Fit, fresh and making an impact, Callum Hudson-Odoi has been thriving in a new role under Thomas Tuchel and grasping the opportunity to show Chelsea supporters exactly what he’s capable of.
The youngster only turned 20 a few months ago but has been a familiar face in the dressing room for the best part of three seasons now, transitioning smoothly from standout Academy star to a reliable member of the senior squad under Maurizio Sarri, Frank Lampard and our new German head coach.
After featuring in each of Tuchel’s first six games in charge, there seemed no better man to speak to next in our 10 Questions With… series as we caught up with the Wandsworth wing-back for an exclusive chat about new responsibilities, adding goals to his game and facing Atletico Madrid in the Champions League…
Since Thomas Tuchel’s arrival, you’ve started four of the six games as right wing-back, a position we’ve not seen you in before, even during your time in the Academy. What do you have to think about differently in that position and did you ever think you’d be suited to playing there?
It was obviously a different role for me and something new I hadn’t experienced before but I saw it as a challenge. It’s something that I know I’m capable of doing. If it’s offensively, I can use my abilities to do that going forward, but defensively as well now I’ve got to be more aware because I’m not playing as a winger.
I’m playing wing-back so I have to get back much more. It has definitely been a good experience for me to learn a new position as well under the manager and it’s going well for me. I actually enjoy playing there - it’s not a bad thing for me. I really enjoy it so hopefully I can keep improving and hopefully keep doing well there.
It had never really crossed my mind before. Whenever I’ve played in teams with five at the back, I’ve always played as one of the number 10s, in a winger position or behind the striker. I’ve never played wing-back or thought about playing there so getting told I was going to play there was certainly something new to me but the manager helped me really well.
He was explaining stuff, how to play that position, the things to do going forward and coming back, which was really helpful for me to get ready for the game. I watched some clips with him as well before the game to understand the positioning a bit so it helped me a lot and it was good to play there.
You've spoken recently about setting yourself a target to score more goals and that you were often getting into the right positions but not finding the back of the net. Explain a little how you’re trying to do that?
I feel especially playing as a wing-back or in a winger’s position, you want to be getting to the back post and getting those tap-ins. Every goal counts at the end of the day so no matter what it is, you want to be getting on the scoresheet or getting assists and helping the team as much as possible.
I’ve said to myself that whenever I’m around the box, I want to be more clinical and more ruthless, take my chances when they come and hopefully hit the back of the net more often. The tap-ins are the best ones to get at the back post on the blindside of the defender.
I haven’t set a specific target for myself but I just try to score as many as possible. It’s good to know we’ve got the players around who are capable of getting the ball into the back post as well for those tap-ins or finding cutbacks or playing crucial passes to get you in on goal. I’ve just got to make sure I keep getting in those positions to try and get a shot away and hopefully that goes in the back of the net.
Those who watched you progressing through the Academy might think of you back then as more of a scorer of great goals rather than a prolific goalscorer but you did rack up 31 goals in 55 starts at those age groups. Are those the sort of numbers you are striving for now in senior football?
In the Academy days, when you’re seeing numbers like that you’re like ‘wow’ and you want to try and replicate that in the first team as well but it’s obviously a much tougher league and it’s hard to get goals.
You want to be that player who every team fears and where you have a target to get a goal or an assist for the team in every match you play, to help the team as much as possible because that contributes at the end of the game. You scoring or assisting helps the team win so I look at it like that.
If I can get a goal one game and then maybe the next game I get an assist and the next game a goal again, it’s helpful for all aspects. I want to be one of those players that you know is regularly on the scoresheet.
Against Tottenham recently, you lined up further forward alongside Mason Mount and with Reece James on the outside as wing-back. Playing close to those long-time team-mates must surely help you perform even better?
I’ve been playing with Reece and Mason for a lot of years now so I know their qualities and capabilities, and they know what I can do. Playing with them is easier because they know exactly what I'm able to do on the pitch, they’re able to help me and link up with me as quick as possible. They know what I'm capable of going forward and I know what they’re capable of doing as well so it’s good to link up with them.
Coming through the Academy, it’s a nice feeling to know we’re doing the Academy proud. We want to keep going as a collective, keep trying to win as many points and get as many games as possible. It’s always nice to link up with the boys - they’re humble with good energy so it’s good to keep playing around them and I just hope it carries on for many years.
People often talk about Chelsea’s young players as a collective and perhaps forget you are actually a year younger than Reece, two years younger than Mason and three years younger than Tammy Abraham. Do you think that gets overlooked?
Of course. I feel like sometimes people forget but if they’re talking about us all as one, it’s a good thing really to be spoken about, and talking about all of us as a collective is a nice feeling at times as well. You want to be playing as a mature player and a professional. You want to be a player that looks mature and looks like you’re doing the right things on the pitch and helping the team as much as possible.
I don’t really like to listen to it much. I like to just focus on the pitch and listen to my family, the manager, my friends and team-mates around me. I listen to what they have to tell me because they’re just going to give me the best advice to get better. I like to listen to them and hopefully they keep advising me to become better.
Do you still consider yourself a young player after three seasons in and around the senior set-up?
I wouldn’t say I feel fully comfortable. Obviously I’ve been around the first team for a little while now so I’m feeling comfortable. I’ve been with everybody here for a long time so it’s nice but I don’t feel established yet. I’m still trying to fight my way into making sure I become a better player day by day and hopefully working harder day by day.
It’s a nice feeling to know I’ve been around these players for so long and we’re all gelling so well as a team. We’re all getting comfortable with each other, knowing what everybody enjoys and how we all play but I just want to keep going out on the pitch and doing what I do best, which is enjoying my football.
When people think of Callum Hudson-Odoi the player, they're probably drawn to your speed, skill and dribbling qualities, but perhaps one of your best attributes is your passing range and that hardly ever seems to get discussed. How important is that part of your game?
I’ve been doing it since I was young. I’ve always liked to open up the game as much as possible and I feel like the long passes or switch of play are always the best way. Sometimes areas are congested and you want to open up the play and try to move teams around to get the ball.
I just like to see the picture early and see what’s going on from early so I know that if I do switch the play, there’ll be a good opportunity to get out quicker and we play from there. I try just look at the picture as quick as possible, look around, see where the spaces are and try to play the ball as quick as possible.
Are you finally feeling back to where you were physically before the Achilles injury and do you look back on that as the first significant setback of your career?
That injury was definitely a nasty one for me as it took me a very, very long time to recover. It was one of those injuries where it takes maybe years to recover from because it’s just a big injury. You lose a lot of muscle in your calf, you definitely lose a bit of speed and stuff like that, so I’ve been working a lot with the team and my family members at home trying to get back to how I am right now - being fit and being able to sprint how I normally sprint, with the muscle back into my calf, which is a big thing.
I’ve been working really hard off the pitch to try and get all my muscle and strength back and to get everything to how it was before I got my injury. Everyone has done superbly trying to get me back as quick as possible and I feel like I’m back to where I was.
I’d never had a proper injury like that or never even had surgery prior to that so it was something that was new to me and definitely a big challenge. It was a big setback knowing that everything was going so well, with the Europa League semi-finals coming up and stuff, so it was hard but I tell myself that everything happens for a reason. God justifies everything that you do so I’m happy with where I am now and hopefully I keep growing and keep progressing.
It’s been almost three-and-a-half years since you won the Under-17 World Cup with England and a team featuring the likes of Phil Foden, Jadon Sancho, Rhian Brewster, Emile Smith Rowe and Conor Gallagher, who are all now breaking through into senior football in their own ways. You’ve played in some good teams but was that the best in terms of individuals?
We definitely had a lot of great individuals in that team. Everybody in that team was amazing and that’s the reason we won it. We all had the right mentality and the right attitude to go out there and win the tournament.
We knew everybody had individual skill to win a game and the way we played as a team could win games as well. It was a privilege to play in that team because they are great players and I think all of them would say exactly the same. It's great to see so many of them doing so well.
The Champions League returns for us next week and this has been a real breakout year for you in that competition. How excited are you for another taste of knockout football?
I’m really excited! It’s a massive game against Atletico, who we know are a big team and are doing really well this season. We want to go into that game with the mentality of trying to win and trying to get through to the next round. It will be a different game to what we were expecting, going to Romania instead of Spain, but it’s going to be big for us either way.
We all know football is a crazy sport and it can go either way. You can be winning one minute and the next minute you’re losing, especially in the Champions League. Our aim is just to give it everything we’ve got and let’s see if we can make it through.