English clubs failure to progress to the quarter-finals of Europe’s grandest competition for the first time since 1996 may seem a cause for concern. However I’ve been keeping a close-eye over this year’s NextGen Series, which for those of you who don’t know; is an under-19s version of the Champions League where clubs from around Europe get invited to compete against each other.
This year’s competition was grabbed round the scruff of the neck by English clubs with three reaching the semi-finals, resulting in an all-English final. Aston Villa defeated Chelsea in a tense encounter that was decided by two penalties, it has provided an exciting prospect for the future of Premier League and English football.
With the tournament already having helped produce stars such as Raheem Sterling and Viktor Fischer, who have both broke into Liverpool and Ajax’s first teams this season, it is clear that the quality of players involved are of the highest of standards. A few certainly caught my eye.
Tottenham Hotspur pairing Alex Pritchard and Shaquile Coulthirst both had outstanding tournaments, involved in the impressive 4-1 demolition of Barcelona’s youngsters at the Camp Nou. Pritchard is a versatile playmaker who enjoys coming in from the left, he is a dead-ball specialist and his impressive performances earned him a loan-deal to Championship strugglers Peterborough United in January.
Coulthirst is a powerful striker who can finish with either foot and isn’t too bad with his head either, he scored the perfect hat-trick in the win over the Catalans. Both English and both hot prospects, with Real Madrid and Barcelona reportedly monitoring their progression.
Serge Gnarby is one of the most promising stars from Arsenals prolific youth academy. The 17-year-old German was the outstanding player in their NextGen side that made the semi-finals of the competition. Blessed with blistering pace and genuine trickery on the ball, Gnarby is at his most dangerous when on the right wing. Having already had a taste for first team football this season I’m sure it won’t be long before he is challenging the likes of Theo Walcott and Lukas Podolski for their places in the side.
Chuba Akpom is another Arsenal talent to watch out for; the England under-19 international has already caught the attention of Arsene Wenger. The Frenchman included the 17-year-old in the match squad for the final group stage game of the Champions League and then suggested he would be pushing for a regular first team place soon.
Akpom has consistently played in higher than expected age categories and the powerful forward has never failed to find the back of the net. Pace and strength are his best attributes and he is a handful for any centre-half.
Liverpool under-21 captain Conor Coady’s playing and leadership style has earned him comparisons with club legend Steven Gerrard. The 19-year-old midfielder scored three in two matches against Bundesliga champions Borussia Dortmund’s youth side in the group stages of the competition.
He also made history in 2010, when he became the first Englishman to lift an international trophy in 17 years – when he led the country’s under-17 side to success in the UEFA European under-17 Championship, with victory over Spain in the final. Liverpool will want to keep hold of the midfielder as he is definitely one for the future.
This seasons NextGen joint top scorer with seven goals, is Chelsea’s Islam Feruz. A promising striker who despite his short stature, has electric pace and is a clinical finisher when presented with half an opportunity. As he demonstrated in the 4-3 semi-final thriller with Arsenal where he got the all important equaliser. From Yemen but having obtained a Scottish citizenship he has gone on to become the youngest ever player to represent Scotland at under-21 level.
Graham Burke of Aston Villa is the other top goal scorer of the competition and was the man who calmly tucked away the two penalties that earned his side victory in the final. A long-shot threat, calmness of mind, an understanding of the game as well as a good pass make him an ideal deep-lying forward in the current era. Burke played a significant role in Villa’s European triumph and has a big future ahead of him.
The NextGen Series has certainly helped youngsters develop their game by getting to play against top academy teams from all over Europe. And despite the worries surrounding English football, if anything this season has proved that English football academies are still up there with the best.
Producing and enhancing talent and turning them into great football players, like Manchester United, Arsenal and West Ham were renowned for. So despite English clubs current blip in Europe’s premier competition, at least the future looks bright.
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