Reece James has been one of the standout individuals during a mixed start for Chelsea. Frank Lampard clearly trusts him to get forward and he has been given responsibility over the set pieces, which suggests he is set to remain a key member of the first team. However, the issue for the Blues is how to fit Cesar Azpilicueta back into the team. The club captain has been sidelined, but he came on at left-back on Saturday and his experience seemed to help a nervy back-line.
The long term succession plan will be that James replaces the Spaniard. At the age of 31, it is now time to start making that change and it seems Lampard has started to grease the wheels with his early selections. The pre-season injury to Azpilicueta helped him make the decision to start the campaign with James in the starting eleven. The next major question will be whether to persist with the academy graduate or bring the experienced leader back.
Starting the season with a goal and an assist has led to James’ attacking contributions being praised. It is clear that he is dynamic and has more weapons in his arsenal than Azpilicueta. Although the sample size is small, he is averaging 0.26 expected goal involvements (xG+xA) per ninety minutes. This is comparable to Timo Werner (0.27) and Mason Mount (0.26), while it is higher than Kai Havertz (0.14). It would be expected that Chelsea’s attacking numbers will increase over the coming weeks, but from the opening three matches, it has been the right-back that has impressed.
James has been one of only four players to feature in every Premier League minute to date, underlining how highly he is rated. An average of 3.33 shot creating actions per ninety minutes shows his consistency in the final third. Last season, he averaged 2.85 in this metric, compared to Azpilicueta’s 2.2. If Lampard can find the right balance in midfield, it will be preferable to have James in the team, as he can offer more with the ball.
This can again be shown by his passing contributions. He is leading the team in key passes with eight. Further to this, he has completed 24 progressive passes and 13 passes into the penalty area. James has been heavily involved in a lot of what has been good about the team in possession. It spoke volumes that Lampard trusted him to remain on the pitch at the weekend, despite a first-half yellow card.
An average of 4.7 tackles and interceptions per ninety minutes shows that James is effective at winning the ball back. to provide context, Alonso has started all three matches and averages 0.8 per ninety minutes. At times, James can be caught out with his positioning, but this is to be expected in a team as open as Chelsea and in his specific role. Azpilicueta would improve this aspect, but Lampard may see it as a worthy concession.
There has been a lot to like about James’ first three matches. There is still some development to do, but Chelsea are still in a period of transition and they should give him as many minutes as they can. In a season filled with football, there will be plenty of opportunities to start with Azpilicueta and extract the benefits of his experience.
Based on the recent reports of a fallout between Alonso and Lampard, it could be that Azpilicueta is considered the rotation option in both full-back positions. This coupled with his ability to play as a right-sided centre-back in a back three gives Lampard plenty of options and tactical flexibility.
It has been a slow start for Chelsea and it is clear that the team has a lot to do in order to reach the heights expected of them. However, the start of their young right-back should provide encouragement. He has the tools to be in the team for a very long time.