Team analysis: Why England's U-21s have a good chance of winning Euro 2015
After scoring just one goal in Euro 2013, England crashed out of the tournament bottom of their group in a campaign that included losses to Israel and Norway. An embarrassing exit prompted former manager Stuart Pearce to lambast his own players, addressing the lack of pride and professionalism displayed by his side despite a strong qualification run. Pearce, arguably shifting the blame, knew his time was up and faced the chop shortly after.
In came former England International teammate Gareth Southgate to the helm, again leading them through qualification comfortably by winning all bar one of the qualifiers. Although expected to qualify from an easy group, England have notched up impressive victories against favourites Germany and a talented Portuguese side in friendlies in the run up to the tournament.
Despite rumours about a side potentially including more established internationals such as Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Raheem Sterling, Southgate drafted in just 3 players from the senior squad, all having featured in his campaign: Calum Chambers, John Stones and much-hyped striker Harry Kane, placing faith in much of the same squad that earned qualification.
Southgate is adamant England have every chance of emerging victorious in the Czech Republic and rightly so. The close-knit nature of the squad has been apparent throughout the qualification process, now playing with a distinctive style as well as showing they are capable of facing any mental or physical challenge. Southgate said: "We have belief in them. When I look elsewhere, what I'm not seeing is countries where I go: 'We are miles behind them in youth development'."
European Golden boy nominee John Stones will be hoping to carry on the consistency he ended the season in and his composure on the ball and level headed approach will be key in running a tight ship in defence. Only Atletico Mardrid's Giménez (7.40) achieved a higher WhoScored.com rating than Stones (7.21) in 2015 of centre-back’s aged 21 or under - he could latently stake a claim for a starting role in the senior team at Euro 2016.
Middlesbrough's Ben Gibson will most likely partner him in defence, following on from the heartbreak of narrowly missing out on promotion. The centre-back started 36 matches for Boro in their push to become a Premier League team once more.
Jack Butland made his big money move to Stoke in 2013/14 but has yet to make his mark at the club. Several stints at Championship clubs have followed, although a 7.24 WhoScored.com rating for Derby - when called upon in his 6 appearances – is promising, and he will be hoping to showcase his talent in between the sticks during the tournament with a potential view to becoming The Potters’ number 1.
Luke Garbutt was the standout performer in the recent friendly against Belarus last Friday, and Stones has singled out the left-back to make a keen impression. Garbutt has been used sparingly at Everton last season, but managed to average 2.6 key passes and 2.8 accurate crosses per game in his 6 Europa League appearances for the club. With his contract renewal currently up in air, he has attracted interest from PL clubs including Merseyside rivals Liverpool.
Although England's side possess a physical presence, Southgate's team are not short of technical players; Will Hughes, Tom Carroll and James Ward-Prowse offer an interesting dynamism in midfield for England, with the trio not held down to a fixed position in the set-up and allowed the flexibility to roam from their positions in phases of attacks.
Ward-Prowse will be hoping to provide a threat from dead-ball situations given his prowess from set piece situations. The 20-year old accumulated 6 assists over the course of the season for Southampton. Meanwhile Carroll and Hughes are more than capable on the ball, with pass accuracies of 88.3% and 88.5% respectively portraying very respectable ball retention skills. Hughes' drives from midfield will also be worth keeping an eye out for.
Nathaniel Chalobah is also in contention for a place on the teamsheet and may be called upon if England require additional protection to the defence. Elsewhere fellow Chelsea teammate Ruben Loftus-Cheek was a surprise inclusion in the squad, and the nonchalant 19-year-old could also feature after putting in impressive displays for Chelsea's development team.
Kane may have grabbed the headlines this season but England's star man over the course of qualification was arguably Nathan Redmond. The winger directly contributed towards 20 goals in Norwich's promotion last season, including a man of the match performance in the play-off final.
Averaging 2.5 key passes per game and 2.4 dribbles per game in the Championship, Redmond's trickery and direct approach down the wings could be integral to England's progress as they often look to keep the width in their play, whilst still being allowed the freedom to cut in and switch wings.
Alex Pritchard may line up on the opposite flank having proved an instrumental figure for a Brentford side who finished 5th in the league, on loan from Spurs. 12 goals and 7 assists earned him a WhoScored.com rating of 7.21 and his performances haven't gone unnoticed, with Mauricio Pochettino keen to involve him in his first team plans next season: "He (Pritchard) starts pre-season when he gets back from the Euros and we are looking forward to having him back after a successful loan with Brentford."
Southgate's major selection headache will be which forwards he opts for, usually selecting one striker in his line-up, it's likely Southgate may decide to stick with top goalscorer - Saido Berahino, who incidentally is just 3 goals behind the record to potentially match England's top goalscorer at under-21 level (Shearer/Jeffers -13 goals).
Despite this, attention will be drawn upon talisman Harry Kane who may well come into partner Berahino, while Ings will also be fighting for a place. Given that the new Liverpool signing and Kane scored a total of 32 goals combined in the league last season, this could force Southgate to shift Berahino into a wide position.
Despite being in a group including Italy and Portugal, England's significant strength in depth across all areas of the pitch should be sufficient enough to mount a serious challenge for glory. As for Southgate's laid-back approach, stating:
“They have never betrayed that responsibility. I don't have a load of rules”, it will be intriguing to see whether it has an impact on the players during the tournament. After faltering under the far more forceful hand of Stuart Pearce, England will be hoping to flourish and cap a successful spell since Southgate’s arrival with some long-awaited silverware.