Reece James looks like he is taking his game to a new level this season. The Chelsea wing-back has had to be patient to have a run of starts under Thomas Tuchel. He is now one of the first names on the team sheet. Alongside Ben Chilwell, the academy graduate is the chief attacking force in the team at the top of the Premier League table. The wing-backs are offering creativity and a direct goal threat. There is an argument that they are the best pairing in the league based on their current form.
In nine Premier League matches, James has contributed four goals and four assists. He is averaging a goal contribution every 68.9 minutes, which is an incredible return for a wing-back. It is unlikely that he will be able to sustain this rate of getting goals and assists, but his underlying numbers do show that he is one of the most threatening players in any position.
Trent Alexander-Arnold has been the most creative full-back in recent years. Although James is unlikely to provide the same level of creative threat, the Chelsea formation allows him to be a much greater goal threat. Tuchel encourages his wing-backs to get into the box and take shots. Meanwhile, Alexander-Arnold is more likely to stay on the right wing or the half space. His goal threat mainly comes from long distance shooting and direct free kicks.
This season, James has accrued 1.1 expected goals (xG) and 2.3 expected assists (xA), therefore he has overperformed his underlying numbers. However, his average of 0.17 xG and 0.37 xA per ninety minutes show the threat he carries in the attacking half. This is a sharp increase from last season, where James averaged 0.06 xG and 0.12 xA per ninety minutes.
At the age of 21, the England international is progressing quickly as he cements a place in the Chelsea first team. Below we look at how he compares to the other three wing-backs at the top of their game in the Premier League.
All four have had great starts to the season in their own right. James has the most attacking returns to date, but as suggested above, there has been some luck to that. However, he is emerging as a genuine competitor to Alexander-Arnold as the best attacking full-back/wing-back in the league.
Despite James being given a role that involves him getting into the box more frequently, he is only marginally ahead of Alexander-Arnold in terms of his xG per ninety. He is the closest to the Liverpool full-back when looking at expected goal involvement (xGI) per ninety minutes.
This is a golden age for full-backs in the Premier League, with four of the best showing a consistency in attack that hasn’t been seen in years. For a period, Liverpool were leading the way in this position. Although they have the best in terms of the underlying numbers, Manchester City and Chelsea now have great assets of their own.
In terms of Reece James, there is a case to be made that he is the most complete of the four. The Chelsea right wing-back has a unique physical profile, capable of bullying opposition attackers and dominating in the air. It is why he has been used as a right centre-back on occasion.
If he maintains his underlying numbers and keeps his place in the Chelsea team, the comparisons to Alexander-Arnold will continually be made. It could be the next great debate in England, following the Steven Gerrard vs Frank Lampard debate in the 2000s. It seems apt that the pair play for the same two clubs.