It’s been a whirlwind season for Callum Hudson-Odoi, one which has seen the 18-year-old make his senior England debut and, reportedly, become a transfer target for some of the world’s biggest clubs. But one thing he is still yet to do is break into the Chelsea starting XI.
And as the season wears on, with the Blues battling to break into the Premier League’s top four and secure a place back in the Champions League, the fact Hudson-Odoi hasn’t started a single league game is becoming one of the biggest criticisms levelled against manager Maurizio Sarri.
Chelsea want the teenager to sign a new contract to commit his future to Stamford Bridge – a matter all the more pressing in light of the club’s transfer ban – with his current deal set to expire in 2020.
But Hudson-Odoi, it is reported, wants to leave, following the lead of England colleague and close friend Jadon Sancho of Borussia Dortmund by joining the winger in Germany, where champions Bayern Munich have made their interest abundantly clear.
This is not a matter of a young footballer chasing the biggest pay day on offer; the terms offered by Chelsea are believed to be extremely lucrative for a player who only turned 18 in November. Instead, this is about opportunity: Hudson-Odoi wants to play.
With no starts and only six substitute appearances, he has accumulated just 118 minutes of Premier League action this season, less top-flight game time than 19 other Chelsea players, including two who left in January, and only marginally more than back-up goalkeeper Willy Caballero.
The Europa League has been Hudson-Odoi’s proving ground, and the ease with which he has taken to the continent’s secondary competition suggests he has already outgrown that level, having scored four goals and registered two assists in six appearances to date.
Add in two starts in the FA Cup and a further appearance in the Carabao Cup, though, and suddenly Hudson-Odoi’s integration into the Chelsea first team doesn’t seem especially slow for a player of his age.
But this is a special talent Chelsea have on their hands, a world champion with England at under-17 level, now a senior international and a player who marked himself as one of the hottest prospects in Europe while progressing through the Blues’ prolifically successful youth teams.
Beside the fact that Hudson-Odoi needs to be given more opportunities at first team level to be convinced his future lies in west London, playing him would not represent a box-ticking exercise for Chelsea, a token gesture to keep at bay the criticism they face for failing to produce first-team players from their world-class academy.
The simple truth is that Hudson-Odoi is already good enough to start regularly for Chelsea, and thus Sarri not allowing him to do so hurts the team’s short-term prospects as much as it hampers the player’s long-term development.
Any aversion to putting greater faith in gifted young players of Hudson-Odoi’s age stems from doubts over their ability to perform consistently at the highest level, a recognition that they are still learning the game and will therefore make mistakes along the way.
But Hudson-Odoi’s positional rivals, Pedro, 31, and Willian, 32, are hardly bastions of Premier League consistency. The teenager, even allowing for the bumps in the road inherent with such young footballers, is capable of producing just as consistently, if not more so, than the streaky veterans currently blocking his path. And his unpredictability, boldness and speed must already make him a more fearsome prospect for opposition defenders.
Gareth Southgate has made his England team a meritocracy, where chances are given to those to deserve them, be that based on body of work or exceptional talent. Hudson-Odoi’s gifts merit similar faith from Sarri.