Having watched the U20 setup win the World Cup over in South Korea, England’s first taste of glory on the international scene across any age group since 1966.
Stoking the excitement is the current form of the U21s – they looked absolutely imperious in qualifying and boast an exciting array of physically-gifted and technically sound talent. Despite this, the Young Lions are nowhere near being the favourites for a title which is becoming one of the most competitive in the modern game.
Fans, managers, scouts and armchair pundits have been paying close attention to youth tournaments in recent years as they hope to find out who will be dominating the back pages in two or three years.
England themselves have invested heavily in the youth setup in recent years but their European counterparts still dominate this particular format – mostly because of how their domestic league place emphasis on promoting young talent.
We thought we’d look at how England stack up against their rivals in a crucial element of preparation – how much actual European top-flight football have they played this season?
6. Sweden – 186
Not surprising given that the Swedish league only features 16 sides and they are only 13 games into the 2017 season although the quality of the Swedish top flight is some way off the other leagues up for consideration. The current champions’ strength is that this current group of players are being groomed to graduate to the ageing senior team at the exact same time.
Household names are thin on the ground but over three quarters of the players going to the championship have played most if not every round of the Allsvenskan.
Linus Wahlqvist & Niclas Eliasson – IFK Norrköping (13)
Kerim Mrabti – Djurgårdens IF (12)
One to watch
Niclas Eliasson – IFK Norrköping
5. England – 266
Bizarrely, this England U21 squad have almost as many U21 caps as top flight appearances this season (237). This reflects two things – how long this current crop have been playing together and how difficult it is for England’s best young players to get a chance in the Premier League.
Unlike other European countries, English players don’t often venture abroad for opportunities – the notable exception in this list is Lewis Baker who has been tearing up the Eredivisie with Vitesse Arnhem on loan from Chelsea.
Despite this – it is worth noting that many players are getting 90 minutes week-in week-out in the Championship which has become an incredibly competitive league in recent years.
Lewis Baker – Vitesse Arnhem (33)
Nathan Redmond & James Ward-Prowse – Southampton (30), Demarai Gray – Leicester City (30)
One to watch
Tammy Abraham – Chelsea
4. Portugal – 374
The current holders of the senior European Championships boast a domestic top-flight which heavily relies on it’s young talent. Academies around the country are famous for their ability to churn out top-class players and this season is no different.
Defeated finalists last time around – Portugal will be keen to make their mark on this championship thanks to their exceptional strength in depth across the pitch.
Captain Bruno Fernandes is a first-choice central midfielder for Sampdoria in Serie A while the entire strikeforce boasts over 10 appearances in a top-flight league this season – add to this the very familiar names of Bruma and Renato Sanches and you have an idea of why this Portugal squad are so highly regarded.
Bruno Fernandes – Sampdoria (33)
Bruma – Galatasaray (32)
Ricardo Horta – Braga (32)
One to watch
Ruben Neves – Porto
3. Germany – 420
Germany are currently one of the world’s best at developing young talent. The revamp of their entire approach to international football in the nineties has lazer-focused on their junior sides.
The pace and style of Bundesliga football suits younger players to a tee – players like Max Meyer and Mahmoud Dahoud are established names in German football despite their tender years.
Nadiem Amiri – TSG Hoffenheim (33)
Max Arnold – Wolfsburg (32)
Levin Oztunali – Mainz 05 (30)
One to watch
Serge Gnabry – Bayern Munich
2. Italy – 437
Italy have been rebuilding their international program since their woeful 2010 World Cup defence. There have been fits and starts but never a real cohesive squad as generations overlapped. This U21 side is a totally different matter – Italian football fans have never been more excited.
Serie A has very loose loan rules which make it easier for clubs lower down the table to acquire highly-rated young talent for a few seasons and let them develop amongst the ranks. Expect a high-octane side, different to what we’ve previously seen from Italian outfits.
Players like Federico Bernardeschi, Marco Benassi, Domenico Berardi and Manuel Locatelli are genuinely exciting talents while Gianluigi Donnarumma already looks a world-beater at just 18 years old.
Gianluigi Donnarumma – AC Milan (38)
Andrea Petagna – Atalanta (34)
Andrea Conti -Atalanta (33)
One to watch
Federico Bernadeschi – Fiorentina
1. Spain – 540
We’d say we’re surprised but we’re not – Spain has been a conveyor belt of top class players for longer than anyone can remember. The sheer quality of the players means looking abroad to plug gaps is not even worth considering for La Liga clubs.
They travel well too, captain Gerard Deulofeu and Hector Bellerin have earned significant game time in Serie A and the Premier League respectively this season.
In fact, it’s hard not to look at the squad and be completely blown away by some of the names available to head coach Albert Celades – Marco Asensio, Marcos Llorente, Inaki Williams, Jose Luis Gaya, Denis Suarez, Saul Niguez etc etc…
Hector Bellerin – Arsenal & Saul Niguez