“Enjoy the ball” was Gareth Southgate’s instruction over and again to his England Under-21s players at their quiet training ground on the outskirts of the Czech university city of Olomouc, and enjoy it they did. This level of junior football has not always been a happy experience for England teams of recent years and half the problem has been that English boys have looked so off the pace in the last two editions of this tournament.
They lost the final to Germany in 2009, that famous Germany team that went on to make up the core of last year’s World Cup winners, and since then they have not won a game at two tournaments. Stuart Pearce, the former manager, might point to the fact that England at least had an impeccable qualification record but in the end the gap between the bright young things of 21st-century European football and Psycho’s poor old English lads became too great.
Will it be different this time? Southgate and his team are taking no chances, with a back-room staff commensurate with any professional team. In the team’s hotel in Olomouc, the walls have pictures of the players and their achievements over another admirable two-year qualifying campaign in which they did not lose a game.
The jewel in the crown is Harry Kane, a key figure in qualifying, who is one of five players in the 23 who have senior caps. It is telling that one of those five is not likely to make the starting XI when England play their first game against Portugal at the Miroslava Valenty Stadium in Uherske Hradiste, 40 miles south of Olomouc, on Thursday.
That will be Calum Chambers, who has three caps for the senior team, who is behind Carl Jenkinson, another seniors capped player, at right-back. Goalkeeper and captain Jack Butland, central defender John Stones and striker Kane, all capped at senior level, will start. Liverpool’s new signing Danny Ings will be on the bench, with Berahino, Tom Carroll and Nathan Redmond the attacking three behind Kane.
Across the tournament, international experience varies widely. The Italians, who England face in their third group game, have a squad without a single player who has a senior cap. It is the Italians’ policy to take longer before promoting players to their first team. The Paris Saint-Germain playmaker Marco Verratti is still eligible, like Jack Wilshere, to play for the Under-21s but he is also considered an established part of the senior set-up and was not called up.
By contrast, the Sweden team, whom England face on Sunday, have the most senior internationals of any of the Under-21s squads in the Czech Republic: 12. One of their big players is the former Manchester City academy boy John Guidetti, currently without a club after being released.
Sweden, like Italy, are expected to start with two up front, which will ask questions of Southgate’s 4-3-3 formation, more accustomed to dealing with the lone striker and wide attackers. Italy, in particular, have a good strike force in the pairing of Andrea Belotti and Domenico Berardi, both regulars in Serie A this season.
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The Portuguese are a major test for England, despite Southgate’s team having beaten them 3-1 in November at Turf Moor. Coach Rui Jorge, the former Portugal international, has eight players capped at senior level at his disposal, including William Carvalho, who played 27 minutes in the Euro 2016 qualifier against Armenia on Sunday. He and Bernardo Silva, at Monaco, both have Champions League experience too – something which is limited in Southgate’s squad.
The team to beat are Germany, in Group A. They have their 2009-winning coach, Horst Hrubesch, back in charge. In his side he has Max Meyer, of Schalke, the latest Wunderkind; Kevin Volland, captain and a highly regarded winger; and Emre Can of Liverpool. The likes of Mario Götze and Julian Draxler are still eligible for the tournament but the Germans also take the view that they have moved on to the senior side now.
Euro Under-21s: Four to watch
Euro Under-21s: Four to watch
1/4 Bernardo Silva (Portugal)
England have to find a way of stopping this midfield playmaker in their opening game. Signed by Monaco for €16m from Benfica two years ago, he was part of the team that eliminated Arsenal from the Champions League. Already capped at senior level, he makes the team tick.
2/4 Kevin Volland (Germany)
The captain of a talented Germany team, Volland is a goalscoring winger who is a stalwart of Germany’s junior teams and has already been capped three times by Joachim Löw for the seniors. Has signed a new contract at Hoffenheim but is wanted by Borussia Dortmund
3/4 Andrea Belotti (Italy)
Goalscorer who will face England in the third group game a week today. The 21-year-old Palermo player has scored six goals in nine qualifying matches. Good partnership at Under-21s level with the Juventus striker Domenico Berardi
4/4 Filip Djuricic (Serbia)
Impressive in spells while on loan at Southampton. At 23, one of the most experienced players here. He has 22 caps for the senior team and four goals, including two against Scotland in 2014 World Cup qualifying. Benfica’s attacking midfielder is a key figure.
Profiles by Sam Wallace
The winners of the competition for the last two editions, Spain, did not make it this time – beaten in the play-offs that every team must go through by Serbia. The Serbs have a strong squad, with Filip Djuricic, on loan at Southampton this season, among them. So too is Goran Causic, one of the players banned by Uefa over the racism scandal when England players were abused by their Serbian counterparts in Krusevac in October 2012 at the play-off for the previous tournament.
The Czech Republic kick off the tournament against Denmark at Slavia Prague’s 20,800-capacity Eden Arena, which is sold out. The hosts have high expectations but are without suspended captain Tomas Kalas, the Chelsea academy defender recently on loan at Middlesbrough.
Denmark’s squad includes the Bayern Munich striker Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, who played on loan at Augsburg in the Bundesliga last season. The 19-year-old is another who already has senior caps. He is also the youngest player in Bayern’s history to feature for the club in the Bundesliga.
These are eight high-quality teams in the tournament and Southgate’s side will have to hit the ground running if they are to make an impact.
One encouraging factor for Southgate is that he does have some proven European winners among his players. Butland, Luke Garbutt, Nathaniel Chalobah, Michael Keane, Berahino and Ben Gibson were among the Under-17s squad that won that age group’s European Championship in 2010. It is one of the reasons why there is such hope that this time they can compete.
It has been a long time coming. Paul Bracewell, the captain of the last England Under-21s team to become European champions – Dave Sexton’s side of 1984 – is now 52. At the very least England need to look like they belong in this company.