Football Features

How England’s excellence is causing Chelsea problems

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 14:20, 26 March 2019

England were magnificent over the international break, and that’s a problem for Chelsea.

The Three Lions played some magnificent football against the Czech Republic and Montenegro, winning both Euro 2020 qualifiers by a combined score of 10-1. There was two goals for the star striker captain, a hat-trick and defiant stand against racism from the wing wonder, a midfield marvel emerging through injury, and a couple of teenage sensations blooded.

This is nothing but good news, right? England are fun to watch, the spirit of summer 2018 is not going away, and the kids are coming through with incredible skill. But for Maurizio Sarri and Chelsea, one of those kids coming through presents a big problem.

Callum Hudson-Odoi made his England debut in the 5-0 win over the Czech Republic. He came off the bench and looked dynamic in a small cameo, forcing an own goal with a lovely run and shot. He then started against Montenegro, played wonderfully and created England’s second goal with a delightful bit of dribbling and a cross.

This was an incredible way to break onto the international scene. Hudson-Odoi had absolutely no fear in what could have been a hostile and intimidating away ground. Yes, the skill-level of the opponent helped, but international football is still something that needs reckoning with; it’s not easy to simply show up and perform.

Well, that’s normally the case but Hudson-Odoi made it look like a doddle. He played so well, showing that even at 18 years of age he has the skill-set and mentality to handle himself at the top level of football. And this is a problem for Chelsea because, well, he hasn’t started a Premier League game yet.

Sure, he’s started some domestic cup games (though he was left on the bench as Chelsea crashed out of the FA Cup to Manchester United) and has featured in every Europa League game so far, but as yet he has played just 403 minutes in the Premier League. Sarri is very reluctant to thrust him into the starting XI on even a semi-regular basis.

“I am convinced he is a great player. But in my opinion, a player at 18 he cannot be at the top,” Sarri said. “He will only arrive at the top at 22 or 23 years old.”

No doubt Hudson-Odoi will see a big leap in his production around 22 as most top talents do, but these England games have made it abundantly clear that he is ready now.

Is Hudson-Odoi as good as Eden Hazard? No. But is he performing at a level comparable to Willian (30) and Pedro (33)? Absolutely. There’s no reason why the young Englishman shouldn’t be given more starting minutes in a side so clearly desperate for creativity and dynamism in the final third. Even if he has a poor game it will still be worth something because he can use it as a learning experience and improve. If Willian or Pedro play poorly, well, that’s all they do.

Hudson-Odoi has proven how good he is and now the pressure will be really piling on Sarri to play him. The youngster has already tried to leave in a bid for more first-team football, if he’s continually handled with kid gloves then there can only be one outcome in the summer, he will force his exit from the club (transfer ban or not).

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Having to confront his own pre-existing prejudices about young players would be bad enough, that’s not the only headache the England games caused. Remember that midfield marvel emerging through injury? And the assist Hudson-Odoi did against Montenegro? Well the man he set up was that midfield marvel… Ross Barkley, his Chelsea team-mate.

Now, Barkley has played a lot more than Hudson-Odoi. He has over 1,000 minutes in the Premier League and has even knocked in three goals. The issue is that he’s not really been consistent in terms of his production. That, and Sarri routinely takes him off for Mateo Kovacic around 70 minutes (or brings him on for Kovacic, if he’s started on the bench).

But these England games showed Barkley’s innate game-changing talent. His short pass broke the Czech lines at Wembley to help create the opening goal and he bagged a brace, two assists and a pre-assist in the mauling of Montenegro. He strutted his stuff in the most consistent and reliable way possible. Every time England went to him, he was ready and produced.

So why can’t he do that for Chelsea? As much as Sarri has been reluctant to use Hudson-Odoi, he’s more than happy to play Barkley but it’s rare that he has got performances as dynamic and consistent as the last two England games.

In fact Barkley’s three goals came in consecutive games back in October, scoring away to Southampton before notching at home in the dying seconds against Manchester United then up north in Burnley. These games also contain three of Barkley’s four Premier League assists this season. Essentially all his production was balled up into one brief spurt of form.

And that’s just so very Barkley, isn’t it? Yet as the England games showed, the boy is overflowing with game-changing talent. So why can’t Sarri get him to deliver game-changing performances with any regularity? Now we’ve seen Barkley still have “it” we can’t go back to watch him flounder around and get subbed for Kovacic again as if nothing has happened.

No, now we need to see Barkley at his best. We yearn to see him soar and finally make good on the enormous talent that once saw Xavi say that he was good enough to play for Barcelona. Sarri has to deliver that. If Gareth Southgate can do it with a couple weeks of training then why can’t Sarri, a coach who sees Barkley every day, make a difference?

There’s no doubt that Hudson-Odoi and Barkley returning to Chelsea is good news for the Blues in terms of it’s always nice to have your players playing well. But now the pressure on Sarri has increased tenfold. It gives him real problems because now he has to integrate Hudson-Odoi (surely?!) and fight to get some consistency out of Barkley.

Good luck, Maurizio!