Columnist

GILES SMITH’S THURSDAY THOUGHTS

At the end of a week when a Chelsea youth product has made a historic and eye-catching impact, Blues fan and columnist Giles Smith looks at where gratitude is due…


I guess, metaphorically speaking, we would all have liked to have had the kind of week that Callum Hudson-Odoi just had: abruptly promoted to the England squad from the U21s in a manner that had more than a touch of Roy of the Rovers about it (‘Fetch your boots, lad. The boss wants you over with the big boys’); sent on to help sweep aside the Czech Republic; and then picked to start against Montenegro, where he made a goal in another rampant performance and was widely agreed to have excelled himself.

Actually, for many of us, even a metaphorical week like Ross Barkley’s wouldn’t have gone entirely amiss. It lacked, perhaps, the Roy of the Rovers element of the Hudson-Odoi tale, but, nevertheless, two goals and a stand-out performance in the second of those England games during this latest international break were nothing at which to be turning up one’s nose.

It was Hudson-Odoi who attracted most of the media fuss, though – and entirely understandably. However, not content with celebrating Hudson-Odoi for his own sake, and perhaps taking a moment to give credit to the club whose careful nurturing this past decade has brought the player to the point where he can be a game-changing force for England at the slender age of 18, many of those media outlets for some reason seemed to see the occasion as an opportunity to have a dig at the way the player is currently employed here at Chelsea.

Not untypical was the BBC website, which, in the middle of a long and completely deserved hymn of praise to our top prospect, offered the slightly sour opinion that ‘Gareth Southgate has shown more faith in 18-year-old Hudson-Odoi in 10 days than Sarri has shown all season at Stamford Bridge.’

Hmm. Let’s just remind ourselves at this point that Southgate’s ‘faith’ in Hudson-Odoi extended to offering him a place in the England squad only as a last-ditch call-up after Luke Shaw signed off sick and joined an injury list which already included Fabian Delph. And, yes, obviously that’s faith of sorts on Southgate’s part, but it stands no comparison with the degree of faith in him shown by Sarri at Chelsea where, it seems only fair to note, Hudson-Odoi makes the squad regardless of the injury list and also regardless of the opposition and the competition.
 

Furthermore, having (finally) drafted him, Southgate’s faith in this inescapably talented winger wasn’t sufficient to give him a starting place against the Czech Republic. Instead, he put him on the bench and brought him on late. Southgate only had the faith to start him in the second of England’s matches, which was against Montenegro – a national side whose current world ranking is 46 and whom England were perfectly expected to skittle.

Was this a demonstration of faith so far in excess of any shown to Hudson-Odoi by Sarri? It seems fairly clear that it wasn’t. Indeed, in international terms, putting a player on the bench against the Czech Republic, but then selecting him to play against Montenegro pretty exactly parallels putting a player on the bench for Premier League matches but bringing him through carefully and diligently in Carabao Cup ties.

Except, remember, Sarri had enough faith to start Hudson-Odoi, among other times, in the Carabao Cup semi-final against Tottenham – in other words in a properly significant fixture against a tough side whose form had not made a big dip at that point. So, faith-wise, you would have to say Sarri was well ahead of Gareth Southgate at this stage.

Let’s also note that the BBC website, even in the middle of a piece that’s mostly concerned to praise Hudson-Odoi, has this to say about his performance against Montenegro. ‘He made a difficult start in Podgorica, occasionally running into blind alleys and showing a weakness in an aerial challenge in the build-up to Montenegro's opener. Southgate acted with that switch of flank and suddenly Hudson-Odoi was released.’
 

In other words, having picked him, but then noticing that he wasn’t optimally involved on the right-hand side of the pitch, Southgate moved him onto the left-hand side, where he was able to do better. Fair enough, if that’s a sensible option, which, in the current England side, it clearly is. But if you switch Hudson-Odoi out left for Chelsea, more often than not you’re asking him to replace Eden Hazard. And, let’s be clear about this: we all love Hudson-Odoi as much as we have loved anyone the academy has shown us in recent years. But he’s not Eden Hazard. Not yet.

It’s not about faith shown or not shown, then. The simple fact is that Chelsea, in common with pretty much every team in the Premier League, are a better side than England, having the world to choose from. The competition for places is, accordingly, very different.

And so, of course, is the long-term nature of the club’s project. As such, you would think, if anything, that the fact Chelsea have just served up England with an excitingly capable 18-year-old forward who is extremely useful for his country's purposes, and will clearly remain so for years to come, would end up rebounding to the glory of Sarri, and the rest of Chelsea’s coaching staff, rather than anything else. But apparently not. Ah, well. Ungrateful, some people.

 

The next chance to see Chelsea's internationals at Stamford Bridge is on Wednesday when we host Brighton. Tickets are available

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