The board really did say the number 20. Callum Hudson-Odoi trudged off the field but surely must have done a double take in disbelief when he first clocked his manager’s intentions. Having been brought on at half-time of Chelsea’s 1-1 draw at Southampton on Saturday, he was being taken off again with 15 minutes to play. The sub was being subbed.
It is seen as one of the most brutal and harsh things a manager can do to a player, but new Blues boss Thomas Tuchel did what he needed to do and introduced Hakim Ziyech to proceedings. The change didn’t have the desired effect, but the German is unbeaten since taking over from Frank Lampard, winning five from seven games, and so the move didn’t face too much criticism.
In 2016 though, Jose Mourinho was said to have ‘embarrassed’ Juan Mata by subbing him on and off again for Manchester United in the Community Shield. In 2008, ironic cheers rang around the Emirates when Emmnauel Eboue was replaced after coming on for Arsenal having been booed by a small section of fans after losing the ball, while more recently, Everton caretaker-boss Duncan Ferguson was questioned in 2019 after taking substitute Moise Kean off with a minute to go after the Toffees conceded an equaliser against Manchester United while he was on the pitch. It takes a brave man to sub a sub, and a great deal of character for a player to deal with the public shame. That term may sound strong but that’s how replacing a replacement is viewed.
"We decided to speak to him in front of the whole group to not make it bigger that it is, because for us it is not a big thing," Tuchel explained on Monday. "I did it, and we had the only reaction we wanted: he went back to a good mood, a normal mood, a smile and good training. He did very good training today, and that's it. This is the lesson to learn, for him and for me also. We go on, and then it's forgotten."
How Hudson-Odoi responds on the pitch will be key to how his Chelsea career pans out. At only 20 years of age, it already feels like his career is at a crossroads. The front man will be desperate to impress his boss if he is given a chance when the Blues take on Atletico Madrid in the Champions League round of 16 first leg clash in Bucharest on Tuesday night.
Eighteen months ago, Hudson-Odoi was being heavily linked with German giants Bayern Munich as the Bavarians looked for wingers to replace the legendary double act of Arjen Robben and Franck Ribery. As recently as October, Sky Sports reported Chelsea had rejected a loan bid from the Bundesliga champions which would have included a £70m buy option in the summer. It was rejected, since Hudson-Odoi is highly valued at Stamford Bridge. That was proven in February 2020 when he signed a five-year contract worth £100,000 a year. Chelsea clearly wanted to keep him and ward off any interest.
Starting seven games and being a sub in nine, the forward, who doesn’t turn 21 until November, has played 779 minutes for the club so far this season, scoring twice and assisting two more. Up against quality front men like Christian Pulisic, Kai Havertz, Timo Werner and Ziyech for a starting spot, he will be desperate to catch the eye of his new manager. Not only for his Chelsea career but his international aspirations too. Right now, England have an embarrassment of riches in attack, with the likes of Marcus Rashford and Jadon Sancho shining, and Hudson-Odoi looks to be well down the pecking order as things stand.
“He’s definitely playing well and improving… making assists and scoring goals,” Frank Lampard said of Hudson-Odoi a week before he was dismissed as Chelsea manager. “He is playing at a really high level, where we saw him last year. But I think his confidence visually, to beat his man and go one-versus-one, which he has to be about, wasn’t quite there.”
Hudson-Odoi’s confidence will have been bruised again on Saturday, but it’s up to him to force his way back. He’s been dealt some unfair setbacks in his career so far and his future will be shaped by how he responds. He’s gone from a Bayern Munich target to a subbed sub, but there is a way back if he takes it on the chin and comes out fighting.