European Under-21 Championships: Who Should You Back?

Jonas Knudsen of Denmark (Getty Images)

Now every team has played one game in the European Under-21 Championship, being contested in the Czech Republic at the moment, we are able to see a clearer picture of who has arrived at the finals with the best chance of success, and who is likely to be on the plane home. We analyse some of the movers and shakers in the tournament, with tips on where you should be placing your bets.

Bet On Teams, Not Players

You'll notice a pattern: the teams that generally do best at the European Under-21 Championship are those which feature the best available players, in their club positions, and which have strong youth development systems. Almost inevitably, this means the strongest team coming into these championships was Germany. Although they only got a draw against Serbia in the opening game, we still see this as being the case.

A look at Germany's squad says how seriously under-21 football is taken, but also how well-protected the squad is from the kind of injury pullouts we have seen from England squads. Germany, quite simply, fields the best possible squad, within the rules. Although there is a school of thought in England that players who have won senior international caps should not be sent back to the under-21s, the current strength of German football paints a different picture.

Marc-Andre ter Steigen has already won the Champions League as Barcelona's first-choice goalkeeper in cup competitions, and yet he is in the Czech Republic. So too is Liverpool's Emre Can, restored to his preferred midfield berth after Brendan Rodgers' bizarre decision to post him in central defence last season. Maximilian Arnold has a lotof players to get past in the senior squad, but the player who was central to Wolfsburg's great season will be a central part of the national side for a long time to come. Up-front, Kevin Volland was unlucky not to go to Brazil 2014.

Who else is a good bet to win the European Under-21 Championship? Look no further than the team that defeated England in their first match, Portugal. Like Germany, they have players who, frankly, it is a surprise to see at this level, given the ability they have already shown. Tiago Ilori might not have been afforded many chances at Liverpool, but he performed well at Bordeaux on loan last season. William Carvalho is currently at Sporting of Lisbon, but he is exactly the kind of defensive midfielder Arsenal and Manchester United need, so consequently he is sought-after.

This is a Portuguese team with what the senior side has often been said to lack: solidity. Rather than needing to be rescued by a special player over and over again, as Luis Figo and Cristiano Ronaldo have experienced, this team can build up from a more confident base. The quality of the Portugal under-21 side speaks well of Portuguese domestic football.

Why Not England?

England is officially third-favourite among a consensus of bookmakers to win the European Under-21 Championship. It's something that England has not managed since 1984, in spite of all the extraordinary talent that has passed through the system since then. The reasons for this have changed over time, though some things remain.

It used to be said, in the 1990s when the influence of foreign managers and European coaching and tactical styles was less pronounced in English football, that England was not comfortable enough on the ball to win a major tournament. Anyone who saw the senior side constantly losing possession in Brazil in 2014 will know there is still some truth to this.

However, that's not all. Coaches like Arsene Wenger, Louis van Gaal, Jose Mourinho and Brendan Rodgers (who was part of Mourinho's early coaching staff at Chelsea) have changed how English players play, their influence also felt on other clubs, who have taken inspiration from their coaching. James Ward-Prowse, Jesse Lingard and Will Hughes are three players who are as confident on the ball as any other in Europe.

Look elsewhere, though, and there are problems. Where is Raheem Sterling? As a key player in Roy Hodgson's senior side, under-21 manager Gareth Southgate was advised not to pick him. And yet Harry Kane, Tottenham's top scorer last term, is in the side. It seems like confused double-standards, and reflects a lack of logic in how England raises its footballers.

Additionally we have the problem of the riches of the Premier League leading to an imbalance in squad size. Hughes was fortunate that Derby County, in the second-tier Championship, considered him a key player and automatic starter for much of the season. However, Nathaniel Chalobah, an excellent defensive midfielder, has had to settle for loan moves to five different clubs since joining Chelsea in 2012. His is not the only unfortunate story amongst young English players, and Chelsea are serial stockpilers of youthful talent.

What's the solution? The Premier League, were it to care more about the development of English talent, could stipulate that two players in each matchday squad should come from a club's academy. Or they could set a stricter homegrown-player quota. However, while this issue persists, England will continue to look weaker than the very top sides in European age-group football, as they did in their defeat to Portugal.

Top Bets

6/1 with Unibet for Kevin Volland to be top scorer in the tournament.

9/4 with Betfair for Germany to win outright.

9/2 with Ladbrokes for the two finalists to be Germany and Portugal.