England U21s live on Sky at the European U21 Championship: Andy Hinchcliffe's preview of group stages

With the group stages of the 2021 European Under-21 Championships live on Sky Sports over the next week, Andy Hinchcliffe gives his verdict on England’s chances.

England boss Aidy Boothroyd will take a 23-man squad to face Portugal, Croatia and Switzerland in Group D, with the first stage of the tournament taking place in Slovenia and Hungary from March 24-31.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the knockout phase will then be held from May 31 with the final in Ljubljana (Slovenia) on June 6. Boothroyd will be able to name a new squad if England qualify from their group.

Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has represented England’s senior side, is joined in the squad by Emile Smith Rowe and his Arsenal team-mate Eddie Nketiah. Manchester United’s Mason Greenwood was called up, but has pulled out due to injury, replaced by Norwich’s Todd Cantwell.

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Liverpool midfielder Curtis Jones is included along with uncapped Tottenham defender Japhet Tanganga. On-loan Cheltenham goalkeeper Josh Griffiths and PSV forward Noni Madueke have also received maiden call-ups.


England’s Under-21 have exited this competition at the group stages in four of the last five tournaments, with only two survivors from the 2019 squad in Lloyd Kelly and Ryan Sessegnon.

Here, Sky Sports’ Andy Hinchcliffe gives his verdict on England’s chances, and who to look out for…

Key men

I’ve been really impressed with Curtis Jones this season at Liverpool, and Emile Smith Rowe at Arsenal. But looking at the defence – and this won’t be like qualifying where the goals flow – it will be very important. I presume Aaron Ramsdale will start, a good goalkeeper, and they have some experienced, solid defenders, which is ultimately the platform they need.

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With Ben Godfrey, Lloyd Kelly and Marc Guehi, plus Japhet Tanganga deserving his chance too, you’ve got some very solid defenders. In tournaments like this, you must defend well. Any success is built on that defensive platform. Godfrey and Guehi are also really good ball-players.

Aidy is looking at a blend of experience and some newcomers – Smith Rowe, Josh Griffiths, Noni Madueke and Tanganga are all uncapped, while Tom Davies is in with the most caps. Eddie Nketiah is the obvious player to look at – if you want to win these games, Nketiah’s goalscoring record of 16 goals in 14 caps is phenomenal at this level.

And maybe Rhian Brewster, who has been in the doldrums at Sheffield United, can free himself up and we can see the type of player he’s been in the past. The attacking players look dangerous, and it looks like a balanced squad.

Dwight McNeil is also a player I absolutely love watching for Burnley. People are starting to talk more and more about him, and realising what a talent he is. Oliver Skipp has been sensational for Norwich this season, next to Tom Davies, which could be a very strong, controlling midfield. That is what takes you all the way in tournaments, and you rely on your attacking quality to win you games.

Who will start for England?

James Justin, Josh Da Silva and Mason Greenwood are missing, and Jude Bellingham is with the seniors, so it could have been a stronger side, and it’s tricky at the moment to work out an XI.

Aidy could play a back three or a back four depending on the opposition. Aaron Ramsdale, Ben Godfrey, Marc Guehi, Tom Davies, Eddie Nketiah, Oliver Skipp and Callum Hudson-Odoi should start, but beyond that, there are places up for grabs.

But it’s a nice problem to have – there are so many choices.

‘Squad flow and tournament structure may help’

For England, it might be helpful that this tournament is split in two. When they usually go to a full tournament, it’s a bit of a disaster.

There also seems to be that flow of players who have come through the ages with England, used to playing at international level and at international tournaments.

This batch of Under-21s have had success at younger age groups, and the plan has been to develop this team through those age groups. I’m interested to see whether that flow, that conveyor belt of talent through the age groups, works at this level.

In the past, a lot of squads were cobbled together, sent to tournaments, and even though the squads looked talented, they didn’t do well in tournaments, despite qualification being a breeze.

Hopefully, this batch is different, and they’ll have learned from the experience of playing in tournaments with England at younger age groups.

England’s chances: ‘Tough group, Swiss won’t be pushovers’

You’ve got to be positive; you’re picking some of the finest players in this age group that are around. But I think they’ll have more of a chance because they’ve been through this process before. He hasn’t been thrown these players and told: “Make this team a success”.

I don’t think they’ll get too carried away inside the camp – looking at the teams they have to play, and the squads their opponents have picked, there is a lot of talent and experience, particularly looking at that opener against Switzerland. It’s not going to be straightforward against Switzerland.

England cannot look further than the next game – against the Swiss. They are a dangerous team. If you take your eye off them, you will get beat. Brighton’s Andy Zeqiri scores goals for fun at this level, and they have some really talented midfield players, so I’m interested to see the Swiss play.

If you tune in to watch England vs Switzerland and think there is only one winner there, you might be a bit surprised.

England U21
Switzerland U21

This is something players do sometimes, thinking they’ll get through the group with ease and thinking ahead to the knockouts. But they need to worry about that when it comes, because they’ve got enough on their plate dealing with Switzerland, let alone Portugal and Croatia.

I’m sure Aidy Boothroyd will say: ‘”Look at the past” – the 2019 squad was talented, but it didn’t come together, and maybe there was an underestimation of opponents. You can’t be planning ahead too far, it simply doesn’t work.

Aidy will fancy England’s chances – it’s a talented group of players who have played together and had success in the past – but there are some very good teams at this tournament. Their opponents are not there by accident. I’m sure Aidy and the squad won’t be underestimating any of the teams that face them in the group stages.

The squad in full

Goalkeepers: Josh Griffiths (Cheltenham Town, on loan from West Brom), Josef Bursik (Doncaster, on loan from Stoke), Aaron Ramsdale (Sheffield United)

Defenders: Max Aarons (Norwich), Ben Godfrey (Everton), Marc Guehi (Swansea, on loan from Chelsea), Lloyd Kelly (Bournemouth), Ryan Sessegnon (Hoffenheim, on loan from Tottenham), Steven Sessegnon (Bristol City, on loan from Fulham), Japhet Tanganga (Tottenham), Ben Wilmot (Watford)

Midfielders: Dwight McNeil (Burnley), Oliver Skipp (Norwich, on loan from Tottenham), Tom Davies (Everton), Conor Gallagher (West Brom, on loan from Chelsea), Curtis Jones (Liverpool), Emile Smith Rowe (Arsenal), Todd Cantwell (Norwich)

Forwards: Ebere Eze (Crystal Palace), Rhian Brewster (Sheffield United), Callum Hudson-Odoi (Chelsea), Noni Madueke (PSV Eindhoven), Eddie Nketiah (Arsenal)

How to follow

You can watch England in the Euro U21 Championship live on Sky Sports Football and watch every other match in the Group Stages live on Sky Sports Football YouTube. Subscribe to the channel to ensure you don’t miss any of the action.

England’s three fixtures will also be blogged live on SkySports.com and the Sky Sports App:

  • England U21 vs Switzerland U21 – Thursday March 25, 2pm; Bonifika Stadium, Koper (Sky Sports Football)
  • England U21 vs Portugal U21 – Sunday March 28, 8pm; Stozice Stadium, Ljubljana (Sky Sports Football)
  • England U21 vs Croatia U21 – Wednesday March 31, 5pm; Bonifika Stadium, Koper (Sky Sports Football)

Full fixtures can be found here

European U21 Championship group stages – March 24-31

Group A: Hungary, Germany, Romania, Netherlands

Group B: Slovenia, Spain, Czech Republic, Italy

Group C: Russia, Iceland, France, Denmark

Group D: Portugal, Croatia, England, Switzerland

The knockout stages will take place May 31 to June 6

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