There was one bright spot when Chelsea were humiliated by Arsenal on Boxing Day. At least nobody could accuse Callum Hudson-Odoi of hiding after replacing Timo Werner at half-time. While others in blue faded, Hudson-Odoi kept trying to salvage something from the wreckage and was still fighting at 3-0 down, eventually earning a reward of sorts when he created Tammy Abraham’s consolation goal with five minutes to go.
Fit after shaking off a hamstring injury, Hudson-Odoi made his point with a dynamic display.
Before his introduction Chelsea were stodgy in the final third. Werner, a centre-forward pressed into action on the flanks, struggled. Christian Pulisic was quiet. It was too fragmented and the concern was this was nothing new given that Chelsea had floundered in attack for much of December, losing meekly at Everton and Wolves, struggling to impress even when they beat West Ham 3-0.
Frank Lampard had to try something new. Chelsea’s manager rang the changes against Aston Villa two days later, starting Hudson-Odoi for the first time in the league since the win against Crystal Palace on 3 October. It finished 1-1 but Hudson-Odoi did well enough to show why he has twice been targeted by Bayern Munich.
Yet an extended run in the side remained elusive. When Manchester City visited Stamford Bridge a fortnight ago, Hudson-Odoi returned to the bench. Pulisic was on the left, Werner was up front, Hakim Ziyech was straight back in after a month out … and Chelsea were 3-0 down at half-time. A late goal from Hudson-Odoi, who came on in the 64th minute, was not enough to prevent speculation over Lampard’s future mounting after a fourth defeat in six league games.
There was little to celebrate given Hudson-Odoi’s diminished role fitted with the trend of his season, renewing doubts over his future. There was a sign of things to come at the start of the campaign, when the 20-year-old was Chelsea’s only fit winger and Mason Mount started instead of him. Being overlooked for a midfielder was tough. But when Lampard was asked about Hudson-Odoi’s lack of action, he urged the youngster to prove himself in training. The manager has previously spoken about work off the ball.
The alternative view is Hudson-Odoi contributes. When Chelsea were 3-0 down at half-time against West Brom in September, he came on and scored an excellent goal as Lampard’s side rescued a point. In from the start against Palace a week later, he helped Chelsea to win 4-0.
There is little to separate Hudson-Odoi from another young English winger, Jadon Sancho, in terms of natural talent. The difference is that Sancho, already important for England, has played regularly since leaving Manchester City for Borussia Dortmund. Emerging players should not fret that they have one game to prove their worth. Unlike Hudson-Odoi, Sancho has enjoyed that freedom in Germany.
Yet there was a sense that Lampard remained unconvinced. Some feared Hudson-Odoi would be back on the sidelines once Pulisic and Ziyech were fit. Bayern, who tried to capitalise when Hudson-Odoi’s frustration over a lack of opportunities under Maurizio Sarri led to him wavering over a new deal two years ago, perked up. A few hours after the Palace game it emerged that Chelsea had rejected another offer from the German club.
Chelsea did not want to sell Hudson-Odoi after handing him a lucrative five-year deal in September 2019. For his part, Hudson-Odoi has remained focused on proving himself after emerging from the academy. The issue is opportunity. After starting against Palace, he was an unused substitute for the draw with Southampton, handed a one-minute cameo for the goalless stalemate with Sevilla and omitted entirely for the 0-0 draw with Manchester United.
Hudson-Odoi, whose hopes of making England’s squad for the European Championship finals are slim, has not been given a fair shot. After scoring the opening goal when Chelsea beat FC Krasnodar 4-0 in the Champions League, he returned to the sidelines. When he broke the deadlock on his next start, away against Rennes on 24 November, he did not even make the bench for the goalless draw with Tottenham four days later.
The disappointments have racked up for Hudson-Odoi, who appears fully recovered from an achilles injury that kept him out for six months in 2019. Based on his numbers, the England international deserves a proper run. He scored again in the victory against Morecambe in the FA Cup last weekend. He has two goals in the league despite starting two games. He is offering more end product than Pulisic, who has scored twice in all competitions, and is a more effective winger than Werner.
This is not to say Pulisic is not a gifted winger, or that Ziyech’s creativity does not have the potential to make the team tick. Yet it has been a while since Chelsea clicked in attack. At the moment they look muddled, with Lampard still to find the right blend following the arrivals of Ziyech, Werner and Kai Havertz.
The worry is Lampard’s selections are beginning to feel inconsistent. Although he insists he is not worried about player power, some within the dressing room will wonder whether others can do no wrong. After hearing Lampard talk about wingers needing to track back, Hudson-Odoi must have raised an eyebrow in surprise when he saw Ziyech, Pulisic and Werner fail to provide defensive cover against Arsenal and City.
In that context Hudson-Odoi, who should start against Fulham on Saturday, will have reservations over his development under the current management. He is not afraid of competition and has no intention of leaving this month, but he cannot build momentum without regular starts. Without a change in Lampard’s thinking, expect another conversation if Bayern return for Hudson-Odoi in the summer.