Callum Hudson-Odoi ready to feature in Chelsea’s first team

PERTH, AUSTRALIA - JULY 23: Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea controls the ball during the international friendly between Chelsea FC and Perth Glory at Optus Stadium on July 23, 2018 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images)
PERTH, AUSTRALIA - JULY 23: Callum Hudson-Odoi of Chelsea controls the ball during the international friendly between Chelsea FC and Perth Glory at Optus Stadium on July 23, 2018 in Perth, Australia. (Photo by Paul Kane/Getty Images) /

Callum Hudson-Odoi impressed in Chelsea’s first preseason match and the 17-year-old may have earned himself a first-team spot.

Chelsea’s 17-year-old wunderkind Callum Hudson-Odoi is capable making people much older than him look extremely foolish. Take 29-year-old Perth Glory defender Scott Neville, for example.

In a friendly last Monday between Perth and Chelsea, Neville had to summon every last ounce of the balancing ability he possesses to remain upright after a silky bit of Hudson-Odoi skill granted him a dizzying supporting role in the distinguished educational video: “Callum Hudson-Odoi: Crazy Skills and Tricks.” From Neville’s disoriented perspective, all six of the Hudson-Odoi’s that then crossed to Pedro for the match’s only goal probably looked pretty impressive.

To this point in his young career, there hasn’t been much about Hudson-Odoi that hasn’t been impressive. He’s excelled at various youth levels for Chelsea and he played an important role in England’s U-17 World Cup triumph last summer. Which is why it wasn’t terribly surprising after the match to see Goal report Chelsea were going to offer him a new five-year contract. That new contract offer wasn’t the most significant part of Goal’s post-match reporting, however. What prompted an eyebrow or eight to be raised around the soccer world was the claim that in addition to being offered a fancy, new contract, Hudson-Odoi is supposedly also set to be promoted from Chelsea’s academy to their first team.

Chelsea don’t exactly have a great track record when it comes to integrating quality youth players into their first team. Ever heard of Josh McEachran, Lucas Piazon or Charly Musonda? Maybe you have or maybe you haven’t. If you have heard of any of them, it wasn’t because of the glittering impact they’ve made on the Premier League because they haven’t made any impact on the Premier League. McEachran, Piazon and Musonda are three of the many current or former promising Chelsea prospects who have either failed or are currently failing to make an impression in the club’s senior team.

Supporters love to see a young player rise through the ranks of their club and carve out a spot in the first team, but the fact that Chelsea fans have been deprived the unbridled joy of getting to sloppily sing “he’s one of our own” at matches represents only one of the problems caused by the failure of the Blues to capitalize on their academy talent.

There was a time not too long ago in the Roman Abramovich-era that any lineup deficiency at Chelsea could have been solved by simply throwing a yacht full of money at the problem.  That time has more or less passed. Financial Fair Play has altered Chelsea’s approach to the transfer market. Heading into this summer, Chelsea ranked far below both of the big Manchester clubs in terms of transfer net spending since June 2014 and actually ranked below Everton and Crystal Palace as well. If money isn’t going to cure the ills at Stamford Bridge, then surely a different, more youth-forward strategy would be wise for Chelsea if they are going to continue battling for Premier League titles.

Since the 2009-10 season, Chelsea have won the FA Youth Cup seven times and the UEFA Youth League twice. Chelsea don’t just have a good academy, they’ve had arguably the best academy in England and maybe even the best in Europe over the last decade. Shockingly, only Andreas Christensen has been able to bridge the ludicrously wide gap from academy starlet to first-team regular at Chelsea over that time span (and it was just last season that Christensen became a regular fixture in Chelsea’s senior starting eleven).

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Myriad (but not necessarily legitimate) reasons exist as to why no academy player aside from Christensen has been successfully integrated into Chelsea’s first-team starting lineup in recent years. Head coaches who have been reluctant to provide opportunities have played a role. Ill-advised loan spells have also been a culprit. That Chelsea are apparently going to forgo the loan route with Hudson-Odoi and now have a coach in Maurizio Sarri who at least appears open to giving valuable minutes to unproven, but talented players hints at a possible new and necessary direction being taken, though.

If Sarri can provide formative first-team minutes to Hudson-Odoi (perhaps via Chelsea’s Europa League and League Cup matches), he has a skill set that could prove quite useful to Chelsea this coming season. He can play as an attacking midfielder and most crucially he can also play on either wing. Chelsea are obviously going to do everything they can to keep Eden Hazard from waving goodbye to west London and joining Real Madrid this summer, but even if the brilliant Belgian stays, he won’t have a lot of support on the wings. Chelsea’s other main wing options, Willian and Pedro, aren’t getting any younger. Hudson-Odoi could be the spark the Blues need in an area of the team that’s starting to show signs of rust.

Hudson-Odoi is too talented and Chelsea have been too financially responsible of late for the Blues to be able to justify the mishandling of his transition into the senior team. If that transition is botched, there are many people at Chelsea far older than Hudson-Odoi who are going to look very foolish.