Tottenham 1 Chelsea 0, Wembley.
Last week, what started as good news quickly grew a negative slant. Chelsea announced that for nearly £60m they had signed Christian Pulisic from Borussia Dortmund. Pulisic won’t officially arrive until next season, but the signing has already been interpreted – in some quarters – as a move against Callum Hudson-Odoi, the incendiary teenage winger.
Hudson-Odoi’s situation has become a symbol for Chelsea’s historic reluctance to use their academy and, as a result, he has been swiftly embraced by the supporters. Needless to say, with Bayern Munich’s interest in the player growing by the day and now reportedly signifed by a bid in excess of £30m, there’s little local appetite for a sale. Less so now, after a hugely encouraging performance at Wembley, in Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat to Tottenham in the first-leg of the EFL Cup semi-final.
Chelsea’s overall performance wasn’t so positive. They had a lot of possession and penned Tottenham in their own half for long periods but, not for the first time this season, they wanted for a proper pivot. Paulo Gazzaniga made one excellent save from a deflected cross, but was otherwise untroubled. Nevertheless, Hudson-Odoi still glinted. And did so with the kind of promise that even a club like Chelsea, who have made the path between their academy and first-team so tricky, can’t ignore. In the past, yes, some of the criticism they’ve attracted has been gratuitous: it’s clear now, for instance, that Lewis Baker will never be good enough to feature regularly at Stamford Bridge and that Dominic Solanke and Nathaniel Chalobah probably belong in mid-table rather than at the top of the Premier League.
But Hudson-Odoi’s talent is far more arresting. So much so that if Bayern Munich are allowed to sign him for £30m, which in this market is a relatively modest fee, then it would likely prove the most damning indictment yet of their transfer philosophy. Not, of course, because he is the finished article or a player who is necessarily ready to start every game from now until the end of the next decade, but because his ability is so obvious. It smacks you in the face and, if you were at Tottenham fan at Wembley, it straightens your back and terrifies you.
With the exception of Eden Hazard, who radiates menace just by walking onto any pitch, Hudson-Odoi was arguably his team’s most threatening player on Tuesday night. It was a performance flecked with the odd imperfection and a couple of poor decisions, but he demanded Tottenham’s attention whenever he touched the ball.
Pace is the great modern commodity and, of course, he has it in spades. But just being quick isn’t sufficient, with raw acceleration only enough to take a player so far. For Hudson-Odoi, it’s really the ease of his touches which catches the eye, the soft-footed technique which shows when he drags a ball out of the sky or receives it on the touchline. And then the ambition – not to just find an easy pass or pad his statistics by recycling simply, but the determination to run at a defender, to take risks, to try and change a game.
On Tuesday night he didn’t quite change the game. He was prominent in patches and only really dangerous when Chelsea were playing well, but his ball carrying was still seductive. He’s Hazard-like. Not in the breadth of his range, nor in his consistency or execution, but there’s certainly something familiar in his gliding drives with the ball at his feet and the way he slashes towards the penalty box. Perhaps it’s in his ability to beat a defender on either side, or to feint and punch with with either foot. Whatever it is, it’s there. It may not carry the same danger yet, but it’s not hard to envisage it one day doing so. Development is full of pitfalls and there really is no such thing as a straight arrow or a perfectly even climb for the stars, but in some cases – this being one of them – the odds are so overwhelming in a player’s favour that it’s actually more reckless not to spend the time examining that promise.
Which is the crux of the issue. With some of the young players from Chelsea’s past, the theory has been too outlandish and the need for patience too great. The club compete at the business end of the table where the margins are razor thin; in that environment, indulging players who stand little or only an outside chance of being good enough makes little sense. But in this instance – with what Hudson-Odoi already is now – the opposite is true. His contractual situation has given him leverage, meaning that the decision of whether he stays is not entirely Chelsea’s, but to sell him now, before attempting to convince him that requisite opportunities are available and an extension would be in his interest, would be the kind of myopic decision for which there would be no defence.
So this isn’t an illusion. This isn’t one of those situations in which supporters have lifted a player out of his context and are now using him as an avatar for dozens of smaller grievances. No, Hudson-Odoi can play and the hype is absolutely real.