As good will for the senior side halts, it’s time for England’s Under-21s to step up

(Image courtesy of Michael Zemanek/BPI/REX/Shutterstock)

Why the England set-up needs success from Aidy Boothroyd’s team

A lot can happen in a year.

Almost exactly a year to the day that England completed their preparations for the 2018 World Cup by defeating Costa Rica 2-0 at Elland Road, they were in action again. This time, having crashed out in the inaugural Nations League semi-finals against the Netherlands, England secured third place by defeating Switzerland on penalties.

Despite this, Gareth Southgate’s side ended the season on a slightly sour note, leaving a lot to be desired and with work to be done. For the overall England set-up however, a simultaneous chance for redemption and continued youth success for the Three Lions comes in the form of the Under-21 European Championships in Italy and San Marino, starting this week.

After the relative success of last year’s World Cup campaign and the subsequent good will that followed, some of Southgate’s players may have become complacent. With impressive wins away in Spain and then at home against Croatia — a small slice of revenge for the preceding summer’s semi-final heartbreak — further positivity ensued. However, things have slowed slightly, and the two Nations League games provided a reality check for everyone involved. Now, Aidy Boothroyd will take charge of his Under-21 side, prepared to push for tournament victory with a squad rich with talent and eager to impress.

The Young Lions arrive in Italy with a strong squad – perhaps the best crop they have ever had at this level. At a time when the senior England manager has openly discussed his willingness to promote young players to his side from within, the talent pool is deep.

For Southgate, the Under-21 European Championships will be a chance to gauge and further monitor the development of the side directly below his own, having overlooked the progression of players under his overarching stewardship all season. For Boothroyd, however, it is a more intimate chance to continue a developing story of the national side’s feeder team.

The former Watford manager — who also coached the England Under-19 and Under-20 sides between 2014 and 2016 — has built a platform for success by reaching the semi-finals of the 2017 Euros (where England lost on penalties to eventual winners Germany) and winning the 2018 Toulon Tournament. And yet, for this tournament the pressure is on, given the continuing progression of this particular side along with the recent successes of various young England teams.

Given the slight stagnation of the senior side culminating in the Nations League, all eyes will turn to Boothroyd’s team to excite and to succeed wearing the famous white shirt this summer. From defensive solidity in Aaron Wan-Bissaka and Fikayo Tomori to exuberant flair in attack in James Maddison and Phil Foden (pictured below), England arrive with a well-balanced squad full of a mix of players coming off the back of successful seasons at club level and undeniable potential.

James Maddison (left) and Phil Foden (right) will play starring roles for England in Italy. (Image courtesy of Getty Images).

Yet, historically in tournaments, English sides have often succumbed to high-pressure situations and not been able to play with the freedom they display at club level. With the naturally developing culture of freedom of expression within the England set-up — starting from Southgate and those above him — this is unlikely to hinder the Young Lions as they prepare for another successful assault at tournament football. As for experience, few teams arrive at this tournament with better experience of success at international youth level – with nine of the 23-man squad part of the Under-20 World Cup-winning side in 2017. Winning breeds success; this squad knows how to win.

Despite the obvious desire for success as the collective goal for the squad, competition for places in Southgate’s senior side may also provide extra incentive. The Under-21s will hope to use this tournament as a chance to impress the England manager – who seems to have arrived at a juncture with the current squad and is not certain of his best option in some positions. With impressive performances in Italy and San Marino, any of the various spots up for grabs could be taken, or at least taken into consideration and provide further healthy competition.

As the England hype train all too inevitably grinds slowly to a halt, moving forward, players are going to be forced to get off. While shaky performances in defence as well as a slight lack of creativity in the semi-final defeat to the Netherlands may have been brought about by circumstance, the opportunity remains. What’s more, as part of a shift in culture and an attempt to establish a tangible connection between all age groups at England’s St. George’s Park base, Southgate has repeatedly enthused about a pathway into the national side. Evidently, he is willing to promote from within, given the recent success stories of Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Callum Hudson-Odoi; the Under-21s is his first port of call.

Regardless, for the next few weeks, call-ups to the main squad will remain secondary in the minds of the players. There are so many good players at Boothroyd’s disposal all eager to impress, but whoever plays knows the stakes. England start the tournament against a strong French side but if they can build into the tournament and combine effectively, they can continue the recent successes of England’s youth teams, hopefully carrying their experiences with them as they establish themselves as full internationals.

Historically an occasion for breakthrough stars to emerge — such as Dani Ceballos for Spain in 2017 — the Under-21 European Championships will have a plethora of stars and promising teams on show. With the chance to win the tournament a realistic goal, this England team should be aiming high, and the successes of the recent past indicate that these Young Lions can create their own history and return as European champions.

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