With the international break now well underway, I take a look at three of England’s youngsters in the under-21 setup – all of which will be aiming for a call-up to join the senior squad within the next year or so.
We start with the most experienced, and current under-21 captain, in James Ward-Prowse. The Southampton midfielder, who operates in the centre or as more of an attack-minded player, was given his debut at this level by Gareth Southgate in September 2013.
His quality is undeniable, but questions over his form last season saw him often drift in-and-out of the Southampton starting eleven, with plenty of new additions taking its eventual toll in terms of competition for places.
He has shown effective leadership qualities at youth level and with 39 international caps (u17, u19, u20 and u21) to his name, there’s no doubt his experience will stand him in good stead when he is eventually afforded an opportunity in amongst the senior players.
Criticism over England’s overall tournament displays in the UEFA U21 Championship last summer were mainly centred around the fact that Ward-Prowse remained an unused substitute in two of their three group stage games – and given his importance to the side, it was seen as baffling to exclude the 21-year-old.
Admittedly, he’d like to get involved with more goals and assists for Southampton (and England alike), but he shows his quality on a regular basis when called upon and a six-year contract extension back in May reiterates just how highly-rated James is on the south Coast.
The talented 20-year-old, who made his first Premier League start last May against Liverpool, has impressed critics and Chelsea supporters alike.
Despite this though, RLC himself will be the first to tell you that the last twelve months haven’t gone as planned in regards to his development. With the likes of Tottenham‘s Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford at Manchester United reaping the rewards that come with regular minutes at senior level, Loftus-Cheek has seen his own progress stall whilst others in his age-group continue to improve.
It’s not as though he isn’t good enough, nor has he not been promised opportunities to assert his first-team credentials. Despite impressing when introduced, usually in cameo appearances, rare starts or Cup fixtures, whenever the regularity of Premier League football is involved, Ruben is not.
Chelsea’s performances have been far from convincing thus far this season, and even with the inclusion of summer acquisition N’Golo Kante, their backline looks vulnerable and midfield seems predictable at times. Nemanja Matic has been heavily tipped for a move abroad to Italy, whilst Cesc Fabregas doesn’t seem to be rated highly in Antonio Conte‘s eyes, regardless of what he tells the press.
Loftus-Cheek has proven that he’s far too good to be playing in developmental squads, younger age-groups whilst his abilities show he has both visual and tactical awareness, not to mention physicality and an excellent passing range. He has all the tools to become a perfect midfielder for club and country, but either needs to request a loan move elsewhere in search of regular minutes, or be afforded a chance by Conte if he’s to have any opportunity of getting into Southgate’s plans for a senior call-up.
It’s been a whirlwind twelve months for the 20-year-old winger, who has gone from impressing with Birmingham in the Championship to a Premier League winner with Leicester City.
Despite his remarkable success at club level having earned a move into England’s top flight, Demarai Gray knows that he’s far from the finished article as he aims to continue improving and ultimately earn a starting berth under Claudio Ranieri‘s tuteleage at Leicester.
It’s easier said than done given the Foxes’ success recently, as they’ve added financial firepower and kept a few key figures who were instrumental in firing them to the Premier League crown last term including Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy – both of whom were linked with moves elsewhere this past summer.
Gray is a versatile player who can play on either wing and also do an effective job in the number ten role just behind the striker. His rapid acceleration and close-control dribbling make it extremely tough for even the sharpest of defenders to dispossess him, and Ranieri utilised his new man to good effect in the second-half of last season.
Having joined Leicester in January for a rumoured £4.5m, he made a handful of short cameo first-team appearances before being afforded the chance to showcase his ability against sides when they were defending leads for instance, like against Sunderland away.
His relentless energy and excellent pressing helped force defenders into rushing with possession, and he was influential in a 10-minute cameo away at the Stadium of Light. Credited with the assist for Vardy’s well-taken strike in stoppage time, Gray showed his effectiveness off-the-ball as well as on it. It showed he was more than willing to do a job, one not comfortable in, for the good of the team – and has since been rewarded with further chances too.
Making his Champions League debut with another cameo was definitely an unforgettable moment last month, and he continues to go from strength-to-strength when called upon. He has 13 caps at youth level with England to his name, the last of which was a Man of the Match display in the under-21’s 1-0 win over Kazakhstan last week, which confirmed their qualification in the U21 Euro Championships.
Having seen the likes of United duo Rashford and Jesse Lingard break into the senior side recently, Gray will have confidence and self-belief that he can be in the same squad one day in the not-too-distant future.
At 20-years-old, he’s got plenty of potential left to fulfil and despite Leicester’s bumpy start to proceedings this term, he has been effective when called upon for both club and country – something that will help build momentum in the weeks and months to come.