Analysis

Callum Hudson-Odoi: Chelsea’s in-house chief creator who is waiting to explode

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How often do we rule out youngsters who are on the precipice of becoming world stars but then suffer an injury or a drop in form and eventually disintegrate into the world of football into niche teams of niche leagues? You rarely get a second chance. Callum Hudson-Odoi wants his.

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The Cobham Academy graduate is probably the finest talent that the club has produced since John Terry, but has failed to get the game-time and attention needed for him to live up to that billing. The problem with our football society is that defenders are credited as a team while attackers are looked at like individuals. 

For example – if a team has not conceded any goals in its last ten games, the entire defence is credited, and the manager does not try to chalk and change. However, among these four-five defenders, there could be a player in there who has produced a 7/10 performance in all of those ten games, but he is given the same status as the rest of the defence even though they are producing 9/10 performances, which is acceptable. This is because the defender that was producing less defensive output is contributing to the attack somehow and his attributes in the attacking half are more than the other defenders.

However, the same theory is not applied for attackers. In this day and age, unless you are contributing to at least one goal in every two games, you are not considered a good enough forward for one of the Top 6 Premier League clubs. You will have the aura of being the youngster for a while, but people will eventually wait for you to burst into some supersonic individual they thought you would be, and your form drops because you live up to that expectation rather than going through the process as any other 19-year-old would. 

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This was the story of Callum Hudson-Odoi, who broke onto the scene in the 2018/19 season and is one of the very few players in the current setup who is a part of the Cobham academy and who has a place in the squad because he proved himself before Chelsea were forced give youngsters a chance due to a transfer ban.

Hudson-Odoi was somebody who was wanted by Bayern Munich at age 18, but Chelsea did not want to lose this incredible talent off their hands. A stunning 2018/19 season saw him rack up 24 senior appearances and contribute to 13 goals until late April when he suffered a horrid Achilles tendon rupture, ruling him out for 6 months, and a lot happened in that time.

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His idol in Eden Hazard left the club while the manager who gave him first-team opportunities in Maurizio Sarri also departed the club. What followed was Chelsea’s youth coming to the fore because of a transfer ban placed on them. The Stamford Bridge outfit also roped in club legend Frank Lampard into the managerial role. 

This was a torrid time for the youngster because, by the time he was back, players like Mason Mount and Christian Pulisic had occupied his roles, however, Lampard wanted the player to fight for a place in the team. While Hudson Odoi did do that for a certain period of time, various injuries throughout the course of the season hampered his progress as he managed to rack up just above 1600 minutes in total in all competitions. 

The 20/21 season saw Chelsea spend big on forwards, and there was no way that Hudson Odoi was going to fit into a 4-2-3-1 formation because his progress was not like others, and he could not adapt to formation changes every other season. The likes of Hakim Ziyech, Pulisic, and Mount dominated game-time, however, Lampard and Chelsea eventually lost their way due to a lack of goals, which was bound to happen at some point in time due to the inexperience in the managerial methods.

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In came Thomas Tuchel. A man who is known for intense tactics, unheard training methods, and a whacky sense of humour. However, he did something interesting in his first game in charge where he employed ‘experienced’ players because he did not want to put a lot of pressure on the youngsters in his first game. The likes of Kai Havertz and Hakim Ziyech featured as inside forwards to Olivier Giroud, who was the lone striker up top. Ben Chilwell was the left wing-back of this 3-4-3 formation, and upon the right was Callum Hudson-Odoi, somebody who had never played that role before in his life.

Yet somehow, he excelled at it and earned starts against Tottenham and Atletico Madrid but eventually featured only against the small teams. While he remained fit for the rest of the season, Tuchel used him scarcely, but all of this changed during the 2020/21 pre-season campaign when he used the player as a left-wing-back instead of a right-wing back. 

Let us see what abilities he developed during this process and his optimal position.

1) A fantastic ball progressor:

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For all his weaknesses, Hudson Odoi has always been the most talented player in his age group. 

He understands when he has to run at full speed, how to change pace with the ball, and how to keep the ball on the ground. During his first game under Tuchel, against Wolves, he continuously played wide on the right-hand side to stretch the pitch and went on to give the opposition a horrid time every time he would dribble against the full-back. ‘When the opponent is backing up, you know that he is not full of confidence, that is when you change direction and turn him inside out’ – this was the analysis Hudson-Odoi provided when he was asked how he dribbles against opponents. 

However, what sets him apart is that his dribbling is progressive and incredibly direct. He runs down the wings and takes the ball up the pitch by 15-20 yards, eventually also taking his team into the attacking half of the pitch. His progressive touches and runs were more than any other Chelsea player last season because he is the only player in the squad who loves to run with the ball at his feet rather than catching on to the through balls. 

He understands how to sense danger, when to push and when to pull. His performance against Atletico Madrid in the 1st leg of the Round of 16 of the Champions League was an eye-opener because he was causing problems to a team that had one of the most rigid defences in the last half a decade. However, his ball progression was causing a lot of problems to the entire Atletico defence, who eventually had to camp in their own half for a large part of the game. 

2) Intelligent passing:

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When one talks about the best passers in the world, most people would immediately think along the lines of players like Kevin de Bruyne, Toni Kroos, Thiago Alcantara, Sergio Busquets, and even Lionel Messi on a lot of occasions. However, intelligent passing is something that is associated with players like Cristiano Ronaldo, Paulo Dybala, Harry Kane, Bruno Fernandes, Leon Bailey, and several others because these are people who create when they are running with the ball instead of dictating play from central midfield. 

Callum Hudson-Odoi, like the latter group, is a believer of intelligent passes. Front-foot passing, quick one-two’s, and mid-height crosses. 

Every time Hudson Odoi played last season, he would always prefer a pass to the winger or striker ahead of him rather than passing back to the centre-back or the central midfielder. This is a brilliant quality to have, especially when you play precision passes. So, instead of passing the ball into an area where the opponent has no danger, you pass it 5-15 yards further, and the dynamic of the game has changed because the ball moves faster than the players do. This is front-foot passing– an ability adopted by wingers and forwards who continuously try to find a progressive pass that will get the ball into dangerous areas into the attacking half. While these passes do not create chances, they alleviate the pressure off a team because they can move ahead instead of defending in their own half.

Another quality the English international possess is the ability to play quick passes in tight corners. Hudson Odoi knows how to play the pass the ball quickly and run into an area again to cross the ball. Wingers normally do this to get one step ahead of the defender to put in a cross, something Hudson Odoi pulled off exceptionally as a right-wing back last season.

Lastly, his crosses are always either on the ground or at the chest height, depending upon the size of the striker in the box. Hudson Odoi understands that scoring with one’s foot is always easier than scoring with the head. Moreover, there are very few attackers who are tall in the Chelsea squad, and those who were, have been sold by the club in the form of Tammy Abraham and Olivier Giroud. 

However, this does not affect Hudson Odoi because he delivers crosses into the box that can be put into the back of the net by a single vital touch. Like other full-backs, he too puts the ball into the dangerous areas, but what sets him apart is that he puts it at an uncomfortable height for defenders. Thus, more often than not, few defenders would clear a ball he crossed in because a wrong touch could put it in the back of the net. 

It is the quality that sets apart Hudson-Odoi from most wingers today and what makes him into an intelligent passer of the ball.

3) A smart defender:

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While this is not his most appealing or most attractive quality, it works in Tuchel’s system. Hudson-Odoi tracks players down well due to his speed and ability to use his body in between the ball. While he is beaten a lot of the time, he has the ability to play catch up with most players, however, that does not make him a smart defender, it is what makes him into a reckless defender.

What makes Hudson Odoi a smart defender is his ability to hurt the opposition with the ball when the possession shifts back to Chelsea. He is a quality dribbler and a fantastic runner. Thus, defenders make it a point to not run beyond him all the time because while he can catch up to them, they cannot do the same. Although it does not happen too often, this quality works, especially against some of the ‘lesser’ teams because Hudson Odoi exploits the empty spaces really well. While he does track back and carries out his defensive duties incredibly well, he is very sharp when the ball changes hands, courtesy of which Chelsea can attack with numbers. 

This is something Tuchel did not quite exploit last season as he played Reece James and Cesar Azpilicueta in the right-wing-back roles. 

Thus, from all of these abilities, it is safe to infer that Hudson Odoi works best as a wing-back, and while it may look biased because he has featured there across the last six months, it suits him perfectly. The question remains on which side– the right or the left?

The answer– Right wing-back, here’s why.

Optimal position:

An optimal position, at least from a football perspective, is an area on the pitch where you can maximize your best qualities without hampering the progress of your team. 

While Hudson Odoi is a dangerous dribbler and would be a threat on the left-hand side, it makes no sense for him to cut in to go past players as a wing-back. Tuchel’s system focuses on width provided by the full-backs, and this would eat right into that. 

On the right, Hudson-Odoi has the liberty to cut outside and stretch the defence continuously. Moreover, he will not have to cut in to cross the ball with his favoured foot– something he would have to do on the left. Moreover, his passing is more beneficial to Chelsea on the right-hand side.

The Blues, who recently signed Romelu Lukaku, will have a proper frontman who knows how to receive progressive passes, while Lukaku also functions primarily on the right-hand side of the pitch during counter-attacking situations. This plays right up Hudson Odoi’s alley because he understands how to play curved passes into open areas from the wing-back slot. Additionally, as a defender, he would prefer defending with his favoured foot when the opponent is running the ball down the wing to cross the ball. Most players prefer tackling with their favoured foot because they understand when to plunge into the challenge. 

Lastly, this also allows Ben Chilwell to keep his role as a left wing-back while it also does not take away from Reece James’ role as a wing-back. James has shown previously that he can function as a centre-back while there are also enough minutes for everybody as the Blues play nearly 65 games every season.

Thus, the right-wing-back role maximizes his best qualities and does not hinder anybody’s place in the current squad. 

While Hudson Odoi’s performances go beyond the analytical eye, it is important to understand that this was just a performance analysis of probably the most exciting youngster in Thomas Tuchel’s squad.  

A youngster who still has time to explode and probably become the creative head of this exciting project at Chelsea Football Club under Thomas Tuchel– a goal that probably drives him ever since the West London club fought to retain him from the hands of Bayern Munich when he broke onto the scene in 2018. 

However, for now, he has a lot to work on, a lot to discover and most importantly, a lot to prove to the Stamford Bridge fans and the coaches at the club, who have backed him since the day he stepped into the Cobham academy. 

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