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Reece James

Chelsea, 2019-

The wealth of young English talent breaking through in the Premier League is hugely exciting and in no position is that more apparent than at right-back, where Trent Alexander-Arnold, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, James Justin, Max Aarons and Chelsea’s Reece James promise a bright future for the national team.

James, who impressed on loan at Wigan in 2018/19 when he gained a full season’s experience in the Championship, showed during 2019/20 at just 20 years of age that he was already at home in the Premier League – and at the top end of the table. A completely different player to César Azpilicueta, James not only provides a youthful, attacking alternative at right-back, but also a sound defensive presence. “Reece is a weapon for us in attack with his crossing – we need to get on the end of them more – but he is also very solid defensively,” Chelsea’s manager Frank Lampard said. “When you think of his age, you can get excited about Reece. There’s a lot more he can do, but I’m really pleased with how he’s developing.”

Tactical analysis
James already looks the complete full-back, and the breadth of his talents is highlighted by the fact that he made 13 of his 44 starts in his season in the Championship – as a teenager – in central midfield, where he looked perfectly comfortable and often shone. At Chelsea, he has played both as a right-back and as a wing-back, aided by the experience of playing in midfield and becoming ready for the pace of the Premier League in a position where he has slightly more time on the ball.

Much of James’ most eye-catching work comes on the front foot. He is an attacking right-back who strides forward purposefully with the ball and can beat an opponent. He is adept at taking defenders on around the outside by pushing the ball ahead and beating his opponent for pace, but he also has the close control to wriggle his way out of trouble – a useful skill for a central midfielder, and one that makes him an even better full-back. There have been occasions at Chelsea when his first touch has let him down, but he has resisted pressure with a drop of the shoulder, a quick turn, or even a nutmeg to leave his opponent behind.

He is difficult to dispossess once he has momentum, and there is also often an end product to his forward runs, both of which were exhibited when scoring a wondergoal for Wigan at Bristol City in April 2019 (below). Receiving a pass under pressure on the halfway line, he held off his marker, turned into space, shook off two defenders as he ran towards goal, and struck into the top corner from 25 yards.

His technical ability is such that during his time at Wigan he was placed on penalty duty and also took free-kicks, scoring one of each – one free-kick was curled beautifully into the bottom corner against Leeds United. He doesn’t provide the same set-piece threat as Alexander-Arnold, who is among the best in the world, but there are positive similarities between them as right-backs, with a past in central midfield, capable of putting dangerous crosses into the penalty area and of taking free-kicks.

As Lampard recognises, James is “a natural” crosser of the ball – and he varies his deliveries into the area. In Chelsea’s 3-2 win at Crystal Palace, he attempted six crosses that showcased that. There was a viciously whipped cross from near the touchline that Olivier Giroud should have scored from; there was the careering run around the outside of Willian and then a low ball across the six-yard box that Mamadou Sakho did well to clear; there were a couple of dinked balls that did not quite clear the near-side centre-back; and there were two from deeper positions that landed perfectly between the centre-backs and that might have been better anticipated by their centre-forward. His two Premier League assists came from further types of crosses – one he dug out under pressure on the run near the corner flag, and another after receiving a pass in the half-space, when he chipped on to Tammy Abraham’s head eight yards from goal (below).

What often makes James’ deliveries so dangerous is how early he puts a cross in after receiving the ball. He quickly lifts his head to identify his target after taking his first touch, before putting his cross in with his second, thereby maintaining the pace of his team’s attacks and allowing their opponents little time to prepare.

Role at Chelsea
James is the more attacking of Chelsea’s two right-backs, but in Azpilicueta he has the perfect defensive mentor to learn from. The Spaniard is very positionally aware, and James is similarly switched on when out of possession, holding his position in the back four of the 4-1-4-1 formation that Lampard favours when his side do not have the ball. When James plays, Azpilicueta tends to be on the left to ensure that Chelsea can continue to offer the asymmetrical attacks they do when Azpilicueta plays at right-back and an attacking full-back like Marcos Alonso or Emerson plays on the opposite wing.

When the Spaniard is on the right he supports attacks; he never progresses ahead of play, and he provides crosses from deep to good effect, ranking second for Chelsea for league assists in 2019/20, with six – just one behind Willian. James does so, too, but he also attacks around the outside of the right-sided midfielder – usually Willian – to provide width (below) in the way that Alonso or Emerson does on the left. Along with their front three and an attacking midfielder, James forms an attacking line of five and Azpilicueta moves in-field to give Chelsea an in-possession 2-3-5.

James needs time to forge a better partnership with the midfielder playing ahead of him – expected to be Hakim Ziyech in 2020/21 – because that relationship will dictate the positions from which he crosses the ball. When the winger operates wide, James holds his position and looks for sets to deliver from a deeper position. If that winger moves inside, James needs to provide Chelsea’s width, and a wide enough angle that he makes the opposing full-back’s job that bit more difficult – he has sometimes been too narrow with his overlapping runs.

When defending, James prefers to show his opponent on the outside and to use his body to manoeuvre the attacker off the ball. He therefore needs to do two things more consistently – he must not attempt to anticipate his opponent going around the outside because he risks leaving too much space on the inside for them to dart into, and he needs to stand off a little more, because against particularly quick wingers one big touch could eliminate James and expose his team.

James is unquestionably a special talent, with an extremely bright future. As Lampard said, he is a player worth getting excited about.

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