The early part of the season saw Chelsea youngsters Tammy Abraham and Mason Mount earn plaudits for their part in the Blues’ success, but now Callum Hudson-Odoi is back and he’s ready to take it to another level.
When the winger was taken off against Burnley back in April, ending his season and denying him the opportunity to play in the Europa League semi-finals and final, there was a worry that the Achilles injury which forced him off against the Clarets would keep him out for a prolonged period or, worse still, leave him playing catch-up when he did return.
Thankfully for him and for his club, nothing of the sort has happened.
Hudson-Odoi made his return in late September, scoring against Grimsby in the League Cup, and any thoughts that he’d be eased back into the fold were quickly dispelled.
The home meeting with Newcastle United over the weekend was his second start in the Premier League in 2019-20, and he played like someone who needed to fit two months of wing play into 90 (well, 89 as it turned out) minutes.
His five key passes against the Magpies brought him up to nine in just 197 league minutes this season, or one every 20 minutes or so – that puts him on a par with Kevin De Bruyne, albeit from a smaller sample size. By way of comparison, Hudson-Odoi averaged one every 34 minutes last season across the Premier League and Europa League.
The main takeaway, though, seems to be how afraid opposition defenders are when they see him with the ball at his feet. And, having seen him destroy Austria for England’s Under-21s, can you blame them?
It felt as though he had the ball glued to his feet at times for the Young Lions, and when that’s the case it’s a great deal easier to use the rest of your being to conduct the orchestra.
Journalist Grace Robertson has argued on Twitter: “Callum Hudson-Odoi could become the best right-footed right winger in the world and yet Chelsea seem to have decided he should merely be a very good inverted left winger instead,” and when you watch him against Premier League opponents it’s easy to see where Robertson is coming from.
When a right-back is up against the Chelsea man, there often seems to be a fallback option of anticipating a jink inside at some stage in the move, with the predominantly right-footed Hudson-Odoi visibly able to cut in and shoot or show himself willing to open up play with a well-timed crossfield pass.
Stick him on the other side, though, and you’ll be able to benefit from jinks right or left as well as a more organic crossing tendency. And he’s already a strong crosser.
That said, the mind control he seemed to exert over the Newcastle defence is enough to justify putting the switch on hold, at least for certain opponents: if you’re taking multiple players out of the game with every movement, the identity of those opponents ought to matter a little less.
As an example, when Ciaran Clark comes out to meet Hudson-Odoi on the corner of the box, the Newcastle defender has DeAndre Yedlin coming back to cover and two further team-mates lending their support in the middle.
There’s no obvious reason for the Irishman to end up on his arse, scrambling to remember how to stand up under his own power, but Hudson-Odoi has that effect on people. Make them feel, if not in complete control, at least in a manageable situation. Then remind them his body works differently to theirs.
Now imagine this on the other flank, setting up a cross or shot with his stronger foot. Newcastle got off lightly.
With Chelsea’s transfer ban helping shape this season’s squad, and with young players inevitably set to go through peaks and troughs over the course of the season, Frank Lampard will no doubt be delighted to have someone in Hudson-Odoi who seems capable of making everyone else’s job that bit easier for them.
Some talented ball-carriers and dribblers have struggled to find a home in top sides, but the Blues’ unique circumstances ensure that, if he continues along this path, it will be more a case of Chelsea looking to structure themselves around his talents.
It’s still early in Callum Hudson-Odoi’s career – he is yet to reach 50 senior games for club and country, after all – but he already carries one key attribute which others can’t be taught: an ability to leave opponents absolutely clueless when it comes to figuring out how to deal with him.
By Tom Victor