Pat Nevin: Mind the gap

Watching international football this past week, involving Chelsea players in particular, had Pat Nevin thinking about current top standards and how difficult it is to achieve them, as he writes in this week’s column…

I was doing a commentary on Friday and I felt I had to utter a phrase I never expected to use. I also had to use it with more than a little emotion, in fact I was pleading. On BBC Radio 5 Live I said, ‘It is time to get Eden Hazard off the field, I really hope he is substituted in the next few minutes.’

Fortunately for me that is exactly what happened as the Belgium manager Robbie Martinez ordered his captain to sit beside him on the bench.

Robbie Martinez is an old friend of mine and although I didn’t have a direct line to him at that point down on the touchline, I suspect he was feeling some similar emotions to me; it was in danger of getting a bit embarrassing. Not of course for Eden who was his usual brilliant self but for the opposition, the Scotland national team. Chelsea and Belgium’s no.10 was tearing Scotland to shreds and at 4-0 and with half-an-hour to go, leaving him on would have been tantamount to bullying in the circumstances. The Spanish manager of Belgium has Scottish connections and he knew perfectly well that he had inflicted enough pain.

It is a strange situation pleading for Eden to get the hook. I didn’t dislike him even in the moment when he thrashed an unnaturally fierce shot past our Scotland keeper into the roof of the net, but for once I’d had enough of him! My Scottish passion still runs deep.

Chelsea players had given the Scots a tutoring in so many ways with Michy Batshuayi coming on at half-time and scoring twice within the first 15 minutes of appearing. It has to be said his scoring has never been a problem but the rest of his game was a revelation here too. He held the ball up every time it came to him, linked up the play and paraded a few classy flicks, each of which came off effortlessly. This was what made me really sit and think about the gap that exists at the very top level.

It is easy to get excited by some players you watch in a lesser league but to get any semblance of the real quality you have to place them up against the best. There is a young lad called John McGinn playing now for Aston Villa who was bought from my ‘other’ favourite team, Hibernian, in the summer. Now he is a good player and will get better because he is young but watching him against Mousa Dembele was painful as the Spurs man swatted his attentions effortlessly time and again. The kid didn’t stop trying but the gulf between a keen youngster coming through and a player who can hold down a place in the second best national team in the world was painfully clear to see.

So what has this got to do with Chelsea then? Well for a start it tells me that our standards are very high if Michy Batshuayi is allowed out on loan. It also tells me that to get into Chelsea’s first 11 or indeed any team at the very top level of English football, say a top-six side, you need to be extra special.

photo of Pat Nevin Pat Nevin

This is the reason why the long list of youngsters who have come through our Academy have a very small hit rate in terms of becoming regulars at the Bridge. There have been plenty of quality players produced but the standard you need to reach our senior side is way, way above mere quality. It has to be exceptional, in fact top international class.

So should you be downhearted as a kid at Chelsea? Well not really as you will always get a superb education in football at Chelsea’s Academy and you have a great chance of making a living in the game at a very good level if you are dedicated to it. Many do ask that precise question, doesn’t it dismay the youngsters at Cobham? Well Tammy Abraham is still capable of making it all the way as he is still young and is gaining great experience. He has a good chance.

Maybe the most obvious example of what you need to be however is now being shown by Ethan Ampadu. He joined Chelsea from Exeter at the beginning of last season and was our little secret for a short while but anyone who watched his midfield performance for Wales against Ireland will know that the cat is well and truly out of the bag. Against international players he absolutely bossed the game and was arguably the best player on the field. He was exactly the same but this time playing at centre-back in his last outing for Chelsea, against Lyon in the pre-season game.

It gives a much better gauge of where he is right now compared to other youngsters who are coming through in the game in England and there are quite a few of them. Ethan is however only 17, he can play in those two vital positions comfortably already at a very high level, while his attitude and demeanour suggest it maybe isn’t a question of if he will be a regular starter for the Blues, but rather when he will be.

Having said all that, there is still a lot to learn. A dose of reality was served coldly by Denmark as Christian Eriksen scored a couple against Ampadu’s Welsh side on Sunday. Like the young Scot McGinn against the experienced Spurs man Dembele, Ampadu just days later got to understand what is needed to play against one of the very best in the business, this time another Tottenham midfielder.

So yes there is still a jump to be made yet, but one that Ampadu can make. There is an almighty chasm between the class of Eden Hazard and his Belgian team-mates and the level that Scotland are at. I can’t see how they can bridge that gap any time soon, whereas the gap Ethan has to traverse to get into the team is one I am sure he can manage in the fullness of time.

Maybe I am being too hard on my own country because let’s be honest, the quality gap between Eden Hazard and almost every other player on the planet is fairly wide and right now it seems to be growing. Long may it last, unless of course he plays against Scotland again soon.

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