Reece James’ early season injury has seen him fly under the radar at Chelsea. The right back continues to be used frequently by Frank Lampard, who would have been aware of his talents following a successful loan spell with Wigan Athletic. The current Blues’ boss managed Derby County, therefore he will have been very aware of the performances of the young player last season. He is very much an all-action full-back, capable of adding an extra dimension to the attack, which has been noticeable over the festive period.
Going back to last season, James managed to emerge as a key player for Wigan in a midfield role, albeit his performances at full-back suggested his long-term future was in that role. Paul Cook decided to use him centrally, as he was clearly the most talented player in the squad and the Latics wanted to get him involved in the play as much as possible. His contribution of three goals and three assists in the Championship doesn’t stand out, but he was playing in a team that finished in 18th position. During the course of the season, he managed to win multiple man of the match awards, underlining his importance and consistency.
There was a section of the Chelsea support that was excited to see James back at the club, but few expected him to break into the first team. He plays in the same position as club captain Cesar Azpilicueta and experience is required to help the young players. However, in some games, Lampard has moved the Spaniard to left-back and the team has benefitted from having an attacking outlet on the right-hand side.
Although James has only contributed two goals and two assists in all competitions this season, there have been several excellent performances from him. One of the latest came against Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. The right-back was influential with 126 touches. No player made more on the pitch. He showed his quality in both halves of the pitch, with three tackles and three key passes. If the forwards were more clinical, it is likely that his efforts would have been rewarded with an assist, as he created two big chances during the match. He also showed his confidence and strength when running, completing three dribbles.
He then followed this up with an excellent performance against Burnley, as he stood out as one of the best players on the pitch. During the game, he contributed an assist for Tammy Abraham. James made three key passes in the match to show his attacking presence. At times, he made the wrong decisions in possession, but the potential is there for all to see.
The emergence of Trent Alexander-Arnold has been revolutionary for Liverpool, as he has become the main creator in the team. Jurgen Klopp has built his team around the full-backs providing the width and creativity. Frank Lampard could look to create a similar system if James continues to have an impact.
It remains early for the academy graduate, but there is optimism among supporters about his long-term potential. James could quickly become a first-team regular and this will increase the need for an effective attacking left-back to provide balance to the team. Cesar Azpilicueta isn’t a natural on that side, while Lampard doesn’t seem enamoured with either Emerson Palmieri or Marcos Alonso.
Chelsea have been fortunate that the transfer ban has allowed them to bring several exciting young players into the first team. They have all had a positive impact, with Tammy Abraham, Callum Hudson-Odoi and Mason Mount all showing they can be central figures for the club over the next decade. There wasn’t this initial excitement around James, but he is now proving that he can too.
Azpilicueta’s presence in the team and his role as the club captain provides a sizeable obstacle to regular first-team minutes. However, Lampard has shown willingness to rotate and there will be opportunities for James to continue his development in the first team. If he continues to grow in confidence and influence, it will become increasingly difficult to leave him out. The young full-back is yet another example of the quality that exists in the Chelsea academy.