Since becoming England manager in September 2016, Gareth Southgate has transformed his side into a thoroughly competitive outfit and has endeared himself to a contingent of football supporters who were formerly disillusioned with their national team.
The 48-year-old is a principled man, and he speaks articulately and manages his side with consummate grace. The arrogance that had previously tainted England for many years has waned, and his emphasis on playing expansive, progressive football and his focus on youth integration are commendable features of his management.
During the previous week, his decision to introduce Chelsea’s Callum Hudson-Odoi to the English set-up for the first time furthered his appeal among the Blues faithful. On his debut, the 18-year-old played a pivotal role in scoring England’s fifth goal against the Czech Republic, and during his inaugural international start against Montenegro, he registered an assist, turning provider for Ross Barkley.
A host of current and former Chelsea players have earned their first taste of international football under Southgate’s stewardship, with Hudson-Odoi emulating the achievements of Ruben Loftus-Cheek, Tammy Abraham, Dominic Solanke and Nathaniel Chalobah, in that regard. Most impressively, and the source of burgeoning frustration among supporters of Chelsea, Hudson-Odoi’s first international start happened before the winger started a league game for the FA Cup holders – he has since made his bow against Brighton & Hove Albion.
While recognising the need for caution in entrusting young players, Hudson-Odoi’s performances and the voracious adulation from international teammates and Gareth Southgate himself is a timely indication of the talent and potential that he demonstrates.
The teenager has been restricted to six substitute appearances and one start, amounting to a measly 209 minutes of football, failing to register a single goal contribution. Nonetheless, where the Englishman has received significant first-team involvement for Chelsea, he has thrived. In two FA Cup appearances, he has contributed towards three goals (one scored, two assists), while contributing towards six goals (four scored, two assists) in eight Europa League matches, thereby evidencing the importance of continuous involvement.
Without question, the 18-year-old is a menacing talent, capable of operating on either flank, and his unique dribbling style is immediately recognisable. At his age, he has yet to be suffocated by regressive systems, which enables him to display his raw, untamed talent. His pace and trickery are fundamental strengths, ones that are proving difficult for his opponents to negate.
Now, despite being the subject of intense and persistent Bayern Munich interest; despite being mostly influential whenever he has appeared for Chelsea this season; and despite translating his club form onto the international stage, earning acclaim from Southgate and senior England players alike, he is still overlooked by Maurizio Sarri.
The Italian’s reluctance to significantly alter his favoured Premier League eleven has been uniformly documented by press and fans, but the inconsistency and indecision that Sarri has shown in his employment of Hudson-Odoi have been somewhat infuriating for Chelsea supporters. At the start of January, the 60-year-old stated that Hudson-Odoi was of comparative quality and importance to Willian and Pedro, “Of course, some times he will be on the bench but the same as Willian and Pedro. I can start to consider him on the same level.”
Despite a marginal increase in the teenager’s resulting involvement, he has only made three starts in domestic competitions since the new year. Even half of his European appearances have been made as a substitute this season, further attesting Sarri’s unwillingness to entrust in his talent.
As Jadon Sancho, Reiss Nelson, Matthew Smith and many others can attest, young players need regularity and support.
Regular involvement breeds confidence, which in turn, facilitates development. It’s particularly difficult to recall a player to emerge from Chelsea’s academy to demonstrate such self-confidence and excitement. With the impending transfer ban, the Blues should consider Hudson-Odoi as a player of utmost significance, especially due to rumoured interest from European clubs. A player to mould the team around, a prospective heir to Eden Hazard; not a pondered afterthought.
Unfortunately, from Chelsea’s perspective at least, Sarri is far too stubborn and narrow-minded for his own good. His treatment of Gary Cahill, Victor Moses and Danny Drinkwater to name but a few have shown his capacity to alienate players. Also, limiting Ethan Ampadu to a mere five appearances this season is demonstrative of his distrust in young talents.
In most circumstances, the happenings of the previous week should serve as an ideal foundation for Hudson-Odoi to expedite his development and demonstrate his significance to his club. However, given Sarri’s pronounced stubbornness, it’s improbable that Hudson-Odoi’s international displays and his recent outing against Brighton will markedly alter his fortunes at Chelsea.
Unless, of course, Sarri finally comes to his senses.