The boos were reverberating around St James’ Park with his every touch, but that only spurred Hamza Choudhury on to produce his best moment yet for boyhood club Leicester.
It was all so easy, too – though the sidefooted effort which glided into Martin Dubravka’s top corner shouldn’t have looked it. Choudhury’s belter at Newcastle, putting Leicester 3-0 up and cementing their place in 2nd at the Premier League summit, was effortlessly slotted home from 20 yards; practically passed into its spot where the sun barely shines.
Not a bad way to get your first goal in senior football!
Hamza Choudhury with the most top corner finish possible, Leicester are cruising.#BTAllDayerpic.twitter.com/NavkptmeFn— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) January 1, 2020
It was the latest step on his promising hike through Leicester’s ranks, which began as a seven-year-old and is now taking him to far greater heights. Choudhury, the local lad born in Loughborough of Bangladesh-Grenadian heritage, is unmistakable with his enviable afro and all-action style – but perhaps it’ll soon be time to start taking the 22-year-old’s case more seriously.
Realistically, Gareth Southgate’s England squad is probably a way off yet – not least for Euro 2020, with time at a premium and chances for trial limited. Southgate has generally favoured a select group of midfielders since the 2018 World Cup, too, and breaking in isn’t easy – just ask Choudhury’s Leicester colleague, James Maddison. But there’s also a valid case to be made that the former offers a set of skills that the Three Lions’ current crop don’t.
At this stage, Jordan Henderson is arguably the only guaranteed pick for Southgate, who named only five central midfielders in his last squad anyway. Declan Rice emerged as an excellent passer but has struggled for England and been poor in a dreadful West Ham side; Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain can’t sustain fitness; Harry Winks circulates possession well but may already be a sacrificial lamb for Jose Mourinho; Mason Mount and Maddison are considered more attacking options.
And what of others? Eric Dier is a useful hybrid who can fill in at centre-back or in central midfield, without excelling in either; Ross Barkley hasn’t played in the Premier League since September 10. In the next tier, you’re discussing James Ward-Prowse, Mark Noble and Jonjo Shelvey. Suddenly, the discussion around Choudhury doesn’t seem so fanciful after all.
Under both Claude Puel and Brendan Rodgers, the England Under-21 midfielder has often been favoured for Leicester’s tougher games away from home – like at Stamford Bridge under the Frenchman last term, for example, when Choudhury’s terrific screening in front of the back four helped the Foxes to a 1-0 win which bought his manager some time. He started two of the next three games – a 2-1 home win against Manchester City and 1-0 victory at Everton. After a period out of the side in Puel’s darkest days, Rodgers restored Choudhury to the starting XI for Leicester’s final three matches of the season – a 3-0 win over Arsenal, that narrow 1-0 defeat at Man City which required Vincent Kompany’s jackhammer intervention, and a goalless draw against Chelsea on the final day.
The pattern has continued this season: Rodgers started Choudhury again at Stamford Bridge as Leicester drew, then picked him at Old Trafford. When there’s a job to do, Foxes bosses know who they’re going to call – only the league-leading Wilfred Ndidi offers such busy harrying and energetic harassment.
At this stage, however, there are more obvious marks against his name: Choudhury has featured in only 12 of Leicester’s 21 Premier League games this season and started fewer still – just five.
He has also developed something of a reputation for rashness. Those boos at St James’ Park were not without fruition: Matt Ritchie has only just returned after a terrible tackle from Choudhury on the same ground in late August, two months after another shocker on France’s Jonathan Bamba earned him a red card in England’s woeful Under-21 European Championship campaign. In October, Jurgen Klopp was furious with the 22-year-old – though less justifiably, it should be said – for a “dangerous” tackle which forced Mohamed Salah off injured.
There have been far more encouraging signs of maturity since then, at least. Choudhury was a brilliant performer as one of nine changes when Leicester beat West Ham at the London Stadium on December 28, but more for the way in which he looked after the ball than stomped around trying to get it back. His smashing goal at Newcastle off the bench showed why Rodgers demonstrated faith in deploying him as a box-to-box No.8 in the north-east – a role to show off his attacking credentials, not merely those further back which have formed his reputation thus far. His passing has already improved under the Northern Irishman – essential to his international prospects – and that first Foxes goal was just reward.
Choudhury has a long way to go. Regular minutes for Champions League-chasing Leicester are an obvious tick-box exercise to stand a chance of making Southgate’s squad any time soon, even if merely off the bench – that would be his most realistic role in any tournament side anyway. Regardless: is it really so absurd? Consider the way in which England exited to Croatia in Russia two summers ago; that lifeless, inevitable demise after half-time which followed a dominant first period. It should never have happened in that way. When the chips are down, good runners are essential to sustain pressure – and if all else fails, strong ball-winners can at least get you out of some sticky situations.
In a squad hardly blessed with such traits, Choudhury surely stands a chance. Now, it's over to him.
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