Callum Hudson-Odoi: Why Playing Him At Left Wing Isn’t The Answer

Many considered the game against Southampton a turning point for Callum Hudson-Odoi, as he started at left wing for only the second time in Thomas Tuchel’s nine-month tenure. But it was the game against Southampton in February earlier this year which was the true watershed moment for Hudson-Odoi.

After Tammy Abraham struggled in the first half, Tuchel brought him on, only to substitute him 31 minutes later. “I was not happy with his attitude, energy and counter-pressing,” Tuchel said after the game. “He knows what I demand from him and when he doesn’t reach this level, it’s a hard decision.”

Callum Hudson-Odoi was rewarded with a chance against Southampton, but did he do enough? Image credit Getty Images
Callum Hudson-Odoi was rewarded with a chance against Southampton, but did he do enough? Image credit Getty Images

Tough Love

During an event way back in October 2015, Thomas Tuchel, then manager of Borussia Dortmund, offered an insight about his approach to youth coaching.

“It’s great we can offer them these great possibilities at academies, but putting them in this comfort zone also comes with a big risk. The effect could be that something is missing, the skill to overcome obstacles. Who is able to overcome obstacles? Who is able to perform even if the locker room does not have air conditioning? Where are the hidden talents of the players beside the ones that are obvious?”

True to his word, Tuchel has seldom allowed the young England winger the luxury of a comfort zone since his arrival. In his very first game in charge, he played Hudson-Odoi as a right wingback, a move that raised many eyebrows. Despite a 0-0 draw, Tuchel’s wisdom and Hudson-Odoi’s drive to impress shone through. Just a week earlier, in Lampard’s final Premier League game in charge of Chelsea, he had 31 touches in 68 minutes, won one ground duel and offered zero tackles or interceptions. But against a Wolves side excellent on the counter, he registered 83 touches in 90 minutes, won five ground duels and made three tackles, one of them a crucial last-man intervention to deny Wolves a gilt-edged scoring chance. It was perhaps the first time in his senior career that he received plaudits for his defensive industry. “Hidden talents,” as Tuchel had called it back in 2015.

Callum Hudson-Odoi’s performance as a winger vs as a wingback, compared to other wingers and fullbacks/wingbacks in Europe’s top 5 leagues. Credit: Fbref.

Holistic Development For the Future

In his book Zonal Marking, Michael Cox writes that Dutch manager Louis Van Gaal “enjoyed working with youngsters precisely because they were malleable; once a footballer was 25, Van Gaal believed, he could no longer change their identity.” To understand the logic in this argument, Hudson-Odoi only has to look at how his fellow U17 World Cup winners from 2017 have developed.

At Dortmund, Jadon Sancho thrilled across the frontline and has already played left wing, right wing and attacking midfield and as a shadow striker since his move to Manchester United. Pep Guardiola has played Phil Foden in the same positions and even as an ‘8’ or a false 9. Both players favor the left wing, but being pushed to adapt has arguably made them better. Foden has endured a torrid time at false 9, but at 21, this is by no means failure, just part of an invaluable education. Frank Lampard was criticized for playing Mason Mount on the wings, but despite Mount’s struggles back then, there has been noticeable improvement in his wing play in the past few months.

And yet many still clamor for Hudson-Odoi’s return to his favored position. Despite its wisdom, the move could actually hinder his evolution into a complete wing player by limiting him to one position and his current skillset. Perhaps the potential loan move to Borussia Dortmund was blocked by the club for exactly this reason – that a comfortable stint on the wing wouldn’t be ideal for his development, even though his playing style would suit the Bundesliga. At right wingback, Hudson-Odoi has the opportunity not only to improve his threat from the right flank, but to hone his defensive work and positioning, and be more involved in the build-up phase. If he can apply these principles while playing as a winger, imagine the player Chelsea would have on their hands.

The Modern Winger’s Education

Hudson-Odoi’s generation of eye-catching wingers are all rising meteorically, either through individual endeavor or through meticulous nurturing by an intelligent coaching staff. Despite injury woes, turmoil at the club and a manager of questionable man-management skills in Ronald Koeman, Ansu Fati is an example of the former, excelling at left wing but also playing on the right and as a center-forward. Then there is Jamal Musiala, who benefitted from a blueprint charted out by Bayern Munich and the German national team for his progression, and also Ferran Torres, who went from a promising winger to a devastating false 9 option for club and country thanks to Pep Guardiola’s astute and ingenious nurturing. Both are prime examples of how thoughtful coaching and long-term vision can help fulfill immense potential.

In that October 2015 event, Tuchel said something else about coaching young players that was revealing.

“Maybe it’s true that those who turn out to be special have something special inside of them. And that it’s more about challenging them on a regular basis and it’s our job to motivate them to be eager to overcome obstacles.”

It feels like that is exactly what Tuchel is trying to do with Hudson-Odoi. Ruben Loftus-Cheek took his chance when played in a lone six role against Aston Villa in a cup tie and found himself in contention for a starting spot immediately, only reiterating that Tuchel appreciates players who take on challenges. If, at just 20, Hudson-Odoi can seize his opportunity with both hands, Stamford Bridge could see him blossom into the complete winger – wreaking havoc on either wing and capable of contributing at both ends of the pitch.

Written by CFC Central (@CFCCentral3)

Edited by Tom Coley (@tomcoley49)

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