Why it's probably safe to get very excited about Callum Hudson-Odoi
Chastened by the memory of what came before, English football has to tread carefully with developing talent. That’s about self-preservation as much as anything else, because there isn’t a supporter in the country who, at one point or another, hasn’t gone early, hasn’t misdiagnosed greatness, and hasn’t expected an academy prospect to glide to the top of the game.
It’s wilful denial, really, because everyone craves the opportunity to latch on to a player. They want the chance to sing about him being one of their own and to claim the superiority gleamed from success which doesn't depend on the transfer window.
Why is it, for instance, that Phil Foden remains front and centre of Manchester City’s commercial output? Because the optics are alluring. He remains only tenuously relevant to the first team, but what he represents is still so powerful. He looks like a fan and he sounds like one too. In today’s world, where football’s values are so synthetic, that kind of authenticity is a priceless commodity.
The cost of it, though, is the tendency to often see attributes which don’t really exist. Not in Foden’s case, because as soon as he’s allowed off the substitutes’ bench he’ll become a very fine player, but it is a common phenomenon.
But it’s not one which applies to Callum Hudson-Odoi.
When Chelsea’s attitude changed towards their academy, there was always the risk of an over-compensation. So far they’ve avoided that, because the players promoted have been absolutely of the required standard. Perhaps Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori remain under evaluation for now, with their further opportunities conditional upon next summer’s transfer activity, but Mason Mount is very obviously good enough and there's nothing vague about Hudson-Odoi's future, either.
Even less so after this weekend and another descriptive performance against Newcastle.
What’s really striking about Hudson-Odoi is not actually the way he carries the ball. That's mesmerising enough, yes, and there’s something alluring and smooth about how he runs at defenders, but what really widens the eyes is his feel for the game.
What does that mean? Loosely, it’s about decisions. We’re trained to notice a young player’s obvious virtues – speed, skill - at the cost of attributes which more accurately measure his worth. So, while Hudson-Odoi's current reputation has been constructed from his dynamic qualities, his future will likely be defined by his capacity to plot his way through games, adjusting his play to specific situations.
That might be a bit of a generalisation or slightly premature – there’s the ghost of Danny Cadamarteri – but that was certainly the impression he left on Saturday. Hudson-Odoi has revealed his thrusting class before, with those knifing runs and that cut-inside-and-hit style, but it was revealing to watch him become increasingly involved in the play against Newcastle, even though the conditions within the game changed.
A teenage footballer generally has one gear. As he acquires more experience, he may develop the dexterity to evade the tactical attempts to constrain him, but in the beginning he's at the mercy of those variables. He either plays well or he doesn't and once he's been marginalised from a game he rarely returns from its periphery. Even at this early stage, though, that seems to be a point of difference with 18-year-old Hudson-Odoi.
The emblem for his performance against Newcastle was his contribution for the only goal. It was a good ball for Marcos Alonso, nicely weighted and directed, but it was surprising to see him in that position at all – in the number ten, playmaking pocket on the edge of the box, acting as the move's pivot. What it indicated was his capacity to recognise how he could be influential within the game. Newcastle became increasingly more defensive across the afternoon, successfully blocking off the central areas and restraining Mount and Abraham particularly well.
When Hudson-Odoi applied his ability in that area, though, they couldn't cope. Tiny, tiny moment although that was within the game, it was still the difference between one point and three. Specific to him, it was also evidence of additional gears - a reluctance to be a victim of a game's changing shape, and a determination to ad lib in pursuit of relevance.
More broadly, it demonstrated the great deal of thought within his game. Most of his touches came on the left-hand side in more normal positions, but his influence wasn’t mechanical. Most often, young wide-forwards play precisely as they've been instructed, which results in inefficiency. They do what they've been taught, rather than reacting to what they see. What Hudson-Odoi is showing, particularly since recovering from his Achilles injury, is a reflexive craft which most of his peers just don't have at 18.
The pass for Alonso was just the latest example. At the weekend, his cross for Willian in the first-half should have resulted in a goal, as might that prodded, inside ball for Mount a few minutes after. Those weren’t percentage passes, they were picked properly and perfectly for what they were aiming to achieve – just as that lofted through-ball for Abraham had been at St Mary’s, or the back-post cross that Willian scored from in Lille.
The portrait is of a really developed footballer. A thinker. Hudson-Odoi is a mind worth admiring, not just a pair of quick feet. He’s English and therefore we run the risk of embellishment and, potentially, parody in the event of his career plateauing, but this must be one who it’s okay to get excited about.
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