The word ‘Golden generation’ is brandished a lot in association with young Three Lions squads gone by. But when looking through the current squad that has been picked for the Under-21 European Championships in France, it’s hard to take your eyes away from the talent that is laced throughout the core of the team.
Previously, England Under-21 squads have failed to have the desired impact that their ‘potential’ suggested they would have. A number of talents, such as; Micah Richards and Theo Walcott were expected to achieve a world-beating status when they broke onto the scene as teenagers. Yet, their careers failed to live up to the expectation and media hype that surrounded them. This time, however, the current crop of young Lions are being adorned with a credible reputation with good reason.
Given the senior experience that is chalked up amongst the current crop of England youth, it is difficult to see anything other than bright futures for these talented players. The current England Under-21 squad boast a number of players who have featured regularly for their clubs at the top level of English football. The likes of James Maddison, a recent acquisition from Norwich, has made a remarkable impact in his debuting Premier League season. The Foxes playmaker tops the charts for the most chances created which begs the question of ‘how isn’t he a part of the senior set up?’.
A similar question could be attributed to Crystal Palace full back Aaron Wan-Bissaka. The spritely, young defender has endured an impressive breakthrough season by earning plaudits for his tenacious and tough tackling, along with an exceptional reading of the game. The flying Eagle is at the summit of the list of defenders who have made the most successful tackles in the Premier League. The impact he has had in performing consistently has unsurprisingly warranted interest from a number of top six clubs which still hasn’t rewarded him with a senior call-up. But given the exertions of fellow full-backs Danny Rose and Trent Alexander-Arnold in the Champions League final, you would think AWB would be given a chance to make an impression in the first team set-up ahead of the nations league semi-final against Holland.
At the pinnacle of Aidy Boothroyd’s attacking talent is the indispensable, twinkled toed midfielder Phil Foden. Under Pep Guardiola, the talented magician is someone who has regularly featured off the bench in the Premier League, yet played a pivotal role in Manchester City’s dominance in the cup competitions. Likened to the fleet footed Spaniard, David Silva, Foden has excelled in a star studded Manchester City side. Foden has registered a goal once every 158 minutes in every domestic competition, which works out as a goal every two games, not bad for a 19-year-old plying his trade amongst Europe’s most lethal attacking force.
Boothroyd has also chosen to pick from a pool of promising Championship talent that include; Aston Villa’s attacking hitman Tammy Abraham, who’s 26 goals have helped propel Villa back into the Premier League and Derby County’s Fikayo Tomori, who has also endured an excellent loan spell away from Chelsea. Although, the Championship isn’t often a platform to earn a senior call up to the England squad, Boothroyd has recognised that there is a number of young English players who continuously put in consistent and noticeable contributions in a physically tough division.
After the exertions of Jack Grealish to catapult his boyhood club into the Premier League, the Villa captain has epitomised the level of difficulty it takes in achieving a senior call up to the England squad. Earning plaudits for his stand-out performances in the Championship and match winning ability, the attacking midfielder’s efforts haven’t been enough to warrant an England senior call up. However, Grealish will be eager to make the step up to the Premier League by having the desired impact a former Championship export, James Maddison had in his first season at the top level.
Although a promising reputation is being held amongst the current crop of young Lions, a similar excitement was attributed to the England under-21 European Championship finalists of 2009. A decade on from being drubbed 4-0 by Germany in the final, the two sets of players have lead divergent paths in their footballing careers. For Germany, six of the starters from the 2009 final were part of the senior team that won the 2014 World Cup, with Manuel Neuer, Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels, Benedikt Howedes, Sami Khedira and Ozil forming the spine of Joachim Low’s conquering side.
By contrast, England’s team is made up of players who concur to the tale of wasted potential, criminal activity and tragedy.
In the squad, only three were regular Premier League starters, Adam Johnson then a tricky winger who was plying his trade for his boyhood club Middlesbrough, has been recently released from prison after his sexual involvement with a 15-year-old girl.
The promising central midfielder Fabrice Muamba had his career cut short after suffering a cardiac arrest on the field in Bolton’s FA Cup tie with Tottenham in 2012.
Whereas, James Milner’s career could be regarded as something that has achieved the most amongst a side that has gone onto achieve very little. Fortunately for Milner, it wasn’t a question of ‘what could have been?’ the 33-year-old has just lifted the Champions League with Liverpool and boasts two Premier League medals in a trophy lit career.
Theo Walcott and Mark Noble are other players who have gone onto chalk up several Premier League seasons post-2009. After breaking onto the scene as a 16-year-old at Southampton, Walcott was regarded as the most talented English player to breakthrough the indispensable academy. But unfortunately, the once mercurial winger never lived up to the world-beating reputation that once followed his name and now plays a cameo role off the bench at Goodison Park.
Germany U-21s line-up, Euro 2009 final
Manuel Neuer; Andreas Beck, Jerome Boateng, Benedikt Howedes, Sebastian Boenisch; Mats Hummels (Dennis Aogo, 83), Fabian Johnson (Daniel Schwaab, 68); Gonzalo Castro, Sami Khedira, Mesut Ozil (Marcel Schmelzer, 89); Sandro Wagner
England U-21s line-up, Euro 2009 final
Scott Loach; Martin Cranie (Craig Gardner, 80), Micah Richards, Nedum Onuoha (Michael Mancienne, 46), Kieran Gibbs; Lee Cattermole, Fabrice Muamba (Jack Rodwell, 77), Mark Noble; James Milner, Theo Walcott, Adam Johnson
In the decade that has gone past, there has been a further improvement in the youth systems at Premier League clubs and evidently through the senior experience that is chalked up amongst the current England under-21 squad, the investment in youth academies is becoming prevalent. The success of Germany began through a vision that would revolutionise the national set up, there was a overhaul in the scouting and coaching systems, creating an extensive network of academies whilst scouting the nation for talent.
Although, it has taken a while to prove dividend, similar changes are being inscribed in the English leagues which has seen a significant improvement in talent that rises from clubs youth academies. With managers such as; Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp arriving from overseas and gracing the Premier League with their fascinating tactical philosophies – the improvement of home grown talent is becoming fruitful. Guardiola has transformed Raheem Sterling, a player bereft of confidence and a lack of composure in the final third, to a player who has grown physically in stature and also turns up in the big game moments. Despite managing a star studded Manchester City squad, Guardiola is slowly blooding through Phil Foden so that once David Silva departs, they have their very own ready-made replacement.
Klopp has also brought an emphasis on youth, Trent Alexander-Arnold has risen through the Liverpool academy to become the best right back in the Premier League at 20-years-old. He has also provided the platform for Joe Gomez to become a first team regular, he’s been unfortunate with a recent injury to lose his place in the heart of Liverpool’s backline.
Other managers in the Premier League such as; Eddie Howe, have brought philosophies that indicate an emphasis on utilising the clubs youth system and scouting for young, English talent in the lower divisions. In his time at Bournemouth, he has scouted players from the lower divisions who have gone onto achieve international reckoning; Callum Wilson in the senior set up and Lewis Cook captained the England under-21’s to European Championship glory in 2017.
With the improvement in the level of talent that is etched amongst the England youth team set up, how does the current under-21 squad compare at club level statistically to the squad in 2009.
Well, the under-21 team of 2019 have a regular number of Premier League regulars; eleven of the squad have all made at least ten Premier League appearances.
In contrast, the 2009 team boasted eight players who had featured regularly in the Premier League. Notably, Manchester City’s Micah Richards and Nedum Onouha, along with Arsenal’s Theo Walcott.
But how do their contributions for the team compare. James Maddison is the highest scoring player from the current England under-21 side with seven goals in the Premier League. Whereas, in the 2008/09 season before the tournament two players were tied on three goals; James Milner and Mark Noble respectively.
In terms of assists, James Maddison also excelled for the Foxes assisting his team mates seven times. He only trailed his England compatriots; Alexander-Arnold, Raheem Sterling and Callum Wilson in that department. In comparison, the highest assisting player from the 2009 squad was James Milner who surprisingly grabbed eight assists.
Defensively, Aaron Wan-Bissaka captured a lot of people’s attention by being the highest tackling English player with 129 successful tackles, warranting him a call up. Whereas, the 2009 squad boasted the aggressive, tough tackling midfielder Lee Cattermole who chalked up 167 successful tackles whilst topping the Premier League list in the process.
Whilst the England under-21 squad of 2009 boasted more Premier League regulars, they weren’t given the platform to enhance their international credentials by being drafted into the senior squad. Whereas, there are currently a number of players in the senior squad who are eligible to play for the under 21’s; Marcus Rashford (21) Joe Gomez (22) Alexander-Arnold (20) Ben Chilwell (22) Declan Rice (20) Jadon Sancho (19). Under the guidance of Gareth Southgate, a manager who emphasises the importance of developing youth, the current crop of young Three Lion’s are provided the platform to hedge their way into the senior set up. In contrast, the 2009 squad ultimately fell out of favour under previous managers who favoured the older, easier option by picking players who were at the peak of their powers; John Terry and Frank Lampard for example.
There is no doubt that under the superb training facilities and managers who advocate the direction towards youth, the current under-21 squad will go onto have blistering careers at the top level. A squad full of youthful exuberance may well be tried and tested by the time the Qatar 2022 World Cup comes around.
By: Tom Griffin