England Under-21s: The talents who could lead the Young Lions to Euros glory

By Sports Desk March 25, 2021

England's best hopes for a trophy in 2021 might just be their Under-21 squad.

Aidy Boothroyd's youngsters head into the group stage of the Euro Under-21 finals as legitimate contenders for the trophy, despite being placed in a seriously tough group with Croatia, Portugal and Switzerland.

History is against England, too. They have reached the finals for eight consecutive tournaments but have only progressed from the group stages three times in that sequence. Since winning the trophy in 1984, they have reached the final only once, in 2009, where they lost to Germany.

Still, Boothroyd is undoubtedly blessed with a rich pool of talent, despite leaving out stars such as Phil Foden, Reece James and Jude Bellingham, who will all be involved in the senior side's World Cup qualifiers this month. There is a strength in depth to the Young Lions that should give them real hope of going all the way.

Perhaps the current crop can also buck the trend when it comes to breaking into the senior fold. Only 17 of the 48 players from the previous two Euro Under-21 squads have gone on to play for the full England side, and only Jordan Pickford could consider himself a regular there.

In short, this undoubtedly talented group has plenty to play for…

 

Max-imum opportunity

In front of keeper Aaron Ramsdale, who was in goal for all but one of their qualifiers, sits an encouraging defence.

Norwich City full-back Max Aarons has not only kept 15 clean sheets with the Championship leaders, but his attacking threat has been marked this season. Aarons has created 51 chances from open play and completed 52 dribbles, both the second-best figures among defenders in the competition. At the same time, Aarons has only been beaten by an opponent's dribble 13 times, the lowest number among the top nine of that particular group of attack-minded defenders. Little wonder he is a reported target for Bayern Munich and Everton, among others.

Japhet Tanganga of Tottenham is untested at this level but Jose Mourinho's young protege will not have far to look for a (relatively) experienced guide. Spurs' Ryan Sessegnon, one of just two England players who also played at the 2019 finals, has enjoyed an impressive loan spell at Hoffenheim this season, winning more tackles per 90 minutes (1.7) than anyone else for the Bundesliga side. He has also contributed two goals and two assists – only five Bundesliga defenders have had more direct goal involvements.

There's Rowe stopping him

Arguably England's most in-form young midfielder outside the senior squad has amazingly never played before for the Under-21s.

Emile Smith Rowe has been the big success story of Mikel Arteta's time in charge of Arsenal. Since the start of last season, as well as scoring twice and registering six assists, he has created 1.5 chances from open play per 90 minutes in all competitions, the best number among Gunners midfielders to start at least 10 matches in that time.

 

In 2020-21, Smith Rowe (nine) is second only to Mason Mount (14) for players 23 and under in the Premier League when it comes to multi-chance involvements – the number of unique shot-ending sequences in open play where a player both creates the chance and is involved in the build-up.

Exactly how Boothroyd deploys Smith Rowe remains to be seen, but he could offer a potent combination with rising Liverpool star Curtis Jones, a major plus in an otherwise troubled Premier League title defence for Jurgen Klopp.

Jones, the youngest Liverpool player to score in the Premier League away from Anfield in seven years, averages the most successful final-third passes (22.5) this season of any Reds player to feature in at least half of their league games.

Among Premier League midfielders in this age group this season, only Mount (nine) has been involved in more sequences that ended in them taking a shot at goal than Jones (seven) – and the Liverpool man has played fewer than half the minutes of the Chelsea star.

On the wings, Callum Hudson-Odoi might have experience of playing for England at the highest level, but a strong performance at these championships could be just what he needs as he begins to build up the trust of Chelsea boss Thomas Tuchel. Since the German took charge on January 26, no Blues player has played more games (13) than Hudson-Odoi and only two have created more chances per 90 minutes (1.71). His directness down the wing could be a major asset: among players 23 or under in the Premier League, only Ferran Torres (0.59) has a better rating than Hudson-Odoi (0.55) when it comes to Expected Assists from a take-on.

Madueke's chance to shine

With Mason Greenwood having withdrawn due to injury, much of the goalscoring burden may fall on the Under-21s' all-time top marksman, Eddie Nketiah.

 

Arsenal's young striker has one goal in three league starts this season and three in six in the Europa League, but the international stage is where he really shines: 13 goals in nine qualifying games helped him become the Young Lions' record goalscorer, surpassing Alan Shearer.

If Nketiah should struggle for form, Boothroyd can turn to Noni Madueke. An unknown at this level on the international scene, Ruud van Nistelrooy's PSV pupil has 11 direct goal involvements in the Eredivisie this season – no teenager has more – with his seven goals coming in just six starts in the Dutch top flight, at an average of just over one for every four non-penalty shots.

Related items

  • Xhaka in shirt controversy as Switzerland advance Xhaka in shirt controversy as Switzerland advance

    Granit Xhaka found himself at the centre of another controversy involving Serbia after donning a shirt with 'Jashari' on the back following Switzerland’s 3-2 win in Doha on Friday.

    Xhaka produced a man of the match display as the Swiss hit back from 2-1 down to secure second place in Group G and advance to a last-16 clash with Portugal on Tuesday.

    But his actions after the final whistle could attract the attention of FIFA.

    In the post-match celebrations, Xhaka put on a shirt carrying the name 'Jashari'. Asked afterwards what it meant, the Arsenal midfielder claimed it was for Switzerland squad member Ardon Jashari.

    However, the name carries significance in other ways with Adem Jashari a late founder of the Kosovo Liberation Army, a Kosovo Albanian separatist group that fought for independence from the former Yugoslavia.

    Xhaka is of ethnic Albanian heritage linked to Kosovo, which declared independence in 2008 but has not been recognised by Serbia. 

    Asked about the shirt afterwards, Xhaka said: "There’s no political background to it whatsoever.

    "Ardon is part of our squad and we spend a lot of time together. I told him if we won I would wear his shirt."

    Xhaka was a key figure throughout a feisty encounter. He also prompted a second-half melee that saw the Serbia bench encroach on to the pitch after making a crude gesture, thought to be in the direction of substitute goalkeeper Predrag Rajkovic, whose personal life has been the subject of speculation this week.

    Switzerland boss Murat Yakin said he will "wait and see" if action is taken against Xhaka.

    "We will enjoy this moment, it cost us a lot of emotions and energy. It was a fair match," he said.

    "Before the game a lot of people were talking about the situation but we were able to face that challenge.

    "We are happy we are moving on. Everything else is speculation and we will wait and see."

    On the incident involving Rajkovic, Yakin added: "What I saw was a Granit Xhaka who was focused fully on football and performed very well. I saw the players from Serbia crossing the line, and others trying to calm them down. It was a normal exchange."

    It is not the first time Xhaka has been embroiled in controversy against Serbia. At the 2018 World Cup in Russia, he and Xherdan Shaqiri were fined after crossing their hands to mimic the eagle displayed on the Albanian flag in Switzerland’s 2-1 win.

    Shaqiri also played his part in Switzerland's victory here, scoring the opening goal at Stadium 974, but appeared annoyed to be taken off after 69 minutes.

    "No-one likes to be subbed," Yakin said. "Every player wants to play the whole game, but it’s part of my responsibility to protect players. He scored his goal and had a great assist.

    "The substitutes brought great energy and I thought they did well."

    The flashpoints overshadowed a wonderful game with Switzerland’s greater composure at key moments proving decisive.

    Serbia coach Dragan Stojkovic praised his players but lamented the fact so many were struggling for fitness throughout their time in Qatar. He also insisted he had no intention of resigning.

    He said: "We are not happy with the result but, given the problems we faced from our arrival here and the injuries we had to contend with, it was too much for us to cope with.

    "The guys put up a fight but at this level that is not enough.

    "As for my future, in March we start the qualifiers for the European Championship and we have a great desire to qualify."

    Stojkovic claimed not to hear any of the chants that prompted an announcement over the public address system asking fans to refrain from discriminatory songs or gestures, thought to originate from sections housing Serbian supporters.

  • Brazil waiting on Neymar news as Tite dismisses idea of 'easy' draw Brazil waiting on Neymar news as Tite dismisses idea of 'easy' draw

    Tite warned Brazil must be "very careful" in the knockout stage of the World Cup, when they will hope to have Neymar back from injury.

    The Selecao lost 1-0 to Cameroon on Friday but still topped Group G, meaning they will face South Korea in the second round, rather than Portugal.

    Spain's defeat the previous day appeared to open up the draw further for Brazil, who would now play the winner of Japan's clash with Croatia in the quarter-finals.

    Regardless of their opponents, Brazil will feel more comfortable once Neymar is back in action, but he has not yet trained with a ball following his matchday one injury.

    Team doctor Rodrigo Lasmar added: "With 72 hours before the next match, we have time on our side. We still have possibilities."

    With or without his star man, coach Tite certainly will not become complacent, explaining: "Brazil lost to Cameroon. Portugal lost to South Korea. France lost to Tunisia. Argentina lost to Saudi Arabia. I think the results speak for themselves.

    "I think these are very strong, very tough matches. I don't think we can think any prior situation makes it easy. We need to be very careful.

    "We were very careful with the match against Cameroon. We were. We had all of those cares, we took them. They had their merits, played vertically very well. They have merit for the victory like Tunisia and the others.

    "We can't say it's easier and we have an advantage. We can't say that."

    Tite had made nine changes to his Brazil team, selecting an entirely different XI to that which started their finals opener.

    But he said: "Who lost? All of us. Our preparation is joint preparation, our wins are joint wins, our losses are also joint losses."

    The coach called on Brazil to "feel the loss", saying: "The World Cup doesn't give you a second chance, but this time it did.

    "We have to concentrate for 24 hours, suffer for 24 hours, and tomorrow we start getting ready."

    Besides Neymar's progress, there was mixed news on the injury front, with Alex Sandro still recovering alongside the forward but Danilo set to train normally on Saturday.

    That is a timely boost as Alex Telles and Gabriel Jesus are set for scans on knee injuries sustained against Cameroon.

  • Stones rates Kane in Haaland class as England back leader at World Cup crunch point Stones rates Kane in Haaland class as England back leader at World Cup crunch point

    John Stones rates Harry Kane as a striker in the class of Erling Haaland as he backed the England captain to break his Qatar World Cup scoring duck.

    England have reached the last-16 stage without needing a goal from their skipper, taking seven points from their group games and scoring nine times in the process, with both totals unsurpassed at this tournament.

    For Kane not to have netted any of those goals is a surprise, but he has three assists to his name, more than any other player across the group stage, and is contributing in important ways without putting the ball in the net.

    Four years ago in Russia, Kane's six goals made him the Golden Boot winner, and he may yet hit a hot streak of form in the coming fortnight.

    Whether he does or not, Stones is in no doubt as to the quality of England's number nine.

    Asked whether Kane is a player of the same calibre as Haaland, who is a club-mate of Stones at Manchester City, the England defender suggested they were of comparable quality.

    "Definitely yeah, it's difficult to obviously say. Erling's so new to our league and Harry has been playing in it all his life pretty much," Stones said.

    "Players like those two, their quality always shines through. Maybe they do say 'does he need a rest or not?', [but] we never think like that.

    "I think players that usually are scoring like Harry and want to score, you all saw his assist the other day was incredible, but those sort of players are a massive team player as well.

    "The things that don't get spoken about, the positioning, the headers from corners that us as defenders appreciate massively, and what he brings to the team as a leader and as a person, as a presence, can outweigh sometimes what happens or the outcome of things."

    That reckoning of Kane's diverse qualities is why England's players are not getting at the captain to find his scoring touch, ahead of Sunday's last-16 tussle with Senegal. All in good time, appears to be the message.

     

    Haaland and Kane have both been prolific already in the Premier League this season, netting 18 and 12 goals so far for City and Tottenham respectively to sit first and second in the scoring charts.

    While Haaland is missing out on the World Cup action because Norway failed to qualify, Kane has the chance to guide England to glory, a year after they finished runners-up at the European Championship.

    Again looking at Haaland and Kane, Stones said: "They are both incredible players and incredible within their own rights as well.

    "Harry's always been incredible with me, incredible to play with, and I'm sure he will get on the scoresheet soon."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.