Profiling Chelsea's Reece James: The versatile defender who could be the jewel in Lampard's crown | SK Wonderkids
The youth movement is in full swing at Chelsea right now, and the development of their academy products might be the most exciting thing to watch in the Premier League this season. Could it really be possible that the club’s FIFA-imposed transfer ban and the appointment of club legend Frank Lampard as manager has inadvertently led to them unearthing the best crop of youngsters since Manchester United’s ‘Class of 1992’?
Thus far most of the hype surrounding Chelsea’s youngsters has centred around three players: striker Tammy Abraham, playmaker Mason Mount and central defender Fikayo Tomori. All three men have picked up their first senior international caps after starring for the Blues this season, with Abraham and Mount both scoring international goals too.
There can be no doubt, though, that the next name to really make waves at Stamford Bridge will be versatile 19-year old Reece James, who made his senior debut a few weeks ago and already seems destined for stardom with the Blues – and probably with England too.
A London local, James joined Chelsea’s academy at the age of 6, and from there he made his way through the Blues’ various academy sides until he made some noise in 2017/18, captaining the club’s U-18 team to win the prestigious FA Youth Cup. This victory came after James had helped England’s U-19 side to win the European Championship the previous summer.
It was unsurprising that James was sent out on loan in 2018/19, but considering the season was set to be his debut one in terms of senior football, a move to EFL Championship club Wigan Athletic sounded like a tricky one for him. It wouldn’t have been surprising to see James simply gain experience largely from the bench, but instead, the teenager did far better than anyone could’ve expected.
Speaking on his dedication to his craft, James said,
“When you’re young, it feels like you can play 24 hours a day. When I wasn’t playing with Chelsea, I was training with my dad and, when I came home, I’d still play with everyone in the area in the park behind my house. We’d play all night. I’ve never really stopped.”
Despite the Championship being a notoriously tough league for young players, James appeared to slot into the team at Wigan with no issues at all. Playing either as a right-back or often as a holding midfielder, James made 45 league appearances at the DW Stadium, 44 of them in the starting XI – meaning he missed just one match.
Wigan often struggled in 2018/19, finishing 18th in the Championship table – just 4 places above the relegation zone – but James had a fantastic season. The England youngster scored 3 goals and made 3 assists too, and cleaned up at Wigan’s end-of-season awards, taking home the trophies for Player of the Year, Player’s Player of the Year and also Goal of the Season, awarded for his 25-yard strike against Bristol City.
Once it was clear that Chelsea would definitely be under a transfer ban for 2019/20, hardcore Blues fans immediately began to clamour for James to be given his chance at Stamford Bridge – particularly due to the advanced age of first-choice right-back Cezar Azpilicueta – and under Frank Lampard it’s come as no surprise that he’s now broken into the first-team squad.
James made his senior debut in Chelsea’s 7-1 win over Grimsby in the EFL Cup, and in October, he made his Champions League debut, playing at right wing-back in the Blues’ 1-2 victory over Lille. Since then, James has largely made appearances from the substitutes’ bench – but most recently he was selected to start at right-back against Crystal Palace, and won plaudits for dealing with the dangerous Wilfried Zaha throughout the game. And earlier this month, he became Chelsea’s youngest Champions League goalscorer when he found the net in the epic 4-4 draw with Ajax.
James’ biggest strength is, well, his strength. Clearly a gifted natural athlete, James is remarkably strong but fast too, and his build – like a stocky fireplug – means that he’s almost impossible to knock off the ball when he’s on the move, something that helped him immensely in 2018/19 in the overly physical EFL Championship.
Add in some powerful tackling skills and a tremendous passing range that almost belies his physicality, and you have a player with almost no weaknesses. Of course, even James isn’t perfect; we’ve seen on a handful of occasions that he might have too much faith in his abilities. Against Crystal Palace, he seemed too willing at times to look for trickier options on the field – a dribble or an ambitious long ball – rather than the simple pass, but at 19 he’s certainly got time to solve that issue, and experience will obviously help.
Chelsea manager Frank Lampard said,
"I just felt we could get Reece some minutes and he’s deserved them with the way he’s trained and played. With Zaha I thought what better test? Every team has players that can hurt you on the counter attack and he’s one of the best. I thought could we hurt them the other way and make him run back more than forwards. I’ve got trust in Reece defensively. It was a really impressive game from him and he’ll get much better."
Is his best position as a right-back? I’m not so sure personally. He looked fantastic from central midfield for Wigan last season and some of his attributes – the physical strength, the wide passing range, his ability to drift past opponents – is reminiscent to me of the great Edgar Davids. But then moving him from right-back does negate another strong point of his: crossing the ball.
At any rate, James still has plenty of time to find his best position; he’s just 19 years old and to tell the truth, being versatile probably won’t do him much harm for club and country in the future. It seems only a matter of time before he’s out of the shadow of his more established teammates – a starting spot at Chelsea could be his before the end of the season, and to see him pick up his first England senior caps wouldn’t be surprising either.