Sport

Meet the Premier League youngsters reinventing English football

Rhian Brewster and Callum Hudson-Odoi are leading a new generation of footballers trying to ensure England’s World Cup semi-final isn’t a one-off

After a dramatic World Cup gave us reason to love the England team once again, the seemingly instant transition into the 2018/19 Premier League season makes it impossible not to look to the future.

With rumours already circling about an England bid to host the 2030 World Cup, England’s young lions have plenty ahead of them, but by the time it arrives we’ll be looking towards new blood beyond the likes of Jordan Pickford, Harry Maguire and even baby of the squad Trent Alexander-Arnold. If recent developments at club and international level are anything to go by, this future is looking very, very bright.

Callum Hudson-Odoi has enjoyed a breakout pre-season at Chelsea, starting the Community Shield and targeting game-time in this season’s Europa League, while Manchester City’s Phil Foden, another player born in 2000, also started during the Wembley clash and followed up that appearance with a Premier League run-out against Huddersfield Town.

Meanwhile, it’s been a tale of win after win at international level for England’s youth, with Liverpool’s Rhian Brewster firing the Under-17s to World Cup glory this year where the seniors fell short. This season will see plenty of those young heroes make a big impression in the Premier League.

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Rhian Brewster at the adidas Football Creator Base

Brewster, who recently signed a new long-term deal with Liverpool, tells me the adjustments made between club and international football have taken some getting used to, though club teammates staying together in the England set-up helps.

The close proximity of players in the international squad who know each other from club football leaves Brewster hopeful his generation can keep their success going - Manchester City and Chelsea contributed eight Under-17 squad members between them, while nine of the 23-man senior squad in Russia played for either Manchester United and Spurs.

“I think it will be better because they’ll know how to play and how to link up together, going forward and also defending. Players being within the same team and going together is better than if it’s all scrambled,” Brewster tells me during an appearance at the adidas Football Creator Base.

“It’s just about being around each other, getting to know each other not just on the pitch but off it too. If you have a good bond with your teammates, you’re doing it for them, not just for yourself.”

Liverpool’s young English players have slotted seamlessly into the club’s line-up under coach Jürgen Klopp – Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Dominic Solanke all played 25 times or more last season – so it makes sense that Brewster is already envisaging a first-team future.

He describes Anfield as “the place for me,” adding that the development of his club teammates “Shows [Klopp] does give players a chance and I’m just waiting for mine”. He’s yet to get that chance, having suffered an ankle-ligament injury early in 2018, but it feels as though he won’t have too long to wait once he returns to full fitness.

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17-year-old Chelsea prospect Hudson-Odoi is similarly ambitious, telling ShortList before the pre-season breakthrough that “to play regularly for Chelsea would be a dream.”

Over the last decade, Chelsea have developed a reputation for sending younger players out on loan before giving them a crack at first-team action, but things could well be different under new head coach Maurizio Sarri. The former Napoli boss gave teenagers Adam Ounas and Amadou Diawara their debuts for last season’s Serie A runners-up, suggesting that for him, age is no barrier if you have the necessary quality.

“The fact the manager is giving me the opportunity to play is really boosting my confidence so I just want to keep getting on the ball, pressing and working hard,” Hudson-Odoi said of Sarri, and if his pre-season form is anything to go by it would be no huge surprise to see him make a breakthrough this season.

But what about the international stage? England’s current situation is not too dissimilar to the one facing Germany just over a decade ago: the Germans focused on youth development after a group stage elimination at Euro 2000 (including a defeat to England, as it happens) and ended up ahead of schedule in their recovery when they made the semi-finals of the 2006 World Cup. Eight years on, they were world champions. After a successful 2018 tournament, in which a young squad came within touching distance of the final, England will be keen to follow the German model at the next two World Cups in Qatar and North America.

The German Under-19s were European Championship runners-up just two years after the decision to put youth first, with players such as Philipp Lahm and Per Mertesacker going on to star for the senior team. However, England’s youngsters have been more successful in a much wider variety of age groups: the England Under-20 and Under-17 squads are both reigning world champions, while the Under-19s are Europe’s top team, and plenty of the players from these squads could be in the mix in 2022 if not sooner. Indeed, with England reportedly considering a bid to host the 2030 tournament, today’s teenagers could well be the old guard for a tournament on home soil a decade down the line.

Meet the Premier League youngsters reinventing English football

Hudson Odoi hopes to push on after making his Premier League debut in January 2018

Speak to people close to the England camp and they’ll tell you the Under-17 world champions are the ones we need to be getting really excited about.

England’s Under-17s were the great entertainers at the tournament in India in 2017, scoring 23 goals in their group stage and knockout games, and a handful of squad members have already made appearances in the Premier League. Brewster is looking to join that party this season, but Hudson-Odoi, Foden and Wolves’ Morgan Gibbs-White have already made the step-up.

Premier League action will bring pressure, but this generation already know what it’s like to have the pressures of a nation upon them. 

“There’s more eyes watching you on the international stage so the fans are expecting more from you than at club level…because there’s more eyes on you and more fans for you to impress,” Brewster says.

“Obviously everyone’s looking at the Champions League (at senior level) but everyone’s also looking at the World Cup and Euros too. At international level it is a bit harder, but that’s what the players live for.”

Hudson-Odoi, like Brewster, is aiming to take lessons from international football and bring them into the club set-up. At Chelsea he can expect opponents to set up an attempt to nullify the attacking threat offered by the teenager and his veteran team-mates. His experience of playing for England against more negative opponents should stand him in good stead.

“The one thing I took away from the World Cup was the very different playing styles we came up against,” he explains.

“Teams would set up and play in really different ways and if we were winning they would change their shape and style further and it meant we would need to adapt. It was a really good lesson.”

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Certain clubs try to make things easier for younger players by using the same formation throughout their senior, junior and development teams, as do some international sides, though England are yet to mimic Gareth Southgate’s preferred three-at-the-back formation at junior levels. Instead, some of the success has come from showing intelligence when waiting before moving certain players up through the different age groups: Brewster and Hudson-Odoi have both received Under-18 call-ups, while Lewis Cook – captain of the victorious Toulon Tournament squad in May – already had a senior cap to his name but was made available to lead a youthful squad.

“There hasn’t been as much pressure on England because they’ve got such a young team, and I think [it can] benefit them to go into the game as underdogs,” Brewster says, reflecting on the similar siege mentality that helped his youth squad overcome the odds.

“Obviously the first group games (at the Under-17 World Cup) we were expected to win because we’re England, and people knew us from not only club level but also being in the Euros from the year before.

“We had a bit on our shoulders but I thought we handled it well. The earlier games we were expected to win, and we did. But then later on in the tournament, the semi-final let’s say, Brazil were favourites over us but we beat them, and then Spain as well,” smiles Brewster.

“They beat us in 2016 and people thought maybe they’d do it again, especially when we went 2-0 down. We showed it doesn’t matter who you are, we’re going to beat you.”

The future of English football, according to Rhian Brewster 3

A similar mentality served Liverpool well in their run to the Champions League final, not least in their victory over favourites Manchester City in the last eight. If this success is anything to go on, an ability to prioritise togetherness is something that will benefit England’s next generation both at club and at international level.

Familiarity isn’t just important for the playing staff, though. Before taking charge of the senior side, Gareth Southgate spent several years with the Under-21s and worked with Butland, Kane, Jesse Lingard, Ruben Loftus-Cheek and John Stones long before the quintet travelled to Russia this summer.

Hudson-Odoi tells me the chance to have continuity in the coaching set-up is “Very beneficial”.

“You adapt to the way they want you to play and carry it on through your development. It becomes natural to you, which makes things easier as you transition through the squads,” he says.

“The more often a coach or manager changes, the more likely it is that you have to play in a new style, which can take time to adapt to.”

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Both Brewster and Hudson-Odoi have a confidence that betrays their years, though, and both have big trophy-sized ambition. Hudson-Odoi has a bit of a headstart, having made his senior bow for Chelsea in January, but is targeting bigger and better things this season with an England Under-21 debut his first target. Brewster, meanwhile, is already looking ahead to 2022 and the winter World Cup in Qatar – if England are to go one better than their 2018 semi-final run, he wants to be part of it.

“Qatar is my target, I’ll be 22 so hopefully by then I’m playing regular in the first team and hopefully I’m pushed on and I’ll be at the World Cup,” he says.

“Everyone in my England team deserves [senior recognition] and also everyone above, from what they’ve achieved.”

When the Qatar World Cup begins, the Liverpool forward will be the same age some of the stars of 2018 are now, and he already has the maturity to thrive.

Part of this comes from a place he’d have much rather avoided, with Brewster the victim of racial abuse while representing his club in Russia, and told ShortList he believes future offences need to result in higher punishments.

In an interview with The Guardian in 2017, he spoke about the futility of anti-racism messages when minimal action is taken in actual instances of racial abuse occurring on the pitch – racist chants from Russian fans during the senior side’s game against France brought a fine of just £22,000, a figure which many in the game believe offers little to no incentive on its own for governing bodies to take action.

“Everyone stands behind the anti-racism banners. You have the adverts for Champions League games saying ‘no to racism’ in all the different languages. Idols of the game take part – but it still happens,” he told the paper.

Meet the Premier League youngsters reinventing English football 1

Brewster has some good role models among the (slightly) older generation but it remains depressing to see young men forced to deal with things no footballer wants to face. The most obvious example is Raheem Sterling, who has been forced to contend with dog-whistle racism from sections of the media, but other England players in recent years have been targeted – and at times it has been grossly disproportionate to on-field performances.

Sterling admitted some of the coverage has led him to second-guess himself on and off the pitch, telling Copa90 “Now I’m constantly [thinking] if I do this, something bad will come off this. I don’t even think like ‘I’m going out to eat some food’…if I go out tonight something bad’s going to happen.”

He admitted to staying at home as much as possible to avoid any criticism, and has spoken publicly following headlines in certain tabloids which many agree carry elements of dog-whistle racism.

For those yet to make their senior debut, maturity is cherished, but at the same time there’s a feeling that it shouldn’t be necessary. However, the 2018 World Cup saw what might be the first proper move away from a defeatist approach to off-field distractions, as if the optimism around the squad provided hope that players wouldn’t have to make the best of a bad situation forever.

By the time the European Championships roll around, players like Brewster and Hudson-Odoi will hope the goodwill granted by the senior World Cup run is enough to ensure their generation are encouraged rather than targeted, though any changes to players’ off-field reception still won’t mean the end of intense scrutiny if and when they do break through in earnest for club and country.

If anyone can deal with it, though, it’s them.

Callum Hudson-Odoi wears the brand new Team Mode X18, available from adidas.co.uk

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(Images: Getty/adidas)