A Gripping New Era Begins for England U21s

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Into a new era head the England U21s. There are new leaders, new players. There is new hope. When incoming manager Lee Carsley named Marc Guéhi as his captain this week, he was keen to add that this was not just a one-match thing. The centre-back, who recently signed for Crystal Palace following 14 years with Chelsea, will be his skipper for the foreseeable.

Guéhi told EnglandFootball.org he was “a bit shocked at first” to receive the armband. “It honestly could have been so many people, so I was shocked at first. I was very pleased, very privileged to be named captain.” Once England had taken a comfortable 2-0 early lead, Kosovo started to pose a threat on the counter. Guéhi followed in to block a rebound shot that, without his point-blank intervention, would have brought a certain goal. He then nearly popped up with a headed goal from a corner, only to narrowly miss at the back post.

Only four players who featured in the last England U21s fixture — that ill-fated final Euros group game against Croatia in March — were on view here. One of them, Rhian Brewster, has gone through a peculiar last few years. His stock was as high as Phil Foden’s back in 2017 when he won the Golden Boot as England won the U17 World Cup in India. But since signing for Sheffield United (when they were still in the Premier League) in 2020, the striker is yet to score in 31 league matches. An early goal here will have meant the world then, and could just kickstart his domestic career at his club. He did well to win the early penalty, and thumped the ball far into the corner.

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It was during England’s latest European U21s Championships disappointment in spring that then-manager Aidy Boothroyd called his “the impossible job.” Presumably he partly meant that it was impossible to accommodate so much talent; because that is what he had at his disposal, and that is what Lee Carsley has inherited. Whether it was Guéhi’s aerial prowess, Conor Gallagher’s midfield control or the wide trickery of prodigious talents Noni Madueke and Cole Palmer, this was a performance to whet the appetite of Gareth Southgate as he looks over his shoulder at the latest generation of emerging stars.

As a Chelsea player on loan at Palace, Gallagher spoke in the week about attempting to emulate the goalscoring success of Chelsea’s greatest ever midfielder, Frank Lampard. But in his composure and the ease with which he went about his work, Gallagher resembled another, more modern, England midfielder: Jordan Henderson. This from Gallagher was a performance similar to Henderson’s against Andorra at the weekend. The Liverpool captain regularly controls the tempo of games for club and country. If Carsley can mould Gallagher into a similarly commanding, comfortable operator, England and Palace will have a very valuable player indeed.

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“I set myself small targets, not really long-term targets,” Gallagher told EnglandFootball.org ahead of the match. “I don’t want to complicate things. I take it game-by-game, week-by-week. In my head there are things I want to achieve and want to be. But for now, I’m just focusing on the present and the next game.” The next game went very well indeed.

It was two years ago to the day that Mason Mount graduated from the U21s and made his senior England debut. He has since won 23 caps and missed only five matches in that period — including two due to having to quarantine and a further two while he was on holiday after winning the Champions League with Chelsea. The 22-year-old serves as a reminder of just what could be around the corner for the best of the England U21s. For some, immeasurable success in the senior game could be just a few fine performances away.

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The lasting memory from this game will be the frankly outrageous second goal. As debuts go, Cole Palmer’s was quite something. Man of the match capped it off. Minutes after Brewster’s penalty, he was about to pass back having struggled to make inroads into the box himself. Or that’s what his marker Florian Hoxha thought. Instead, Palmer used him as a wall to spin off. Round the outside of Hoxha he went, and into the box, and then there was an unerring curled strike from a tight angle to finish. It was the sort of majestic skill England youth staff have seen him produce since he was 14. For Manchester City it’s been even longer; he’s been at their academy since the U8s.

The England U21s is a step up — for Palmer, for the other seven debutants, and for the new coaching staff: coaches Joleon Lescott and Ashley Cole, and manager Lee Carsley. There were no signs of nerves. It was a bright new dawn under the lights at Stadium MK.

Post-Match Reaction

Max Aarons of Norwich City spoke to EnglandFootball.org after the match, to offer his thoughts on the Young Lions’ bright start to qualifying. “Being one of the older ones in the group along with Marc [Guéhi] who’s beside me in the back-line, I think we have a real crucial part in leading the team,” he stated. “Especially being at the back, controlling things and making sure everyone’s on it. I think we were really good with that today. Every time we come away now, it’s about getting that team to gel. We’ve got some younger players in the setup now. It’s about keeping everyone together and making sure when that tournament comes around, we’re ready. First we’ve got to qualify and we’ve started that well today.

Aarons was in no doubt about which played had put on the best displays of the night. As well as his own buoyant and energetic display, three others stood out. “I thought Cole [Palmer] had a really good bit of skill, especially for his goal. We know he’s got that. Conor [Gallagher] battled really hard in midfield, and I obviously love playing alongside Marc — a really calming influence at the back. Someone that takes the pressure off you and can do both sides of the game. It’s really good, we’ve got a very strong team — a lot of talent. It’s about us getting the other side of it now: when it comes down to tournament level that we’re on it and that we’ve mastered both sides of the game.”

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