?Despite the fact that, in its essence, pre-season is almost explicitly a tool in which to examine the strengths of those members of the squad who are either too young or too undervalued to obtain a starting berth, it’s still startling to see someone use it to its full potential.
Callum Hudson-Odoi did just that on a surprisingly summery Wednesday night at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. From the first minute, the 17-year-old (SE-VEN-TEEN!) was by far and away the most dangerous, and therefore entertaining player on the pitch.
And, irregardless of the undeniable smog of ‘friendly’ that shrouded the Aviva, there were still some seasoned professionals in place on both sides of that pitch – including four World Cup winners and six Champions League winners.
But, in the face of this considerable pedigree, it was the teenager who shone the brightest once the sun had gone down in the Irish capital. Right from the off, the ?Chelsea winger went about taking Hector Bellerin and his abhorrent clothing to the cleaners, with his exploits eventually leading to a penalty after the right back clumsily brought him down after a particularly incisive run.
Yet it wasn’t just sheer pace and trickery that had the Spaniard stumped – there was plenty of tactical awareness and technical quality on show as well.
This was illustrated perfectly in just the fourth minute. After collecting the ball in the middle of his own half, he bombed forward with characteristic directness, leaving Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang for dead and making about thirty yards of ground before he was admirably tackled by Matteo Guendouzi.
However, unperturbed by this momentary intrusion and alert enough to know the ball would reach a teammate anyway, he continued his run and collected a first time pass from Ross Barkley. After reaching the ball close to the touchline, and with Shkodran Mustafi breathing down his neck, the forward turned away from goal to buy some time for his arriving runners, before expertly picking out Cesc Fabregas on the edge of the box with a delightfully deft clip.
There were far easier options out there than the ‘Hollywood’ pass to Fabregas, but the Englishman backed himself, and he was right to. It is for that exact reason that Maurizio Sarri has since categorically ?confirmed the forward is in his plans, as he proclaimed: “He will stay with us for all the season.”
Because, in Sarri’s world, the easy pass is not the best pass. If football were a game of poker, Sarri would be a high roller – the risk is always considered necessary for any significant reward to be gained. He wants this not just from his defence, who are tasked with luring in the forwards and midfield in order to create space further up the pitch, but also his playmakers, who are encouraged to choose the higher upside option over the safer one.
It was this desire to penetrate and to create that was so evident against Arsenal, and indeed in previous warm up clashes with Perth Glory (where he registered an impressive assist) and Inter.
In part because of the Italian’s aforementioned brazen style, one criticism levelled at Sarri during his fairly astronomical rise to the upper echelons of the managerial food chain has been an apparent reluctance to trust youth players. However, two stipulations instantly crop up in response to this claim.
Firstly, the ?Napoli Primavera side during his reign was almost historically average, not finishing higher than 11th in the Campionato Nazionale Primavera League during his time in charge, if they were lucky enough to be in it. Secondly, and more importantly, was his use of Daniele Rugani prior to this at Empoli.
Bringing him on loan as fresh faced newly turned 19-year-old, the 59-year-old entrusted him wholeheartedly, starting him in every single game in Serie B, bar the ones he was unavailable for due to a national team call up. He would go on to play every single minute for the Florentine side in their ?Serie A campaign the following season.
Sure, Hudson-Odoi has more competition ahead of him, but you could also argue that there is far more margin for error as a young centre back than there is for a promising forward.
With a haul of Blues still resting from the World Cup, the youngster is likely to get a starting place for this Sunday’s Community Shield against champions Manchester City. Hopefully he’ll be alongside his compatriot Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who’ll be looking to impress the new gaffer in equal measure after returning prematurely from his holidays.
Of course, potential has been over-hyped and misconstrued in many a pre-season – just look at the relative furore surrounding Ross Barkley following a couple of flashes here and there this summer – but it does seem noteworthy that the academy graduate has been able to not only maintain his performance levels across the three games, but incrementally improve each time.
Though it’s clearly not quite time to claim the boy from Wandsworth is the heir apparent to a certain Belgian wizard at Stamford Bridge, his precocity does help ease the nerves over the possibility of that man’s departure. And that’s as big a compliment as you can give right now.