Chelsea: Hudson-Odoi call-up reopens question of who Sarri has improved

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21: Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea celebrates scoring the third goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 Second Leg match between Chelsea and Malmo FF at Stamford Bridge on February 21, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)
LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 21: Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea celebrates scoring the third goal during the UEFA Europa League Round of 32 Second Leg match between Chelsea and Malmo FF at Stamford Bridge on February 21, 2019 in London, England. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images) /

Callum Hudson-Odoi lasted barely a few hours in England’s U21 squad before Gareth Southgate called him up for the senior team. His leap is the result of his years at Chelsea, not this season with Maurizio Sarri.

Unsurprisingly, Callum Hudson-Odoi has fewer league and first-team minutes this season than anyone else in England’s squad. Hudson-Odoi’s 119 Premier League minutes are a bit over 11% of the next player’s: Chelsea teammate Ross Barkley, who has 1,040 minutes. Hudson-Odoi’s 832 first-team minutes are less than half of Danny Rose’s, and about one-third of what Declan Rice, Jadon Sancho, Trent Alexander-Arnold or Barkley have amassed. And just in case you didn’t make the connection, that means Hudson-Odoi has fewer first-team minutes in all competitions than any of his Three Lions teammates have in just the league.

Even for a manager with such an eye for and emphasis on young talent, Hudson-Odoi is a bit of a leap for Southgate. Hudson-Odoi has certainly used his limited appearances to demonstrate his talent and potential, but Maurizio Sarri has not given Southgate much of a sample to base his decisions. Moreover – and more damning to Sarri and more commendable to Southgate – Hudson-Odoi’s minimal playing time has not been enough for him to show a developmental arc across the season.

Managers for club and country do not select young players – especially not teenagers – for what they can do today or tomorrow. Clearly, they are not bringing them in for their past, because they don’t have any. Young players are a long-term investment, who will pay off in games and eventually in a profitable transfer.

Chelsea would struggle to tell any national team manager or interested buyer that any of their players are substantially improved, and therefore more valuable in football or financial terms, compared to last summer. Maurizio Sarri’s bull-headed determination to fit players into “his system” and buy players ready-made for “his system” precludes any effort to substantially improve a player. Either that, or it compensates for his inability to do so.

The two main ways a coach can improve a player is to redirect his abilities into a new system that allows him to grow and flourish, or to train him diligently to improve his current skill set.

Marcos Alonso improved from a journeyman left-back to a world-class wing-back under Antonio Conte. Throughout the two seasons Alonso expanded his role to include underlapping runs into the box, prolonged periods centrally supporting the attack and a variety of crosses. He progressed from a highly-capable but still by-the-book left-back in the first half of 2016 to a versatile, tactically astute reader of the game a year later.

Now he is back to looking like a journeyman left-back. His competition for the role, Emerson Palmieri, is a capable deputy and arguably a better starter. But the fact that he has not been able to displace Alonso under two coaches at Chelsea, just as he was not able to claim the starting spot at AS Roma, exposes his plateau.

On the other side of defence, Cesar Azpilicueta grew as a player when he spent two seasons as the right centre-back. He was already one of the Premier League’s top full-backs before adding the central role to repertoire.

But now that he is back on the right, in a different system and approaching age 30, he is not adapting to the role or his age. Sarri is not transitioning Azpilicueta to the next stage in his career, whether by reworking his role at right-back or using him as a centre-back or central defender, a la Javier Zanetti.

Among the midfielders, Jorginho is at Chelsea to do what he did at Napoli, and he is doing it with far less effect. His patron, Maurizio Sarri, is not doing anything with him tactically or in training to make Jorginho a better Premier League player. Jorginho will eventually leave Chelsea as the player he arrived as.

N’Golo Kante is the one player who has had the most significant change in position. Has this position improved him? Meh, maybe.

It is hardly a revelation to learn that the world’s best defensive midfielder, and one of the world’s best all-around players, would be a very capable if not exactly spectacular box-to-box midfielder. Kante is applying all of his best attributes to his new role, and has added a good eye for getting into offensive positions in the box.

We can give Sarri credit for developing the offensive side of Kante’s game. But is any club going to buy Kante based on his offensive contributions, and would any manager use him in a similar role? Not a chance. What Sarri added to Kante’s game is ancillary to the overwhelming value Kante otherwise brings to a side.

Ross Barkley has occasional games where he looks like a decent attacking midfielder, but he is far from the player he was – and looked like he could become – under Ronald Koeman at Everton.

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Similarly, Mateo Kovacic has his moments in the same position. But, like at Real Madrid, he looks just enough out of place that you wonder what he is really doing there. He shows many signs of what he could bring in a different position in a different formation. But in the formation and position he is currently playing, he is only better than some of his intrasquad competition, not better than he was before or someone who could come after.

Up top, Pedro and Willian are managing their age well. They both have plenty to draw from, Pedro in particular. But like Cesar Azpilicueta, neither are being directed towards whatever is next. Eden Hazard is a problem unto himself when it comes to trainability and coachability, but Sarri’s struggles to motivate him leave no chance that Sarri is getting through in training him.

Sarri waved the white the flag on Alvaro Morata, and proceeded to buy Gonzalo Higuain for the precise reason that Higuain is an old dog to whom Sarri did not need to teach any new tricks.

The rest of the squad have surely not improved because the only way to truly improve is to play regularly. This is especially the case for the youth players, which is why there is always a heightened level of concern when they are not playing during their critical developmental years and why Hudson-Odoi’s promotion to the Three Lions is so noteworthy. However, it is also the case for experienced players like Gary Cahill, who has shown repeatedly his willingness to learn and adapt, when given the chance.

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For many reasons, for many players and perhaps for the club as a whole, 2018/19 could go down as a lost season. International breaks should not be a young player’s best periods of growth in a season. But for Callum Hudson-Odoi, as it was for Ethan Ampadu, the national team could be his best chance to take important steps forward.