Chelsea’s academy trio leaves Maurizio Sarri only one excuse to keep them out

KIEV, UKRAINE - MARCH 14: Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea scores his team's fifth goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Dynamo Kyiv and Chelsea at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium on March 14, 2019 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
KIEV, UKRAINE - MARCH 14: Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea scores his team's fifth goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 16 Second Leg match between Dynamo Kyiv and Chelsea at NSC Olimpiyskiy Stadium on March 14, 2019 in Kiev, Ukraine. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images) /
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When things go wrong for Maurizio Sarri his natural tendency is to double down on whatever brought him to that point. Expect, then, to hear much more about how Callum Hudson-Odoi and his academy brethren are simply too young for regular first-team appearances.

Maurizio Sarri might look at his trio of Cobham graduates a bit resentfully as they board Chelsea’s plane back to London. Until Thursday night Sarri could make a tenuous case that Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen lacked some combination of physicality, technical ability or tactical acumen, and that shortfall – however slight – precluded their inclusion in Premier League starting XI’s.

No more. The only thing Sarri has left to justify their place on the bench or out of the squad is their age.

Callum Hudson-Odoi fought his way through tight and aggressive marking from Dynamo Kyiv’s Vitaliy Mykelenko throughout the first half. Hudson-Odoi was never rash or frustrated in his efforts to counter Mykelenko, but sometimes he looked in danger of going overboard in his attempts to get on the ball. His ability to create space by standing off his marker and directing his first touch somewhere advantageous ultimately won out, and he opened the second half with an assist on Marcos Alonso’s goal.

Hudson-Odoi was second only to three-goal-one-assist-man Olivier Giroud in most offensive statistics. Hudson-Odoi also had the second-fewest dribbles behind his long-time teammate, Ruben Loftus-Cheek.

Loftus-Cheek used his runs on and off the ball to draw a stark contrast between himself and his competitors for the starting spot, Mateo Kovacic and Ross Barkley. Loftus-Cheek connected the play through midfield up to the forwards far better than Kovacic and Barkley normally do, and his movement supported the forwards much more directly.

Part of Loftus-Cheek’s strong performance was down to the man he replaced, Mateo Kovacic, who sat deeper in the midfield. Kovacic removed all the predictability from Jorginho’s interpretation of the role. Kovacic selected and timed his passes for better effect, dribbled the ball into space to find the right pass and still reinforced the defence on the few necessary occasions.

Back in defence, Andreas Christensen was back to his best. He calmly cleared the box in front of Kepa Arrizabalaga, coolly dribbling the ball away when you would otherwise expect a booted clearance. He was not dribbling for the sake of dribbling like some “ball-playing centre-back” (remember, there is no such thing). He was simply controlling the movement of the ball out of Chelsea’s zone, buying his midfielders and forwards time to get into the best position to start their transition to offence without a rigid adherence to playing it out from the back.

Maurizio Sarri could point to a handful of mitigating circumstances for any future decisions to sideline Hudson-Odoi, Loftus-Cheek and Christensen. But those excuses all founder under minimal examination, sometimes in light of Sarri’s own words.

Sarri often points to Loftus-Cheek’s lingering back issues and overall struggles with physicality. This is a valid matter for Chelsea’s sports medicine team. Andreas Christensen also sometimes comes up short in the physical aspects of the game.

However, both players (and Hudson-Odoi) went the full 90 minutes on a pitch Sarri himself described as “disastrous,” and in a game where Dynamo Kyiv cared little for finesse or niceties.

Now that the game is in the past and there is no hazard in “undervaluing the opponent,” as Sarri warned about on Wednesday, he can point out how this game essentially out of reach at kick-off against an opponent many rungs below Chelsea. A functional dead rubber against the second-best team in the Ukraine playing only their second game in the last three months is at the youths’ level, and they should have a strong showing against such a team.

But this was the away leg in front of a crowd nearly double that of Stamford Bridge’s. Sarri fielded a weaker side in this leg than he did at home, starting his leading players like Eden Hazard, Cesar Azpilicueta and Jorginho on the bench. Yet the weaker side produced a more commanding performance away than the stronger side did at home, with the not-ready-for-prime-time youths among the best players.

Nor can Sarri (or anyone else) say the stats don’t tell the whole story of the trio’s performance. Stats never do. By any quantitative or qualitative measure, the three youngest players performed at a top level. They all mastered their places in the circuits and tactics. They each displayed their individual technical abilities, the Englishmen in particular. And they all showed how seamlessly they blend in with players up to 14 years (the age difference between Callum Hudson-Odoi and Olivier Giroud) and incomparably more Premier League minutes their senior.

Given Sarri’s regular rotation patterns these three will play no more than a bit part on Sunday against Everton. Sarri rarely starts a player on the weekend who went the distance in a Europa League game, other than the overworked stalwarts like Cesar Azpilicueta and N’Golo Kante.

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The real test will be on March 31, when Chelsea face relegation-favourite Cardiff. Sarri will not need his best XI to dispatch Cardiff.

Or maybe he will, and the lesson from the Europa League Round of 16 is that Callum Hudson-Odoi, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Andreas Christensen should, in fact, be in his best XI. These three showed that at the absolute minimum they should be playing substantial minutes as substitutes, if not starting regularly, against all but the top six teams in the Premier League.

So approach it as you choose. Either Sarri can rest his best XI and still win against Cardiff with a weaker squad featuring three youth players, as Chelsea did against Dynamo Kyiv. Or these three youth players should be in his best XI, with the possible exception of the remaining fixtures against Liverpool and Manchester United.

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The only way Maurizio Sarri can choose against these three after their showing in Kiev is to say they simply are not old enough to be ready. If that is the case, the queue is already forming of clubs who think otherwise.