The best eligible England Under-21 team is extraordinary

Mason Greenwood and Callum Hudson-Odoi have been selected in the England Under-21 squad for this year’s European Championships. Both are full England internationals and yet, by our reckoning, neither would actually be in a first-choice side if all eligible players were included.

The full England Under-21 squad is here.


Goalkeeper: Aaron Ramsdale (Sheffield United)
Unfortunately, there is no upgrade available here. Ramsdale is the only eligible goalkeeper playing Premier League football and thus keeps his place by default. We just have to hope that two successive relegations have not utterly destroyed his confidence. The good news is that his save percentage has been higher than David De Gea’s this season; the bad news is the lowness of that particular bar.


Right wing-back: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
Extraordinarily, it’s been almost three years since the 22-year-old last played for England’s Under-21 side alongside other future England internationals Fikayo Tomori, Ainsley Maitland-Niles, Tammy Abraham, Dean Henderson, Dominic Calvert-Lewin and James Maddison. England really do have a wealth of talent in this position, including Reece James, James Justin and Tariq Lamptey in this age group. In the absence of the latter pair due to injury, we wonder whether Hudson-Odoi becomes an option there.


Centre-half: Reece James (Chelsea)
Stay with us here but we had to do a bit of jiggery-pokery here as England have a shortage of eligible centre-halves and England’s continuity planning means the Under-21s really should have a Kyle Walker to play in this position. Luckily, James won back-to-back FA Youth Cups as a right-sided centre-half in a back three. How good is this side already? (if you ignore the goalkeeper).


Centre-half: Declan Rice (West Ham)
It’s almost four years since he made his Under-21 debut (for Ireland) at centre-back. We are not going to spend an hour down a UEFA rabbit-hole to work out whether Rice would indeed be eligible to play at centre-back for a fictional England Under-21 side but the point remains that he is very much part of England’s future. The maturity of his play at just 22 is exemplary.


Centre-half: Ben Godfrey (Everton)
Bizarrely under-used by Aidy Boothroyd over the last two seasons, Godfrey is one of the low-key signings of the season and has thrived at Everton under Carlo Ancelotti. “If Gareth is watching Ben Godfrey then he is right,” said the Italian last month. “Gareth doesn’t need advice from me but to see and watch Ben Godfrey at this moment, in this period, is a pleasure for any manager.” The actual England Under-21 squad shows how difficult it is to break through at elite level at centre-half; it’s a position that usually prompts caution and Godfrey is alone as an Englishman in playing regular Premier League football in this position at his age.


Left wing-back: Bukayo Saka (Arsenal)
He has played 308 minutes as a left wing-back for England since playing his first and only 63 minutes as a right-winger for the England Under-21 side. And he is just 19. Saka may no longer be a wing-back for Mikel Arteta and he is certainly thriving as a forward in a 4-2-3-1, but for England and for now he provides excellence in that LWB position.

As we wrote here: ‘If you are 32 and have played six different positions for your club in the first half of the season then you are a utility player – Jack of all trades and likely master of none. But if you are 19 and have played six different positions for your club in the first half of the season then you might just be a generational talent – glorious master of just about every trade with endless potential and zero limitations.’


Central midfield: Jude Bellingham (Borussia Dortmund)
He is 17 and already considered too accomplished for Under-21 level after just 17 minutes for England. Last week he started the second leg of a last-16 Champions League tie in central midfield and was excellent. No other Dortmund regular puts in more tackles than Bellingham, who is not physically or emotionally cowed by the Bundesliga. Sorry Tom Davies, but this guy is the realest of deals.


Central midfield: Mason Mount (Chelsea)
Starting the last five actual England games makes you forget that Mount is actually eligible for England’s Under-21 side. In fact, he was one of four players from this XI who started the last Nations League clash with Iceland. The Chelsea man has not played at this level since the much-vaunted Under-21 side of 2019 crashed out of the European Championships without winning a single game in the group stage. Boothroyd clearly had reservations about starting Mount and Phil Foden together but we have no such qualms…


Central midfield: Phil Foden (Manchester City)
For a while there it looked like Pep Guardiola and Gareth Southgate were playing a game of chicken with Foden and neither wanted to blink first. But now Foden is fully established within the England senior set-up – two goals v Iceland ensure his place his safe – and he is among Guardiola’s most-used XI this season. Nobody is blinking and everybody is happy because he really is brilliant.


Forward: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Sancho bypassed the England Under-21 side completely. Or rather it bypassed him. Amusingly, Aidy Boothroyd said in August 2018 that he would not call up 18-year-olds Foden and Sancho because “there’s a clamour for these players and they are exceptional but there are also exceptional players who have got us to the place we are now”, and just six weeks later, Southgate called up both for the actual England squad. Sancho now has 18 caps and in a supposedly poor season, has claimed 12 goals and 16 assists in all competitions for Dortmund.


Forward: Eddie Nketiah (Arsenal)
Mason Greenwood might get all the headlines for his Under-21 inclusion but only one member of that squad has scored more than four England Under-21 goals and it is not Greenwood. It’s Arsenal man Nketiah that has the quite remarkable record (and we do mean ‘record’) of 16 goals in 14 games at this level. It’s a shame that he has probably reached the end of the road with the Gunners, where his involvement pretty much ended when the Europa League got serious.