Despite failing to progress from the group stages of the last two tournaments, there is much cause for optimism as the England U21’s head to the Czech Republic for the European Championships. The failings of the past two tournaments saw an increasingly beleaguered Stuart Pearce replaced by Gareth Southgate in 2013 after 7 years at the helm. In the 15 games since his appointment the U21’s have won 13 and lost only once. However, most pleasing for Southgate, aside from the superb pre-tournament form, is the opportunity to work with the same group consistently; a luxury at u21 level.
GK – Butland, Bond, Bettinelli. DF – Keane, Moore, Garbutt, Jenkinson, Gibson, Stones, Chambers, Targett. MF – Redmond, Chalobah, Ward-Prowse, Carroll, Hughes, Forster-Caskey, Lingard, Pritchard, Loftus-Cheek. ST – Berahino, Kane, Ings
The positive form of Southgate’s England directly correlates with his consistency of selection. Butland, Garbutt, Stones, Redmond, Chalobah, Hughes, Ward-Prowse, Berahino and Kane have all been regulars under Southgate, accruing more than 130 caps between them, and will likely start against Portugal on the 18th June. The consistency of selection has been the foundation upon which Southgate has built this u21 side. Butland is England’s most experienced player at this tournament with 28 caps. In front of him will be a defence lead by John Stones on the back of an excellent season with Everton. A midfield trio of Chalobah, Hughes and Ward-Prowse possess experience, quality on the ball and a dynamism few sides will match at this tournament. Up front, however, is where England are capable of causing significant damage. Berahino and Kane have a combined total of 18 goals in 25 games at this level, while Danny Ings will provide able back-up. Crucially, all three are goal-scorers and each have had superb seasons at club level. Enough has been written about Harry Kane – 30+ goals in his breakthrough season speaks for itself. Although Berahino has not received the column inches Kane has, an impressive 20 strikes in a West Brom side heavily dependent on his goals speaks volumes for his ability to deal with the pressure placed on his young shoulders, while 10 goals in 10 qualifiers is second to none in Europe. Danny Ings 11 goals in a struggling Burnley side secured a move to Liverpool and a place on the plane to Prague. Although he is unlikely to start ahead of Kane and Berahino, his pace and work ethic off the bench will be valuable against tiring defences in dry, continental heat.
13 wins in 15 games since Southgate took over speaks for itself. As does 28 points from 30 available in qualification. Only Denmark scored more than England’s 31 in qualification while no country conceded fewer than England’s 2. Put simply, England are white hot going into the Euro’s. The bookies agree, with only Germany at shorter odds than the Three Lions. England will have few better opportunities to win their first European Championships since 1984 as heavyweights Holland, France and back-to-back reigning champions Spain all failed to qualify.
18/06 – Portugal
21/06 – Sweden
24/06 – Italy
27/06 – Semi-Final
30/06 – Final
Three to Watch: England
Berahino and Kane’s importance to England is obvious. 35 Premier League goals between them. 18 U21 goals between them. Half the Premier League have been linked with one or other of them. They’re the main men. But from whom else does England expect?
Nathan Redmond – The Norwich City man has been cited as a potential star of the future ever since his Birmingham City days. With 23 caps to his name, Redmond scored Norwich’s second at Wembley 4 weeks ago to cap off a magnificent second half to the season as Alex Neil’s men gained promotion. Redmond’s pace and trickery will be vital to England’s chances.
John Stones – Much is expected of the Everton man. Excellent on the ball for a centre half, reads the game with a maturity that belies his 21 years and has the potential to improve further. The Manchester clubs have both been linked with summer moves. Will need to be England’s defensive organiser if they are to progress beyond the group.
James Ward-Prowse – You don’t play 74 Premier League games before your 21st birthday unless you are a bit special but JWP has done exactly that. He was superb in a pre-tournament friendly victory over Germany in March but will need to keep up with demands of tournament football. Continental sides have an emphasis on possession so Ward-Prowse will be required to combat this with intense pressure on the ball, while he will be England’s heartbeat in possession. If England are to progress to the final then Ward-Prowse needs to announce himself on the European stage ala Mesut Ozil in 2009.
Three to Watch: The Rest
Domenico Berardi – Italy’s main threat to England on 24th June. Like Ward-Prowse, he is not yet twenty-one but has 31 Serie A goals in 61 games for mid-table Sassuolo. The left-footed winger/striker oozes class and technical ability, scores a goal every two games and was the youngest player to score 4 in a Serie A match (as Sassuolo beat Milan 4-3 in Jan 2014). Co-owned by Juventus, Berardi will doubtless be a star of the future. Check him out on YouTube.
Kevin Volland – Not as easy on the eye as Berardi but brimming with German efficiency and pragmatism. Two-footed, pacy, short but well built with good balance. Expect to see the Hoffenheim wide man taking on defenders at will. 9 goals in 18 appearances for the German u21’s is a superb return for a winger. Joint favourite with Harry Kane to win the Golden Boot.
Paulo Oliviera – Portugal’s most experienced u21 player got his big move to Sporting Lisbon last summer and impressed in his first season, making 27 league appearances for the Portuguese Cup winners. Oliviera is not the quickest but at 6ft2 is a commanding presence. Much will be expected from the centre half if Portugal are to progress from a difficult group.