Hudson-Odoi shows path to Chelsea first team as convoluted as ever.
Niko Kovač saw it. Gareth Southgate saw it. The Stamford Bridge regulars have seen it, too. So why is Maurizio Sarri so reluctant to recognise the value of Callum Hudson-Odoi?
Hudson-Odoi’s surprise inclusion in the England squad for this month’s Euro 2020 qualifiers comes at a time when the Chelsea winger is yet to start a Premier League game. The youngster’s appearances to date have been limited to the domestic cup competitions, the Europa League, and a handful of Premier League minutes from the bench – and yet Hudson-Odoi has shown enough in that time to impress the watching England manager, and make the jump past the Under-21s and straight into the senior setup. Bayern Munich, meanwhile, rate the Englishman highly enough to have offered £30 million for his services. Sarri’s continued refusal to give his young winger more playing time remains a major gripe amongst the club’s supporters.
Continue in this vein and Chelsea run the risk of losing one of Europe’s brightest young talents. It’s happened to them before. This is hardly the first time it’s been pointed out that, had a path to the first team been open to them, Mohamed Salah, Kevin De Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku might now be lining up in dark blue alongside Eden Hazard and Ngolo Kante. Instead, these future stars left the club in search of first-team football, and ultimately ended up strengthening Chelsea’s domestic rivals in the process. Surely, the club’s hierarchy cannot allow the same thing to happen with Hudson-Odoi.
So why does the path to the Chelsea first team remain so convoluted for the club’s academy graduates? Sarri is a manager who likes his favourites, and tends to pick his sides from a core of experienced pros. But first-team opportunities were equally hard to come by under Antonio Conte, Jose Mourinho before him, and indeed the majority of Chelsea managers since Roman Abramovich took over in 2003. Time and again, the pursuit of short-term success has seen the Stamford Bridge outfit look for external solutions to on-field problems, rather than promote from within.
When those expensive imports are successful – as has been the case more often than not over the past decade and a half – fans are happy to accept the fact that young talent might go overlooked or underutilised. But at a time when Chelsea’s other options in the wide areas are hardly burning barns, the lack of chances for Hudson-Odoi is a source of great frustration amongst the club’s support. Is it the player power of those established dressing-room heads that keeps talented youngsters in the shade, a propensity to recruit managers with a preference for older, more established stars, or pressure from the boardroom to give the most marketable names the most game time? Whatever the reason, Hudson-Odoi is simply the latest example of a list of casualties stretching back more than a decade.
Of course, this issue is far from unique to Chelsea. Jadon Sancho and Serge Gnabry are just two examples of players who have abandoned top-six clubs in search of more game time, only to thrive in short order after swapping the Premier League for the Bundesliga. But Chelsea’s army of loaned-out youngsters with no clear route to the first team, impending transfer ban and tendency to let future world-beaters slip through the net cast them into particular focus. Abramovich has proven increasingly reluctant to compete with the highest spenders in the transfer market of late, and if Chelsea will no longer splurge on established stars, then they need to adopt a new model. The club’s treatment of Hudson-Odoi will reveal whether old habits really do die hard, or whether those at Stamford Bridge are ready to turn over a new leaf at last.
– Louis Rossi