FEATURE | The Ligue 1 stars ready to take U21 Euros by storm

This season has been excessively long, a campaign which started for most top European leagues back in July, a few weeks earlier than usual due to the World Cup break. And while many players have been involved in international duty this past week, including European championship qualifiers for the Euros in Germany next summer, most players can go out and rest now, at least for a bit. Some clubs, including Burnley, have already started pre-season. However, for many younger players, the season is not quite over yet, with the Under 21 Euros being played over the next few weeks.

Organised every 2 years since 1978 (with U23 Euros since 1972), the competition brings together best young talent from around the continent. With U16/18/20 categories playing in World Cups, including the one organised in Argentina last month, this is the chance for this category to shine on the continental stage and join an elite group of players and teams. Increasingly, with players becoming professionals at a younger age every year, the U21 players involved in this competition can be already regulars for top European sides.

In the summer of 2009, Germany beat England in this competition’s final. Captaining the side was Sami Khedira, joined in midfield by Mesut Özil, who would both join Real Madrid the following summer. The Spanish side who beat Switzerland in 2011 had a midfield composed of captain Javi Martínez, Juan Mata, Thiago Alcântara and scorer Ander Herrera, all who went on to have illustrious careers. Dani Olmo, Dani Ceballos and Fabián Ruiz all led Spain to their 5th trophy in 2019 with a win against Germany. Finally, in the last edition of this competition, played with very few fans in the summer of 2021, Florian Wirtz and Nico Schlotterbeck’s Germany beat Rafael Leão and Gonçalo Ramos’ Portugal. 

This year’s edition will be played in Romania and in Georgia. Many teams will be putting themselves forward as potential favourites, including Spain, Italy and England. However, this could be France’s opportunity to win a second trophy in this category after first winning in 1988.

Managed by Sylvain Ripoll since 2017, Les Bleuets qualified in 2019 for their first Euros since 2006, showing both poor management of youth teams from the federation as well as difficult teams to manage, tarnished by several incidents (nightclub outings, taunting of opponents…). Whatever may be said about Ripoll’s management, which has been vividly criticised over the years, he was the first manager in a decade to qualify for any major tournament, with France having missed the cut for every Olympics since Atlanta 1996.

It has to be said, under his management, his teams have been extremely talented. With semi-finals in the 2019 edition and a quarter-final in 2021, there is no doubt that the Espoirs have progressed. However, with the talent he has at hand, and a very poor performance at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, many have called for a new coach. Nonetheless, Ripoll is still here for this time, going to Eastern Europe with one of his best squads yet.

Ligue 1 is now publicly using the tag line of “Ligue des Talents”, embracing the youth that comes out of the various academies across the country. It is therefore no surprise to see some of the best European talents coming from France, with multiple youth setups heralded for their high standards. As shown by the recent transfers of Aurélien Tchouameni, Eduardo Camavinga and Benoît Badiashile, big clubs around the continent are eager to sign French talent and this squad certainly has many players who could be on the move this summer.

As previously reported, Khephren Thuram could be making his way to Liverpool in the coming weeks, while Enzo Le Fée is still negotiating his move to Stade Rennais. Meanwhile, the Lyon contingent of this team has also attracted interest, with Castello Lukeba targeted by RB Leipzig, and the French club open to listening to offers for Rayan Cherki and Bradley Barcola. Following impressive seasons for their respective clubs, Manu Koné, Michael Olise and Elye Wahi could be looking to join a higher standard of club in the summer.

Having gone unbeaten in qualifying in a straightforward group (Armenia, Ukraine, Faroe Islands, Macedonia and Serbia), the team sets up in an attacking 4-3-3 with two attacking midfielders, most often Le Fée and Olise as of late. The team has no issue scoring, particularly in transition, but can certainly be a little weak defensively. This was showcased in a recent thumping by England (4-0) in a friendly back in March. They prepared for the tournament in better fashion with a 1-0 win over Mexico last Friday.

What can they aim for in this tournament? As mentioned previously, there is a very strong squad, with all positions being occupied by a top talent. However, as is often the case in youth set ups, with lots of players changing categories, it is sometimes hard to see the true unity on the field. The new additions such as Barcola, Matthis Albine or Wahi, have certainly brought their talent but also create an even bigger headache for Ripoll when it comes to team selection. The situation is far from ideal to create a structured and competitive team.

Meanwhile, teams like Spain and Germany have historically been excellent in these tournaments, while England and Italy’s new generations of talent are certainly ready to bring on the fight. The Italian Under 20s recently reached the World Cup final in Argentina, with sensational performances from Chelsea midfielder Cesare Casadei. Leftfield shouts could also be the Dutch, Belgians or Portuguese going far in this competition, all three being pitted into the same group.

Ultimately for France, the objective is always the final and the trophy, particularly with this kind of squad. The adversity will be tremendous, with other teams bringing potentially more cohesive and structured teams than a litany of talent. However, Les Bleuets should definitely feel confident enough to get out their group (Italy, Norway, Switzerland) and aim to go deep into the knockout rounds.

GFFN | Tom Abadie

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