Reece James was one of the standout players during Chelsea’s Champions League final defeat of Manchester City. N’Golo Kante and Kai Havertz rightly stole the headlines, but their young English team-mate wasn’t far behind them on the night. During a week filled with speculation about the England right back position, James put his marker down on Saturday night. It will be hard for Gareth Southgate to now leave him out of the final 26.
In the first half, James twice showed his recovery pace and power, as he got back to dispossess Raheem Sterling when the City attacker looked to be in on goal. Although some will blame Sterling for losing the ball, his international team-mate did excellently to get back goal side. During the final, he made seven tackles and was dribbled past just twice. On both occasions, he won the ball back from Sterling.
His ability to win back the ball was key in preventing City from creating any clear cut chances. James made more than twice as many tackles as any other player on the pitch. Chelsea did have to rely on last ditch defending to maintain their lead in the second half. Their academy graduate was at the heart of that, as he made five clearances in the match.
In possession, James was integral to Chelsea and a lot of their play went through him. The right-back had 80 touches of the ball. This was more than any other player in his team. The 21-year-old made one key pass and completed three of his four attempted dribbles. It was an influential display from the academy graduate and it may be looked back on as a breakthrough moment for James.
It has been a good season for James, but he has been in and out of the side since Thomas Tuchel took charge. The German likes to rotate his squad, but it speaks volumes that he trusted James in the biggest match of their season. The faith was repaid and then some, with Chelsea’s right-hand side being their biggest asset on Saturday night.
The next step for James will be to avoid being cut from the England squad when Southgate decreases the size to 26. One of James, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier or Trent Alexander-Arnold is likely to miss out. Although the England manager tried to suggest all four could coexist in the same squad, it seems unlikely that all go to the tournament.
This isn’t an article to dissect the decision Southgate will have to make. It is clear that all four are worthy of a place in the final 26, but it will now be particularly difficult to drop James. Some would argue he is the most complete of the four, with strong attributes in defence and attack. There are still areas to improvement, but he has just played a key role in the biggest club match of the season.
The debate will now centre on whether James should start against Croatia in the first group game, rather than any talk about him missing the squad.