. I believe he has more to give in terms of how he directly impacts the game, either through his 1v1 dribbling or long range shooting. As he is yet to be capped at this level , it will be interesting to see whether he is used as a 10, out wide or even in the centre of midfield ahead of a sitting midfielder.
Ebere Eze – In my opinion, Ebere Eze is the best number 10 in the squad. His ability to bypass opponents in tight spaces through his dribbling is of a higher calibre than the aforementioned players and I believe he is the most skilled at threading the ball through too. Whilst he does not operate with the same vibrance in his off the ball movement that Smith-Rowe does, he really brings the vibes on it. He plays as though he is following a gentle rhythm that some would trade for a more aggressive style but I would suggest people listen and watch more closely.
Dwight McNeil – Dwight McNeil is two appearances short of playing 100 games for Burnley which makes him the most experienced attacker in the squad. Two years after he broke through at Turf Moor, McNeil remains their most exciting, most creative and most threatening player. Unlike most modern-day wingers, McNeil operates on the same flank as his preferred foot and he still makes defenders look silly. The way he comes inside from the left flank whilst pushing the ball with his left foot , teasing defenders has brought him real admirers. He will diversify the skillset of the attackers and has even operated as a wing back which provides the team with a good tactical tweak should they need more service out wide.
Callum Hudson-Odoi – The Chelsea winger has shown himself to be versatile in his showings as a wing back and a winger on either flank under his two managers this season. His main strengths lie in his ability to create for others as he works space to cross well from either side and rarely forces things through out of frustration even though he would not be scolded for it. His ability to dribble and carry the ball is strong but there are still question marks over whether he can take ownership by working space to score for himself. In Kolkata, Phil Foden deservedly got the headlines, but it was Hudson-Odoi’s display against Mateu Morey and his crosses that enabled the Mancunian’s final touches.
Noni Madueke – Noni Madueke is a frightening talent and his productivity this season has given him the call up his form is befitting of. There is an explosiveness to his dribbling as well as an eye for goal that inverted wingers work a long time to develop. I first saw Madueke play for England U17s in the group stages of the European Championships and whilst his talent was clear, his early success is still surprising. The level he’s at currently is more unclear to me but considering this is his first call up, he will likely play a small part as is the trend with players who play a few years up for England in this tournament.
Rhian Brewster – In 2017, was convinced that he was the most ruthless finisher in the England youth setup at the time and I believed he was the most talented no.9 that had been produced for a while. Doubt came as his injury record worsened and then his loan at Swansea restored hope that even if he was not all of those things, that he would still fulfil his potential. This season he has not been able to show how good a finisher he is, in part because of his playing time at club level, their style and the overall performance level. Brewster has looked sluggish and at times even unathletic which is the polar opposite to his chirpy, relentless and predatory younger self. In front of goal, I would still hang my hat on him to score with a variety of finishes but it’s some of the actions prior to those moments that are concerning. His goals have not flowed at this level but there is hope that a change of scenery could inspire a return to form.
Eddie Nketiah – Nketiah was the joint top scorer in qualifying with 10 goals and became the all-time top scorer for the England U21 side beating Alan Shearer’s previous tally of 13 with his 16. The Arsenal man played a significant role in Arsenal’s post-restart plans and was often preferred to Lacazette as the central striker. Nketiah’s eye for goal at U23 level in particular was impressive and he showed a coordination and quick feet in the box that you hoped would help him as he made the step up to the first team. Like Brewster, his loan spell was positive so there is evidence that he can score but going into this tournament he has played very little. Having captained the side along with Tom Davies, I would expect him to start.
The squad is missing a few that genuinely would be in if not for injuries to key senior squad members and injuries. The most obvious one is Mason Greenwood who has sadly pulled out with injury. Unlike Brewster and Nketiah, Greenwood would be entering this tournament having started a lot of games and off the back of an FA Cup goal. Tariq Lamptey and Josh Dasilva also miss out sadly after really strong showings during the qualification campaign.
Jude Bellingham has been called up to the senior squad after his Champions League exploits with Borussia Dortmund which means he will not play in this tournament along with Reece James. Bellingham is likely going to feature against San Marino but I can’t help but feel he is better served helping his age mates in Slovenia.
Jamal Musiala had impressed for the U21s before switching allegiance to Germany but he will be turning out for the senior side instead of their U21s this time round.
Players like Reiss Nelson and Jonathan Panzo have missed out due to their reduced club involvement in recent months whilst Lee Buchanan probably joined the party too late to be in Aidy Boothroyd’s thinking.
My Best XI
Despite flirting with a back three in the qualification cycle ahead of the 2019 tournament and in the early stages of this one, it is likely that England will line up in a 4-3-3 of sorts. The impacts of COVID-19 mean that England will be competing in the group stages in the next week with a view to reaching the knockout phases in the summer. It will be the first time the U21 Championships starts with 16 teams and I expect England to be in the last 8 in May.