England Under 21s: Six youngsters hoping for a first team breakthrough in the Premier League this season

5 Sep

Gareth Southgate’s England Under-21s continue their campaign in Colchester on Tuesday night, knowing that a win will put them one step closer to next summer’s European Championship in Poland. They currently sit on top of Group 9, ahead of Switzerland and tomorrow’s opponents Norway.


But for many of the youngsters, it will be a rare chance for competitive football, as they find themselves stuck on the bench or worse at some of England’s biggest clubs.

With the loan window now shut until 1 January, many of these young players will have to make the most of Under-21 meetings if they cannot convince their club managers to give them a chance in the first team in the League Cup, or in the new Under-23 teams.

Marcus Rashford

Jose Mourinho has come under immense pressure to pick Rashford since taking over at Manchester United. Rashford is United’s most talented youngster since Ravel Morrison, but is already clearly better adapted to the demands of senior football. He was the best thing about United last season, and the best player on the pitch in the FA Cup final. Roy Hodgson took him to Euro 2016, and now he is back with the Under-21s Gareth Southgate praised his maturity. “You would think he had been with us for a longer period of time,” Southgate said. “That is testimony to the mentality he has arrived here with.” 

But Rashford’s time for United has been limited so far this season, with just one 19-minute substitute appearance at Hull City. He scored the winner in added time. Mourinho has thought that Anthony Martial is readier to play on the left of his 4-4-1-1 than Rashford is. But Rashford’s return to United’s first team will surely only be a matter of time.

Nathaniel Chalobah

No one has played more games for England youth sides than Nathaniel Chalobah, even as still tries to make the next step in his club career. Chalobah was set for a loan move in August, with interest from clubs at home and abroad, but Antonio Conte decided at the end of the window to keep him at Stamford Bridge. He has not yet made his first team debut but nearly came on when Chelsea played Bristol Rovers at home in the Capital One Cup last month. Conte admitted afterwards that he regretted not being able to bring him on. 

Now that Chalobah will be at Chelsea for the rest of 2016 he may find first-team opportunities continue to be limited, although an injury or suspension to N’golo Kante would change that. If an opportunity does come along, though, Chalobah will take it.

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Chuba Akpom

The 20-year-old striker was promoted to the Under-21 squad by Southgate earlier in the week, and is another player who did not make a move on loan this summer. He was initially expected to go out, but Arsenal’s striker crisis meant that Arsene Wenger told Akpom in pre-season that he would in fact stay and be part of the first team squad. Akpom was an unused substitute when Arsenal lost at home to Liverpool on opening weekend but then saw his place on the bench taken by the returning Olivier Giroud. He may have to wait for Arsenal’s Capital One Cup campaign to start to feature for the first team, at least until the loan window reopens next January.

Angus Gunn

With Joe Hart’s departure to Torino, 20-year-old Angus Gunn is now City’s number three goalkeeper and part of Pep Guardiola’s first team squad. He impressed Guardiola in pre-season in China, saving penalties that beat Borussia Dortmund in a penalty shoot-out. Crucially, he is also thought to be good with his feet, having been part of Patrick Vieira’s ball-playing Under-21 squad before Vieira went to coach New York City FC. Gunn has a good relationship with goalkeeping coach Xabier Mancisidor and is hopeful of making a first-team debut in the Capital One Cup or FA Cup later this season.

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Nathan Redmond

Redmond is rare among this Under-21 squad for being a regular starter at a Premier League club. Southampton paid Norwich City £10million for the 22-year-old this summer, with manager Claude Puel boldly predicting that Redmond had “the same possibilities” as Thierry Henry in terms of their style of play. Redmond scored on his Saints debut against Watford and will revel in the first-team opportunities he has at St Mary’s. Redmond, in truth, is already better developed than many players in this Under-21 squad thanks to the games he has played for Birmingham City and Norwich City, and that intelligence and experience should show for Southgate’s side, and for Southampton.

Calum Chambers

While many of these players saw their loan hopes frustrated in the final days of the transfer window, Calum Chambers got a move to Middlesbrough. That should give him an opportunity to play the games that he needs to rediscover his confidence and form. Chambers started very promisingly when he moved to Arsenal from Southampton two years ago, at centre-back or right-back. But one particularly difficult game at Swansea City hit his confidence and Arsene Wenger lost some of his faith in him. With Hector Bellerin the established right-back at the club now, and two new centre-backs in Shkodran Mustafi and Rob Holding, Chambers was unlikely to feature for the first team this year. But at Middlesbrough he has a better chance.

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