England has its first group of European Under-21 champions in just short of 40 years after the Young Lions beat Spain in Saturday’s dramatic, nerve-shredding final in Georgia.
It represents another triumph for the country’s youth set-up, coming after Euros success for the U17s in 2014 and U19s in 2017 and 2022. There have also been World Cup wins for the U17s and U20s, both in 2017.
With the current crop of winners just one step removed from Gareth Southgate’s side, thoughts now inevitably turn to which of them might graduate to help their country end its long wait for major silverware – starting at next summer’s Euros in Germany.
England’s senior side may still be awaiting that true breakthrough moment, despite coming agonisingly close in 2020, but there can be no doubting the infrastructure and processes designed to develop players for the national team have advanced considerably in the past decade.
For a long time, envious glances were cast abroad from these shores to the talent being produced elsewhere – young promising players who would graduate from youth teams to excel in their national senior squads.
In Europe alone, Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal and Spain all seemed to have it sussed at various points. It may not have always led to major tournament success but the minds and means were there to provide them with the necessary tools and a resultant chance.
It is no surprise to see some of those nations performing so well at U21 Euros before their senior sides claimed major silverware.
In 2000, a young Italy side containing Gennaro Gattuso and Andrea Pirlo won the U21 Euros. The same pair were in the heart of the Azzurri’s midfield six years later as they claimed the World Cup. Another World Cup winner, Daniele de Rossi, had helped Italy win the U21 Euros in 2004.
Germany’s 2014 World Cup win was done with five members of the side that had won the U21 Euros five years earlier – goalkeeper Manuel Neuer, centre-backs Jerome Boateng, Benedikt Howedes and Mats Hummels, and midfielder Mesut Ozil.
Interestingly, the nation whose approach England have perhaps most sought to replicate with their development strategy – France – have fared poorly at U21 level. Not that this has hampered the production line of talent that continues to pour into their flourishing senior side.
It was in the aftermath of the failed 1998 World Cup campaign that England looked in detail at how France’s Clairefontaine academy, built in Paris in 1988, had provided the means for Les Bleus to win the global tournament a decade on and then the Euros two years later. All they saw were positives, so they largely copied it.
St George’s Park, finished in 2012, became the architectural epicentre around which a complete overhaul of the English game was focused and which has since helped facilitate the country’s success at age-group level.
If the investment is to be worthwhile, though, senior silverware must follow. Southgate’s squad currently possesses a number of those young players who have won tournaments at youth level, such as Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Reece James, Aaron Ramsdale, Marc Guehi and Conor Gallagher.
Could any of the U21s join them before next summer?
It is logical that the U21s closest to graduating to Southgate’s senior squad are those who have already appeared in it.
Arsenal’s Emile Smith Rowe has three caps to date, the latest as a second-half substitute in the 3-0 win over Ivory Coast in March 2022. He scored and assisted on his full debut in a 10-0 World Cup qualifying win in San Marino in November 2021.
Chelsea’s Levi Colwill has not had an official call-up but has trained with the senior group, doing so for the first time as part of the travelling party for the Euro 2024 qualifying fixture in Malta last month.
Both have had good tournaments in Georgia and Romania but any chance of senior involvement next summer will be dependent on their club involvement in 2023-24.
Having struggled for starts last season, initially due to injury, Smith Rowe now has to battle his way up a Gunners attacking midfield and forward pecking order containing a wealth of talent.
Colwill returns to Chelsea after a highly impressive loan spell at Brighton but has stiff competition at centre-back for the Blues and a new manager to impress in Mauricio Pochettino.
Smith Rowe’s greater involvement in the latter stage of the U21 Euros was down to an injury to Jacob Ramsey – a man who many have touted for senior England involvement and is likely to be a big figure for Aston Villa in the coming season.
If he builds on the impressive Premier League displays that brought him six goals and seven assists last campaign he will be in with a real shout of inclusion, especially as he’ll also sample European football in 2023-24 under a manager who knows how to go deep in such competitions in Unai Emery.
Curtis Jones and Harvey Elliott at Liverpool are in the same bracket. Both are highly rated and trusted by Reds boss Jurgen Klopp and have European experience already.
The former had an impressive end to last season – starting 11 games on the bounce, of which Liverpool won seven and drew four – and was magnificent in the U21s’ semi-final win over Israel with a calm, composed performance to conduct a 3-0 win from midfield. He also scored the winner in the final, albeit without possibly knowing much about it!
He has increased competition in midfield now at Anfield, following the arrival of Alexis Mac Allister and Dominik Szoboszlai, but this could well be the making of him rather than a hindrance.
Newcastle’s Anthony Gordon has matched Smith Rowe’s goal tally for the U21s this summer, was named player of the tournament and is another with a big season ahead of him following his £45m move from Everton last January.
And while we’re talking decent money, James Trafford is on the brink of becoming the third most expensive English goalkeeper in history and will have plenty of exposure to build on an impressive tournament when he starts as Burnley’s new number one next season.
From relative anonymity a few weeks ago, his reputation is skyrocketing, boosted only further by his last-gasp penalty save to deny Spain deep into injury time in Saturday’s final.
Arguably England’s best player, though, has been Morgan Gibbs-White – an intelligent, skilful and creative midfielder who had no shortage of minutes last season as he played a major role in helping Nottingham Forest beat the drop.
He will have every opportunity to again showcase his talents to Southgate in 2023-24.
The issue he will face, as with all attacking players looking to force their way into the senior squad, is the abundance of talent in front of them.
Gibbs-White, Gordon and Chelsea’s Noni Madueke all see world-class talent of the likes of Foden, Jack Grealish, Bukayo Saka and Marcus Rashford in the squad, and high-calibre players like Jadon Sancho and Jarrod Bowen in the scramble to make the cut.
Where England are lighter in terms of elite talent is at centre-back – something that may aid Colwill’s case for inclusion if he can get the club minutes and excel.
Outside of first-choice pair Declan Rice and Jude Bellingham, there is also potentially room in central midfield for Ramsey or Jones to make the step up, especially if Kalvin Phillips continues to struggle for game time at Manchester City.