England Under-21s play their first fixture at this summer’s Toulon Tournament on Saturday. Aidy Boothroyd’s squad contains players from nine different Premier League clubs. But who is the best possible representative for every top-flight side at Under-21 level?
To be eligible, the player must have been born on or after January 1 1996. We should note that the Toulon tournament is only open to those born in 1997 or beyond, which ruled out some of these players this summer.
Arsenal – Ainsley Maitland-Niles
Last year’s pick – Rob Holding
Unai Emery does not inherit the greatest of Arsenal squads from Arsene Wenger, but only a fool would claim he does not have a solid framework from which to build and improve. Reports suggest the Spaniard sees Aaron Ramsey and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang as his most crucial players, with Alexandre Lacazette, Jack Wilshere and Carl Jenkinson entering their peak years. Along with Hector Bellerin, Ainsley Maitland-Niles is the only first-team player to straddle the line between youth and experience.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Reiss Nelson, Joe Willock, Eddie Nketiah, Ben Sheaf, Josh Dasilva
Bournemouth – Lewis Cook
Last year’s pick – Lewis Cook
Five caps for England’s Under-16s, 12 caps (and a European Championship winner’s medal) for England’s Under-17s, one cap for England’s Under-18s, nine caps for England’s Under-19s, 11 caps (and a World Cup winner’s medal) for England’s Under-20s, five caps for England’s Under-21s and now one cap and a place on England’s World Cup stand-by list for the senior squad. Not bad.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Jack Simpson, Connor Mahoney, Kyle Taylor, Aaron Ramsdale
Brighton – George Cox
Last year’s pick – Solly March
The unerring ravages of time mean that Solly March no longer qualifies for this list; the old b*stard turns 24 in July. The only Englishman aged 22 or under to have played a single first-team minute for Brighton this season is striker James Tilley, who scored the winner on his only appearance against Barnet in the League Cup in August. It is a fine record, yet we travel to Brighton’s Under-23 squad for this pick. Left-back George Cox has played 430 more minutes than any other player this season. Which is something.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Jordan Maguire-Drew, James Tilley
Burnley – Dwight McNeil
Last year’s pick – Daniel Agyei
Three players played just a single minute of Premier League football in 2017/18. Axel Tuanzebe featured for Manchester United against Everton on New Year’s Day before joining Aston Villa on loan later that same month, while Vincent Janssen ended the season with more fouls than touches of an actual ball. Completing this particular triptych is Dwight McNeil, a second-half stoppage-time substitute for Burnley on the final day of the campaign against Bournemouth.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Marley Blair
Cardiff – Laurence Wootton
One of five young Cardiff players Wales Online would rather like us all to keep an eye on, Laurence Wootton left Stoke to join the Bluebirds last summer. The central midfielder turned 18 in January and has become a staple of the Under-23 side in his first year. According to the south Wales whispers, he could be in line for a professional contract.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Ibrahim Meite
Chelsea – Ruben Loftus-Cheek
Last year’s pick – Nathaniel Chalobah
There is undoubtedly something rather exciting about Mason Mount (13 goals and ten assists in 40 appearances for Vitesse this season), but it is impossible to look past Ruben Loftus-Cheek. Whoever is in the Stamford Bridge hot seat come August had better include him in his plans, lest they wish to incur the wrath of an irascible fanbase.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Mason Mount, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Dujon Sterling, Kyle Scott, Jake Clarke-Salter, Tammy Abraham, Kasey Palmer, Izzy Brown
Crystal Palace – Aaron Wan-Bissaka
Last year’s pick – Sullay Kaikai
One of the easiest choices in the entire list. Roy Hodgson noted that the right-back “rose to the challenge” of regular first-team football “exceptionally well”, and this has been a professional baptism of fire for the 20-year-old. Four of his first five games came against Tottenham, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool, all for a club fighting to retain their top-flight status. Wan-Bissaka has been thrown into the deep end, but things have gone swimmingly thus far.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Levi Lumeka, James Daly
Everton – Ademola Lookman
Last year’s pick – Tom Davies
Ademola Lookman scored or assisted nine goals in 11 Bundesliga games for RB Leipzig after joining in January. Dominic Calvert-Lewin (15), Wayne Rooney (14), Oumar Niasse (12) and Gylfi Sigurdsson (11) were the only players to directly contribute more goals for Everton in all competitions all season.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Tom Davies, Anthony Gordon, Beni Baningime, Morgan Feeney, Jonjoe Kenny, Dominic Calvert-Lewin, Mason Holgate
Huddersfield – Ryan Schofield
Last year’s pick – Jordy Hiwula
Huddersfield’s ‘restructuring’ of their Academy late last year was a controversial decision that may yet bear fruit. To close down all of their junior age groups drew derision from the masses, yet a renewed focus on the Under-17 and Under-19 sides could still yield positives. The Terriers stated in no uncertain terms that they wish to create “a clear pathway to the first team for players with the ability to thrive”, and so 18-year-old goalkeeper Ryan Schofield could be the litmus test. With Rob Green to be released this summer, he is now effectively third-choice.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Jordan Williams
Leicester – Ben Chilwell
Last year’s pick – Demarai Gray
It turns out Ben Chilwell overlaps Demarai Gray in the promising youngster stakes just as effectively as he does when they play on the left-hand side together. The latter has improved and is well placed to step into the considerable shoes of Riyad Mahrez, but the former has finally dislodged Christian Fuchs in defence. Claude Puel’s understated faith in youth means the 21-year-old has the perfect platform to develop.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Hamza Choudhury, Harvey Barnes, Josh Knight, Demarai Gray, George Thomas, Sam Hughes
Liverpool – Trent Alexander-Arnold
Last year’s pick – Joe Gomez
Joe Gomez started the season as Liverpool’s most regular right-back, but the cruelty of fate dictates that injury must strike him down before a Champions League final and World Cup. Trent Alexander-Arnold battled valiantly alongside him before the setback, and has only improved since. The spot might well be his for the next decade or so.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Dominic Solanke, Joe Gomez, Connor Randall, Curtis Jones
Manchester City – Phil Foden
Last year’s pick – Raheem Sterling
Should he have made the World Cup squad? No. That should not detract from a season in which the midfielder has become the youngest ever recipient of a Premier League winner’s medal, mind you. It is delightful that one of the country’s most precocious talents is training every day with players like David Silva, Kevin de Bruyne and Claudio Bravo.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Tom Dele-Bashiru, Lukas Nmecha, Demeaco Duhaney, Tosin Adarabioyo, Patrick Roberts
Manchester United – Marcus Rashford
Last year’s pick – Marcus Rashford
While there is legitimate concern over Marcus Rashford’s current stock at Old Trafford, it is always worth remembering just how early in his development he still is. The striker turned 20 in October, and only made his 100th first-team career appearance in December. Progress has certainly stalled somewhat under Jose Mourinho, but there have been far more steps forward than backward over the past two years.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Cameron Borthwick-Jackson, Axel Tuanzebe, Angel Gomes
Newcastle – Freddie Woodman
Last year’s pick – Rolando Aarons
Although Freddie Woodman admitted in March that practising for penalties “does my head in”, it has clearly paid off. The goalkeeper saved a spot-kick against the Netherlands in the final of the 2014 Under-17 European Championships, prevailed from 12 yards against Venezuela in the final of the 2017 Under-20 World Cup, and made three saves in a shoot-out against Kilmarnock in the quarter-final of the Scottish Cup two months ago. A loan spell with Aberdeen has only helped the 20-year-old hone his craft ahead of the upcoming Toulon Tournament.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Dan Barlaser, Adam Armstrong, Ivan Toney
Southampton – Alfie Jones
Last year’s pick – Nathan Redmond
The Southampton conveyor belt of talent might seem to have malfunctioned, but Liverpool’s complex scouting network will have already been alerted by the emergence of Alfie Jones. Southampton’s Under-23s narrowly missed out on the play-offs in the Premier League 2’s second tier this season, but manager Martin Hunter and assistant Radhi Jaidi have unearthed a potential gem in their 20-year-old centre-half and captain.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Josh Sims, Jake Hesketh
Tottenham – Dele Alli
Last year’s pick – Dele Alli
After ten goals and 11 assists in 46 appearances in his first season came 22 goals and 13 assists in 50 games in his second. Most would see fourteen goals and 17 assists in his third as a slight step back; plenty would consider it an example of wonderful consistency from a player still just 22 years old.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Harry Winks, Kyle Walker-Peters, Kazaiah Sterling, Tashan Oakley-Boothe
Watford – Randell Williams
Last year’s pick – Jerome Sinclair
The two biggest assets in Hayden Mullins’ Watford Under-23s squad are the Irish Ryan Cassidy and the Scottish Lewis Gordon. Both signed professional terms earlier this year, and seem destined for greater things. And so flying the English flag is Randell Williams, who signed from Crystal Palace in the summer and has made strides since. A new deal at Vicarage Road was the reward for a promotion-winning season with Wycombe in League Two.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Joy Mukena, Michael Folivi, Jerome Sinclair, Sam Howes, Brandon Mason
West Ham – Ben Johnson
Last year’s pick – Reece Oxford
With the looming cloud of relegation surely no longer a fear for West Ham going forward, they can start to look to the future. Manuel Pellegrini is likely to favour the experience of someone like Pablo Zabaleta, but he would be forgiven for starting to phase out the 33-year-old. To that end, Under-18’s right-back Ben Johnson continues to develop and is perfectly capable of replacing him.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Nathan Holland, Marcus Browne, Reece Oxford
Wolves – Morgan Gibbs-White
Ruben Neves won three of the five awards on offer at Wolves’ end-of-season ceremony earlier this month. The Fans’ Player of the Season, Players’ Player of the Season and Goal of the Season recipient will hope his mantelpiece can cope with the extra weight. Helping prevent a clean sweep was versatile central midfielder Morgan Gibbs-White, who made 15 first-team appearances in a title-winning campaign.
Other notable players eligible for England U21s: Ryan Giles