Such is the scarcity of excellent senior England players who feature regularly for their clubs, Aidy Boothroyd’s England Under-21 squad has been raided by Gareth Southgate. So what’s the best England Under-21 side he could actually field? Players born on or after 1 January 1996 are eligible…
GOALKEEPER: Angus Gunn (Southampton)
“In each of the games he has been part of, he has given us a calmness and an assurance you need,” said Saints boss Mark Hughes of £13.5m Southampton back-up goalkeeper Angus Gunn, who is yet to actually play in the Premier League but emerged victorious from a Carabao Cup penalty shoot-out last week. It might be enough to win back his England Under-21 jersey from Dean Henderson; after all, he was sat on the senior England bench alongside Jordan Pickford only last November. Plenty has changed in less than 12 months.
RIGHT-BACK: Trent Alexander-Arnold (Liverpool)
England are rather spoiled at right-back, with Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Jonjoe Kenny, Kyle Walker-Peters and Axel Tuanzebe all options. But all have to wait in a queue behind Trent Alexander-Arnold, who has already claimed three senior caps and appeared at a World Cup at the tender age of 20. After starting every other Premier League and Champions League game this season, he was finally dropped to the bench against Manchester City on Sunday after a particularly shaky 90 minutes against Napoli. Still, he’s only bloody 20.
CENTRE-BACK: Joe Gomez (Liverpool)
Remarkably still only 21, Gomez has been ridiculously good this season for Liverpool, forming a phenomenal partnership with Virgil van Dijk that was finally broken up on Sunday by Dejan Lovren, who shoved Gomez sideways to replace the man above at right-back. Gomez would have gone to the World Cup but for injury, and his appearance in September’s defeat to Spain suggests that he is currently above Kyle Walker in the right-sided centre-back race (which he definitely would not win if it were an actual race).
CENTRE-BACK: Jake-Clarke Salter (Chelsea – on loan at Vitesse Arnhem)
Clarke-Salter has actually twice played for Chelsea – 16 minutes of a 4-0 win over Aston Villa in the Premier League and 19 minutes in a 5-1 win over Nottingham Forest in the Carabao Cup – but he is now plying his trade in the Netherlands, where he has reportedly appeared on the radar of Borussia Dortmund and various other European clubs.
England have called up 128 players from senior level to U17 over the past 24 hours. Just about 15% of those (19 players) have spent time in Chelsea's academy. #CFC
— Chelsea Youth (@chelseayouth) October 5, 2018
LEFT-BACK: Ben Chilwell (Leicester City)
The proud owner of one senior England cap, the 21-year-old has been Claude Puel’s first-choice Leicester left-back since he took over and put the emphasis firmly on youth. Promoted from the England Under-21 squad to replace Luke Shaw this week, he could actually start against Croatia due to doubts over Danny Rose’s fitness. He once had an excellent loan spell at Huddersfield, so the Terriers should take at least 90% of the credit for his development.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Harry Winks (Tottenham)
A year ago this week, Harry Winks made his England debut and was so bloody excellent against Lithuania that we rejoiced at finally finding a central midfielder confident with the ball at his feet. He then missed a great chunk of last season with an injury that also delayed his start of this campaign. But a start against Barcelona (and a distinct lack of other options) convinced Gareth Southgate that he should be welcomed back to the England fold.
CENTRAL MIDFIELD: Lewis Cook (Bournemouth)
A 4-0 defeat to Burnley finally convinced Eddie Howe that Andrew Surman should not be starting Premier League games with Lewis Cook on the bench and the young Englishman has started the Cherries’ last two Premier League wins. It has not earned him an England recall though; he stays in the Under-21s after captaining them to Toulon tournament victory this summer. He will always have those 19 minutes in a 1-1 draw with Italy.
ATTACKING MIDFIELD: James Maddison (Leicester City)
Three years ago he was (not) playing in League One with Coventry City. Two years ago he was playing in the Scottish Premiership with Aberdeen. A year ago he was playing in the Championship with Norwich. Now he is playing in the Premier League with Leicester and has already scored three goals. And he is in the full England squad less than a year after making his Under-21 debut. It’s gone quite well.
James Maddison of Leicester City, age 21, causally rocks up to Pride Park in his Range Rover SVR 🙃 it’s fair to say he’s made it 🔥
— Cash. (@bencashmore10) October 3, 2018
ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Dele Alli (Tottenham)
Dele Alli – with his 31 England caps – could still be called up by Aidy Boothroyd, and we should all hold hands and hope that happens at some stage, simply for comedy value. Three years ago this week, Alli made his England debut and has been in every subsequent squad when he has been fit. Right now he is anything but fit so will watch England’s vital Nations League clashes from the comfort of his sofa.
ATTACKING MIDFIELD: Jadon Sancho (Borussia Dortmund)
Oh here he is. The man of the hour. The man who has produced more assists than any other player in history. Or something. You know you’re good when you leapfrog over the England Under-21 stage straight into the full England squad a la Wayne Rooney. He has claimed six assists in seven Bundesliga games this season even though he has started just once. And suddenly he is a £100m player.
STRIKER: Marcus Rashford (Manchester United)
He has started just two Premier League games this season and is said to be ‘bemused’ by Jose Mourinho’s description of him as “sad on the pitch” against Newcastle on Saturday. He has scored just once this season – against West Ham – and absolutely did not celebrate; he is thought to be one many Manchester United players who would gladly see the back of Mourinho. He has a barely believable 27 England caps for England at the age of 20, though England’s current formation means that he rarely plays when Harry Kane is available. He scored twice in his absence in September, mind.
SUBS: Freddie Woodman, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Mason Mount, Phil Foden, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Demarai Gray, Dominic Solanke