Callum Hudson-Odoi produced a man-of-the-match performance in Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Malmo at Stamford Bridge on Thursday. Adam Bate was there to see it and wonders how long Maurizio Sarri can deny the player his first Premier League start while he is in this form.
Callum Hudson-Odoi was the star of the show against Malmo long before he capped his performance with a late goal. He created the most chances and played the most through-balls. He completed twice as many dribbles as anyone else on the pitch – as many as all of his Chelsea team-mates put together. No wonder the supporters loved it.
This was only the fourth game that the teenager has started in front of the fans at Stamford Bridge and he has now scored in three of them. In total, he has contributed to six goals in his six starts in all competitions, but it was the fact that he had received only six minutes in the first leg of this tie that had annoyed many supporters in the build-up.
Isn’t it high time that Hudson-Odoi was trusted to start a Premier League game? Well, Maurizio Sarri continues to see the situation a little differently and launched a convincing defence of his handling of the talented winger in his press conference afterwards.
“You need to understand that in the same position we have Pedro, we have Willian and we have [Eden] Hazard, so it is not easy for a young player to play consistently,” Sarri explained.
“I want to remind you that Callum has played 14 matches. There isn’t another player of 18 in England who has played 14 matches in the first team. So I think we are using him in the right way. Of course, the 20 matches of this season will become 30 next season and 40 in two years.
“I think also that the club has to decide because if I am the club and I want Callum on the pitch consistently then I have to sell another winger, otherwise the manager is in trouble.”
Sarri’s claim that there is not another 18-year-old player in England getting this number of games is not strictly accurate. Ryan Sessegnon has featured 26 times for Fulham this season and Phil Foden has been involved 20 times for Manchester City, albeit often briefly.
But for the Chelsea supporters at Stamford Bridge on Thursday evening, this is not merely some abstract debate about opportunities for young players. No doubt Hudson-Odoi has become a symbolic figure whose future raises interesting questions about the very purpose of the Chelsea academy, but for those chanting his name this is a simpler matter. Hudson-Odoi is excellent. He makes this Chelsea team better in the here and now.
For much of the game against Malmo, he was the one player who brought a sense of fun to proceedings. Sarri repeatedly referenced the fact that Chelsea were dismal for the first 30 minutes, their confidence apparently shot. But it was Hudson-Odoi who changed that.
In the 29th minute, he twisted and turned away from four Malmo players to open up the game for his team and wake up half the crowd. Little over a minute later he drew audible gasps as he burst out from his own half only to be cynically stopped by Behrang Safari.
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All Chelsea’s goals came after the interval but then too it was Hudson-Odoi’s skills that got the crowd going when he attempted a Marseille turn early in the half. To what extent Sarri saw it the same way is unclear. Encouraged to praise the player afterwards, he soon switched attention to the performances of Andreas Christensen and Emerson Palmieri.
The Chelsea coach recognises that there are other problems with his team, ones that Hudson-Odoi will not solve. As he explained after the defeat to Manchester United on Monday, he wants to see fewer “individual actions” and more “movement away from the ball” in order to get behind the opposition defence. That’s what he feels this team needs.
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So for all Hudson-Odoi’s eye-catching dribbling, expect Sarri to continue to prefer Pedro out on the right flank in the bigger games. The problem is that given the current climate at Stamford Bridge that could put him on a collision course with the club’s own supporters.
The mood wasn’t exactly mutinous on Thursday but the loud cheers for Hudson-Odoi were in stark contrast to the boos that greeted Jorginho’s entrance to the field as a late substitute. The playmaker finds himself targeted because he is perceived as Sarri’s favourite. Meanwhile, the young English winger is celebrated because he is seen as underused.
“We want you to stay,” they chanted during the latter stages, a reference to the transfer request that went in during the January window and the ongoing speculation about the player’s future. He embraced the love by removing his shirt for a supporter in the Matthew Harding Stand upon the final whistle. But will all this be enough to convince him?
It will probably take more than a Europa League tie in the week of a Wembley cup final. “He can improve a lot,” said Sarri. But the overwhelming impression that Hudson-Odoi left on everyone at Stamford Bridge on Thursday is that he is ready now. Sarri might be doing himself a favour in more ways than one if he gives Hudson-Odoi more opportunities to show it.