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England U21s: Who will make the grade?

Thomas Chapman takes a close look at the England U21s and assesses their potential chances individually.

It goes without saying that, in taking the England reigns, Gareth Southgate finds himself in a very difficult position. The impossible job, some might say.

Southgate said himself when he was interim manager that he has inherited a ‘mess’ and very little seemed to have changed after a lacklustre 2-0 victory over Malta in October, followed by a bleak and unavoidably familiar draw in Slovenia.

Nevertheless, a 3-0 win against arch-rivals Scotland and a spirited 2-2 draw versus Spain provided cause for optimism and the ex-Middlesbrough captain and manager still has another two and a half months to assess his options and prepare for games against Germany and Lithuania in March.

Even so, the distinct lack of quality at Southgate’s disposal remains clear, especially when he compares the difference between their form for club and country.

Meanwhile, fortunes are a little rosier in the Under 21s camp.

After Aidy Boothroyd took temporary charge whilst Southgate went to deal with the seniors, the youngsters sealed qualification for the 2017 European U21s Championship with a 1-0 win in Kazakhstan back in October, before thrashing Bosnia & Herzegovina 5-0 at Walsall’s Bescot Stadium.

Inevitably, with Euro 2016 failure still fresh in the memory, attention will switch to the next generation as England fans clamour for that faint glimmer of talent which might provide a small scrap of hope.

But, out of the players who featured for the U21s in qualifying and are yet to be called up to the main squad, who will actually make the grade and one day become a mainstay in the senior set-up?

Freddie Woodman, Goalkeeper

As Gareth Southgate’s godson, Woodman will be hoping the new England manager sticks around for a while. The 19 year-old kept a clean sheet on his Under 21s debut in the 1-0 win over Kazakhstan, but was untroubled to say the least with the Kazakhs failing to register a single shot on target. As the son of former Northampton stopper Andy, Woodman junior has goalkeeping in his blood and will be hoping to kick on this season for Newcastle’s Under 23s. A loan spell in the second half of the season will do his Euros chances a world of good.

Verdict: Needs a lot more first team experience – but obviously rated very highly at Newcastle.

Christian Walton, Goalkeeper

Another debutant in the last round of qualifying games, Luton Town stopper Walton has secured himself a starting spot this season having moved on loan from Brighton. He might have only had one save to make against Bosnia, but Walton looked capable with the ball at his feet and was self-assured in commanding his defence. With 15 appearances already this season for an impressive Luton side, the 20 year-old is standing in good stead in terms of moving up the divisions and remaining involved with the national side.

Verdict: Set to gain a lot of experience this season – his immediate goal should be the U21s Euros in Poland next summer.

Dominic Iorfa, Right-Back

Standing at 6’4ft, Iorfa is something of a man mountain compared to most modern day full-backs. Despite his sizeable frame the Wolves man is no slouch; against Bosnia he combined his obvious strength with impressive speed to gallop past opposition defenders and start attacks. Since becoming Wolves’ first choice right-back in the latter half of the 2014-15 season, Iorfa has been consuming the flanks and brushing off wingers in equal measure, garnering the attention of top flight clubs in the process. His discipline must improve but that will come with experience.

Verdict: Promotion/a move to the Premier League beckons and the national team may follow. Let’s hope he chooses England over Nigeria.

Mason Holgate, Centre-Back/Full-Back

First  John Stones, now Mason Holgate. Barnsley have a habit of producing exciting young defenders who just so happen to be snapped up by Everton. Having failed to make his mark under Roberto Martinez last season, Holgate was thrust into the starting XI by Ronald Koeman this term and has coped with consummate ease. His performances have earnt the praise of Toffees captain Phil Jagielka and, despite the quality he must compete with at club level, Holgate has the backing of a manager who is more than prepared to give youth a chance.

Verdict: In a good place. Should follow in John Stones’ footsteps so long as he keeps getting first team opportunities.

Rob Holding, Centre-Back

Any player who can make the transition between the Championship and top-level Premier League football look virtually seamless deserves immense credit.  In much the same way as Carl Jenkinson in 2011, Holding was thrust into the spotlight having only made a handful of Championship appearances and has taken to Arsenal’s style like a duck to water. The 21 year-old was unfortunate to be displaced by World Cup winner Shkodran Mustafi but should get his fair share of minutes in the cup competitions. With England in desperate need of centre-halves comfortable with their ball at their feet, Holding could be making waves with the senior side within the next couple of years.

Verdict: An England place in the future looks like a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if.’

Jack Stephens, Centre-Back

Southampton are famed for their youth development, but Stephens actually began his career at Plymouth Argyle before joining the Saints in 2011. The youngster is evidently in a very good place if the fortunes of big names such as Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott are anything to go by, and this has been reflected by his presence in the England youth set-up since 2012. Stephens is predominantly a centre-half but, like Under 21s team-mate Calum Chambers, is equally as comfortable utilising his pace at full-back or his physical presence in defensive midfield. Plenty of game time is on the agenda for Stephens in Southampton’s Under 23s side this season, but at nearly 23 years old he needs regular first team football to advance his career.

Verdict: Big season for Stephens – needs to break into the first team more often or have a successful loan spell in the second half of the campaign.

Brendan Galloway, Left-Back

Galloway is already one of English footballs hottest prospects having made 19 appearances for Everton last term, including 16 starts. Like most modern day full-backs, the Zimbabwean-born leftie has an attacking mindset and boasts plenty of pace, but his positional discipline is impressive for a young man and his passing range superb. With Leighton Baines finally back from injury, spending the season at West Brom should do Galloway the world of good. Displacing Baines is surely not too far away and, with England’s left-back spot still up for debate, the 20 year-old could eventually be the obvious solution.

Verdict: A very bright future ahead. Broad range of attributes sets him above the rest.

Nathaniel Chalobah, Defensive Midfield

Having failed to play a single minute for Chelsea’s first team since 2010, Chalobah has already featured ten times under Antonio Conte, who was instantly impressed by the versatile 21 year-old. Usually a sitting midfielder, he slotted in at centre-back against Bosnia in October and looked at home, breaking up opposition attacks and ticking possession over before going off injured at half-time. Having made a staggering 91 appearances for the Three Lions’ youth sides and finally breaking through in South West London, Chalobah shouldn’t be too far away from England by the end of the season and provide much-needed competition for defensive lynchpin Eric Dier.

Verdict: Highly-rated by Conte and has plenty of other admirers. Deserves a regular starting spot at a PL side.

Isaac Hayden, Defensive Midfield

Hayden was unfortunate not to make the grade at Arsenal and is already demonstrating his pedigree by becoming an integral part of Newcastle’s midfield. Despite starting his career as a centre-half, Hayden’s ability to dictate play means he has shifted upfield into a role where he can start attacks as well as sniff out danger and regain possession. The 21 year-old had little use for his strength and battling qualities in the victory against Bosnia, but instead controlled the tempo of the match from start to finish from the base of midfield. Promotion at Newcastle looks almost certain

Verdict: Ability in defensive and midfield thirds in equal measure. Quite capable of playing Premier League football and throwing his hat in the England ring.

James Ward-Prowse, Central Midfield

SOUTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – NOVEMBER 27: James Ward-Prowse of Southampton misses a chance to score during the Premier League match between Southampton and Everton at St Mary’s Stadium on November 27, 2016 in Southampton, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

Many pundits believe Ward-Prowse will be the next Southampton prospect to be prized away by a Premier League heavyweight. Saints fans will be desperate to see the cycle of selling their best players come to an end and the club looked to ward off potential suitors by handing the midfielder a new six-year contract in May. Much like Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard before him, the diminutive playmaker is able to pick up the ball in the no.6 position, assess play and rake a faultless 40 yard pass into the wide areas, before making a forward run of his own. Perhaps most notably, he also possesses phenomenal ability from the dead ball, reminiscent of David Beckham – look no further than this free-kick masterclass: .

Verdict: Great vision and the ability to then execute the pass. Staying at Southampton could be wise but becoming an England regular might hinge on a big move.

John Swift, Central Midfield

Swift didn’t quite make the grade at Chelsea, but that was always going to be a difficult task given the vast turnover of talent in southwest London. Having turned down a contract offer to stay with the Blues, the 21 year-old admitted back in July that youngsters are up against it when it comes to getting into the first team due to the constantly high pressure and expectations. Swift impressed with his versatility and eye for goal whilst on loan at Brentford last season and, having settled well into an improving Reading side this term, the energetic midfielder isn’t far off being a Premier League regular.

Verdict: Future England regular might be a long shot, but should at least be in contention during years to come.

Lewis Baker, Central Midfield

Having caught the eye on loan at Vitesse for the last season and a half, many Chelsea fans have been clamouring for Lewis Baker to finally get his chance back in England. Baker boasts a combination of goalscoring ability and vision that most midfielders would kill for. Last season he notched a host of stunning strikes in the Netherlands and even set the season record for most chances created in a single game – nine against NEC. If Baker can replicate that kind of form at Chelsea then he has an incredibly bright future ahead of him; the problem is whether he will actually be given the chance to show his stripes.

Verdict: Performances for Vitesse warrant a chance at Chelsea. Has the ‘wow factor’ England fans are craving.

Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Central Midfield

Unlike the majority of Chelsea’s youth prospects, Ruben Loftus-Cheek is yet to be sent out on loan – perhaps demonstrating how highly-rated he is at the club. He already has 24 senior appearances to his name and, during his first start against Liverpool in May 2015, he achieved the rare feat of a 100% pass completion record. Last season he was handed a new five-year deal and scored his first Premier League goal two months later. Chances have been more limited under Antonio Conte but the 20 year-old has continued to receive praise from the Italian, who sees Loftus-Cheek as having the potential to play as a striker in the future.

Verdict: Has the physicality and versatility to compete at international level. England beckons within the next two or three years.

Josh Onomah, Attacking Midfield

Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino demonstrated his immense faith in Onomah last season by handing the midfielder 19 appearances in all competitions. For someone so young, Onomah is an imposing presence and has a strong frame, factors that will have contributed to his manager opting to give him regular opportunities for the senior side. The lifelong Spurs fan will do well to unsurp Dier, Wanyama or Dembele from the centre of Tottenham’s midfield, but he is evidently well-admired in North London and has the versatility, grounded attitude and physicality to cope with the demands of Premier League football. It’s a little early to be thinking about England but the 19 year-old looks to be in the right place for anyone harbouring national team ambitions.

Verdict: Senior side is within his reach. Should be a key man at the U21 Euros.

Demarai Gray, Winger

during the Premier League match between Middlesbrough and Leicester City at Riverside Stadium on January 2, 2017 in Middlesbrough, England.

Gray was being talked about as one of the hottest prospects in English football before Leicester City snapped him up halfway through their title winning season. The former Birmingham City man was tearing up the Championship with his box of tricks and dribbling ability, making 43 appearances during the 2014/15 season despite being just 18 years of age. Now 20 years-old, Gray is yet to become a first team regular for the reigning champions, but has showed exciting glimpses of his ability to terrorise defences and turn full-backs inside out. If breaking into the starting XI continues to prove difficult, a loan spell in the near future will serve him well.

Verdict: Exciting flair player who simply needs regular games and a chance to prove what he can do.

Nathan Redmond, Winger

With Graziano Pelle departing for China, Redmond found himself installed as Southampton’s new spearhead having been recruited by Claude Puel. Redmond had previously plied his trade as a winger at Birmingham City and Norwich, where many fans were left frustrated by his knack of counteracting occasional brilliance with anonymous performances and poor decision-making. Although leading the line may not turn out to be his forte, the 22 year-old is seemingly coming of age on the south coast and, having been a consistent performer for England’s Under 21s, a senior call-up will soon be on the agenda.

Verdict: Injuries or other wingers failing to perform will ensure Redmond gets senior games later on this year.

Jack Grealish, Winger

The England discussion was underway from the moment Jack Grealish broke into Aston Villa’s first team. Despite representing Ireland at youth level, in 2015 he announced his intention to play for England having met with Roy Hodgson. A player whose off-the-field misdemeanours often land him in the headlines for the wrong reasons, the 21 year-old is frequently in hot water with his club, but his playing ability is there for all to see. Despite his slender frame, Grealish is able to leave defenders in his wake with a drop of the shoulder and searing pace. In a Villa side often lacking flair, he provides a spark that can instantly change games. His priority should be to consistently prove himself in the Championship and help his side get back up to the top tier; if he stays on the right track, England will come later.

Verdict: Needs to stay in his manager’s good books and the performances will come naturally.

Duncan Watmore, Winger

Times are worrying on Wearside, but Watmore has brought a hopeful glimmer of light to an otherwise uninspiring Sunderland team. The 22 year-old has pace in abundance and an uncanny knack of almost always emerging from tough defensive challenges with the ball still stuck to his feet. However, football is a cruel game and Watmore’s season came to a premature end after he sustained a cruciate knee ligament injury in December. To a tireless and hungry young man such as Watmore, not being able to help Sunderland avoid relegation will be hard to take. Any thoughts about England will have to take a backseat until he has negotiated this sudden obstacle at the beginning of his promising career.

Verdict: Was on the right track until injury struck. Parts of his game need fine-tuning but Watmore has the desire to make it for England eventually.

Tammy Abraham, Striker

BRISTOL, ENGLAND – JANUARY 07: Tammy Abraham of Bristol holds off pressure from Nathan Pond of Fleetwood during The Emirates FA Cup Third Round match between Bristol City and Fleetwood Town at Ashton Gate on January 7, 2017 in Bristol, England. (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images)

17 goals in 29 games for Bristol City has seen Tammy Abraham labelled as the “future for Chelsea” by Antonio Conte, high praise given the Blues’ array of young talent. It’s easy to forget that Abraham, a towering striker who stands at 6’4”, is still just 19 years-old; not many frontmen of the same age can boast so many goals at Championship level. If any more evidence of his ability was needed, the youngster notched 74 strikes for Chelsea’s youth sides between 2014 and 2016, collecting back-to-back UEFA Youth League titles and FA Youth Cups along the way. Scoring a brace for England Under-21s against Bosnia in October was yet another tick on his list of accomplishments and he must now assert himself as key man at the summer’s European U-21 Championships.

Verdict: Next season will be interesting if Chelsea decide to keep hold of him. A natural goalscorer, Abraham won’t be ignored for long.

Thomas Chapman
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