The annual U17 European Championship is arguably the pound for pound best International tournament. Unlike other underage tournaments, the simplistic format (16 teams in 4×4 groups) allows for a typical balanced bracket structure of progression, rather than the lobsided big brother that is the U21 Euros (12 teams in 3×4 groups with a best runner-up going through). This 16 team structure also has an advantage in qualifying for the best teams to actually progress to the finals tournament, unlike it’s undersized middle brother, the U19 Euros (only 8 teams qualify, leading to a weaker field based on getting lucky with the qualifying draw). Mainly, the strength of the tournament is drawn from the disconnect that U17 football has from senior football. U17 football is a Utopia where the best eligible players are generally available, they aren’t yet being fast tracked through the ages for club + country, senior club politics or contract issues aren’t yet a factor impacting selection and most importantly, it’s often pre career defining injuries. It’s ultimately refreshing (and in hindsight depressing) getting to see the continent’s most talented young players going up against their peers, before the noise + harsh realities of senior football truly kick in.
The 2019 edition, is a perfect example of the strength of the tournament, with one of the most stacked fields there’s ever been. This is only the second time the traditional juggernauts of Spain, Germany, Netherlands, England, Italy, Portugal and France have all qualified for the same tournament*. Since 2007, Russia are the only nation outside of these seven to make it through to the U17 Euros final, 23 of the last 24 finalists coming from this dominant group.
*2016 the only other occasion. The 2009 edition is probably the most competitive + concentrated U17 Euros field we’ve seen. In the old eight team format, Portugal were the only one of the ‘big 7’ to miss out, with strong Switzerland and Turkey sides rounding out the field.
Byes. Woe is me, but England have become victims of their own success in underage football. Due to their strong performances across the board, they’re increasingly being given a bye through the first round of qualifying for tournaments at various age groups. This may seen like an enviable benefit, but it has it’s complications.
1) The International arms race, International dual-eligibility is a current hot topic, to tie anyone down for the short term or long term requires competitive UEFA or FIFA games. Rather than playing three qualifiers in October + three more in March, England had to wait for their first competitive game with these 2002 born players till March. Alternatively, you could very well argue that the lack of competitive games allowed England increased opportunities to play dual-nationals in friendlies, with less pressure on them to commit and a wider purview for England to experiment. Watch this space for something more detailed on this topic.
2) Simply, competitive fixtures are a valuable commodity for player development. It all worked out, but defeat in the Elite Round qualifying would’ve ended the cycle for this whole age group having only played three competitive games, instead of the six that should be almost guaranteed. As qualification was achieved, this age group could go on to now play an extra 15+ games with a full Euros + U17 World Cup campaign, but this swing in opportunities does seem a bit extreme.
Syrenka Cup + Friendlies. England started their U17 cycle with a trip to Poland to play in the Syrenka Cup. A tournament which saw them run rampant, victory coming against Belgium in the final, where they lead 5-1 at half-time. This was the springboard for success in home friendlies v USA, Russia + Brazil – again, in fairly dominant fashion. A 4-Nation test event in Ireland was next, before more friendlies in the new year in the lead up to the Elite Round of qualifying.
Qualifying. England made hard work of qualifying, having to come back from behind in the final 20 minutes of their closing game to ensure progression, with a pressure inducing missed penalty thrown in there for good measure. On the plus side, the opposition of Croatia, Switzerland + Denmark were a true test for a side who had never played truly competitive games together before. Two wins (Switzerland 5-2, Denmark 3-2) and a draw (Croatia 0-0) enough for top spot in the group. Overall, through 14 informative games, Steve Cooper’s side have yet to taste defeat.
Played – 14 | Won – 10 | Drawn – 4 | Lost – 0 | Goal Difference – +25.
1. Louie Moulden (Manchester City) – 13. James Trafford (Manchester City) – 21. Nathan Broome* (Stoke City)
5. Taylor Harwood-Bellis (Manchester City) – 6. Teden Mengi (Manchester United) – 3. Haydon Roberts (Brighton) – 15. Matt Bondswell (RB Leipzig) – 2. Malachi Walcott (Tottenham Hotspurs) – 19. Sammy Robinson (Manchester City)
10. Yunus Musah (Arsenal) – 4. Miguel Azeez (Arsenal) – 8. Jensen Weir (Wigan) – 12. Teddy Jenks (Brighton) – 17. Lewis Bate (Chelsea)
14. Ben Knight (Manchester City) – 7. Noni Madueke (PSV) – 18. Jeremy Sarmiento (Benfica) – 20. Cole Palmer (Manchester City) – 9. Sam Greenwood (Arsenal) – 11. Morgan Rogers (WBA) – 16. Joe Gelhardt (Wigan).
- The England squad features three players currently playing at foreign clubs. Madueke (PSV), Bondswell (RB Leipzig) and Sarmiento (Benfica). In their previous thirteen Euro U17 finals squad, England have selected a total of two foreign based players. Taylor Moore (RC Lens) in 2014 and Danny Collinge (Stuttgart) in 2015. Taylor Moore a slight outlier, as he already lived abroad, rather than moving abroad to play football. This will continue to be a growing trend, with several of next years U17s (2003s) already exploring offers from the continent.
- Brighton have two players in the squad, their first representatives at in an England U17 Euros squad since Jake Forster-Caskey (2011). They follow Max Sanders playing for the U19s in the 2018 Euros. Wigan have two players in the squad, Their first ever representatives for England at this level in a major tournament.
Before running through the selected squad individually, there’s a need to address the players who aren’t involved, but who have been used during this cycle.
The 2002 age group features a significant amount of dual nationals but an even more noteworthy amount of players who weren’t born in England. Yunus Musah, Jeremy Sarmiento, Fabio Carvalho (Fulham), Dynel Simeu (Chelsea), Dennis Cirkin (Spurs), Armstrong Oko-Flex (Celtic), Teden Mengi to name a few. Some of these players were used extensively throughout the cycle and as U16s, but only Yunus Musah was in the squad for qualifying in March. For these players to play for England in UEFA or FIFA sanctioned games, they need to establish that they’ve passed the criteria for eligibility (e.g 5 full years of education in England prior to turning 18). This isn’t always a smooth or expeditious process. Last year, Arvin Appiah (born in Holland) was selected for the U17 Euros, but missed the first game as he waited for his eligibility to be confirmed. England hosted the tournament and therefore didn’t have the usual qualifiers to iron some of these issues out in advance. Despite travelling to Denmark with the team in March, Yunus Musah was unable to play in the qualifiers, as he hadn’t been given the green light to play. Thankfully, the clearance seems to have come through for Musah, Sarmiento + Mengi, hence their selection. Regulars up until March, Dennis Cirkin + Fabio Carvalho , seemingly haven’t been so fortunate and will therefore miss out.
Another factor impacting selection is first team commitments, Nathan Wood-Gordon (Middlesbrough) and Harvey Elliott (Fulham) have both been featuring on the benches for their respective clubs in recent weeks and haven’t been released. Right back Valentino Livramento (Chelsea) and winger Alex Mighten (Nottingham Forest) have been near ever presents throughout the last 12 months but sadly miss out through injury.
Louie Moulden looks set to be England’s no.1 keeper for the tournament. Signed from Liverpool as part of City’s push to build the greatest collection of young keeping talent the world has seen, Moulden has established himself as their no.1 U18 keeper this year. A red card in qualifying v Croatia and a mistake in the FA Youth Cup Final, are rare blips for him. He’s a well rounded keeper, adept on the ball as you’d expect for the new breed of English keepers and constantly improving with the high level of competition he faces. James Trafford, his back up at club level, will occupy the same role for England. Funnily enough, the training keeper Nathan Broome was also at City until recently before joining Stoke. Additionally, the Irish U17 No.1 Gavin Bazunu has just joined City. You want more? Scotland U17 keeper Cieran Slicker is also currently on the books at City.
Taylor Harwood-Bellis is a defender to build a side around. England consistently produce talented defenders, but there’s usually a few red flags. Having watched THB over the last year or so as he’s stepped up from U16s > U23s, it’s hard to find an obvious fault in his game. A common worry in recent years is that the central defenders are tweeners; too small to play in the middle but not talented or athletic enough to play as a fullback, Harwood-Bellis already has the presence to allays any fears on that front. Confident on the ball, smart but aggressive with his defending, he’s a Rolls-Royce and possibly the most well rounded England U17 defender since Joe Gomez. Up for a test against Brian Brobbey when England face the Netherlands, it’ll be an enlightening assessment for both. Nathan Wood-Gordon would’ve been the expected partner for him in defence, but in his absence, it’s likely that Manchester rival Teden Mengi will step in. Playing on the right of THB, this should be a fairly smooth adjustment for England. Like Wood-Gordon, Mengi has exceptional recovery speed and is happy to be taken wide by attackers. At his best when he’s not hesitating to bring the ball forward into gaps, he should provide a good balance between the two centre halves.
A natural centre half, Haydon Roberts, will likely play as a left fullback at times, giving England a strong presence on that side and an extra set piece threat. Very useful player to have for any formation switches or attacking substitutions as he can be shuffled around to cover gaps with his left foot. He’s played left back a fair amount for England as an U17 or U16, so it’s not completely unfamiliar to him. Malachi Walcott is in a similar position to Roberts, but on the right side. A very tall defender, who is more comfortable in the middle, he’ll likely be seen as a double option like Roberts. He’s played at fullback for England before, as U16s at Montaigu, Roberts + Walcott played on either side of a back four together.
Sammy Robinson has his first U17 call up, he’s also one of the less experienced players in the squad, with only a handful of games in the U18 league last year. He’ll probably not see much action over the next fortnight but will be a reliable player to step in to cover wherever needed. He’s part of a very talented group coming through together at City, who will challenge for absolutely everything as U18s + U19s next season. Matt Bondswell is the sole natural fullback in the squad. Whippet quick, he’ll not be playing as a centre half like the others, A left sided player who came through at Forest alongside Mighten, before departing for RB Leipzig last summer, his participation will depend a lot on the configuration of the rest of the defence and how Cooper intends to find balance. How England cope without the strong running and natural width Livramento + Cirkin provided, could define their tournament, both fullbacks would’ve been two of the first names on the teamsheet had they been available.
Miguel Azeez, of Adidas Predator ad fame, has been a regular starter in the two man midfield. A well rounded midfielder who is very well thought of at Arsenal and does everything you’d want a midfielder to do, but it’ll be a big test for him up against his peers this summer. Needs to remain aggressive on ball and off ball and really push the pace. His clubmate, Yunus Musah, is a personal favourite of mine. Powerful core gives him a bit of added dynamism and the confidence to take risks. Really good at making an ambitious pass looks simple and is great at making the right decision to start a transition. Jensen Weir, son of former Scotland International David, is another midfield option. Having made his league debut at the weekend, he’ll be ready to step up to the pace of this competition. Again, another very well rounded midfielder, who probably is still yet to settle on what his true niche is. Don’t rule him or Musah out as auxiliary right backs during this tournament, Weir in particular. Teddy Jenks is a mature midfielder, sits deep, turns the ball over and recycles it with quick ball. Lewis Bate another obvious talent, very technically gifted, but as one of the youngest players in the squad, he’ll probably remain on the bench for most of the tournament. His time will come in future age groups.
Noni Madueke will likely be trusted to connect the midfield and attack. A brilliant carrier of the ball, with a smart left foot, he was vital in qualification and will carry a lot of the on ball creative load for England. Having left Spurs for PSV in the summer, Madueke has excelled, moving up to their U19s to replace an Ihatarren shaped hole. As one of the true 1v1 players in the squad, England will need him to replicate that form. Ben Knight will also be important for England if they’re to progress. Still growing + physically unremarkable, it’s testament to his technically ability + intelligence that he made such an impact at City this season. Moving from Ipswich, Knight established himself as an important member of City’s FA Youth Cup side and offers constant probing from the right. Not dissimilar to Bernardo Silva. Jeremy Sarmiento was another player on the move last summer, heading from Charlton to Benfica. Smooth running wide player, more natural off the left, but can play either side. He’ll probably play off the bench mainly, but he’s one of the few England players who can provide some natural width. Hasn’t featured a great deal as an U17, but has been playing at a competitive level in Portugal. Cole Palmer, similarly to Lewis Bate, i’m sceptical about how much Palmer will feature. A pleasant surprise of an inclusion, Palmer has really kicked on in 2019. Very skinny, he’s barely had time to put on weight as he’s continued to grow but he’s so well balanced and a natural mover with the ball on his left foot. We probably won’t see a lot from him this summer, but as he gets used to his body and continues to fill out, he’s definitely one to keep an eye on, Do not be surprised if he comes through very strongly in the next few years.
Sam Greenwood and Morgan Rogers will both start, where they will play will depend on the combinations behind them. Both capable of playing through the middle or out wide, they’ll dovetail together as the main goal threats for England. Morgan Rogers is the potential starman, if he’s quiet, England will likely not have a particularly memorable tournament. Tall, very direct, capable finisher off both feet, if sides let him turn and run downhill at them, they get punished. Held in high esteem at West Brom, Rogers has already made his senior debut and will have a greater role next year. Despite being physically impressive, he’s still got the potential to fill out and become a true striker as he grows older. Will mainly play off the left for now. Greenwood also moved last summer, heading down South to Arsenal from Sunderland. He’s also fairly two footed, has an eye for the spectacular and a set piece. Tied at 9 U17 goals, both should be looking at Brewster’s record of 20 and hoping to get up there with success at the Euros + then the World Cup. Joe Gelhardt rounds out the squad and probably won’t start but will be a constant off the bench. Made his league debut alongside Weir last week and will have his eye on a big 19/20 season, alongside a growing crop of successful academy products at Wigan. The lazy comparison of Rooney, isn’t totally lazy in this case, a stocky bull of a striker who doesn’t like staying static. Really sharp left foot in and around the box. Have also seen him compared to last seasons U17 striker Bobby Duncan, but I feel like Gelhardt’s dynamism and aggression gives him an edge.
Moulden – Weir, Mengi, Harwood-Bellis, Roberts – Musah, Azeez – Knight, Madueke, Rogers – Greenwood
Without their first choice fullback selections, I expect Cooper to fall back on the safest options and his squad selection suggests as much. I’m not sure how much real faith he has in Walcott at right back so he’ll possibly push Weir back there and go for Roberts on the left. Bondswell would be unlucky to miss out and England could very well lack genuine width, but with the right side spot open, the solidity of Roberts on the left may seem like the smart choice. In advanced areas, England may stick tried and tested, with a core group of experienced players that Cooper will lean on. Cooper is great, but one flaw is possibly his over reliance on those he is familiar with and a slight reluctance to use his bench. With so many established players missing this summer, that could be an inevitability.
v France, 3rd May at 7pm on BBC
v Netherlands, 6th May at 3pm on TBC
v Sweden, 9th May at 4.30pm on TBC