Chelsea’s 2-0 win over Arsenal was all about Romelu Lukaku and how he tore a hole through the Gunners’ defence, but the Belgian striker wasn’t the only man dominating proceedings.
From the right wing, Reece James absolutely ran the show. He set up Lukaku’s opening goal and fired home one of his own before the break, tearing apart the only Arsenal defender most felt had any chance of stopping him, Kieran Tierney, with ease.
This was the kind of performance Chelsea fans have known James is capable of for years now, and it looks like the pieces could be falling into place for the 21-year-old to take his game to even higher heights over the coming season.
For starters, the role Thomas Tuchel has played should not be understated. His switch to a 3-4-2-1 formation gives James all the freedom in the world to attack, and the full-back is at his best when charging at defenders and heading for the byline.
He’s still tasked with doing his fair share defensively, but with Cesar Azpilicueta behind him, James knows he can focus more on creating chances and scoring goals, and in Lukaku, he’s finally got somebody in the middle ready to finish off those chances.
Ever since his days in the academy, James has been known as Chelsea’s best crosser of the ball and one of the most versatile attacking weapons on the books at Stamford Bridge, but he hasn’t always had the statistics to back that up.
For all his abilities, James has managed just two assists in each of the last two Premier League seasons, which pales in comparison to a direct rival like Trent Alexander-Arnold, who managed 20 across the same period.
James’ numbers might not look as impressive, but they don’t tell the whole story. Like everyone at Chelsea, he has struggled with the lack of an out-and-out goalscorer in the squad over the past few seasons and having nobody to get on the end of his runs.
Just 90 minutes alongside Lukaku, and we can see that’s all about to change.
Against Arsenal, not only was Lukaku there to get on the end of a cross from James, but his overall style of play helped bring the best out of the young right-back.
With Lukaku occupying centre-backs and dragging defenders out of position just with his presence, there was significantly more space in which James could work. He’d find himself one-on-one with Tierney and often had an overload with Mason Mount or Kai Havertz because neither of the centre-backs could afford to get over to help.
Had Rob Holding or Pablo Mari left Lukaku, it would have been game over in the centre, so the Arsenal pair had to gamble and stick with the striker – a risk that ultimately did not pay off.
James was left to run riot, and he did so to the tune of nine crosses, four created chances, four shots, one goal and one assist.
It was close to perfection from the youngster, who had a nervy penalty shout against him waved away during the first half. Apart from that, it was everything Tuchel could have possibly wanted from a full-back.
James played like he had a bit of a chip on his shoulder. After all, he watched as Chelsea tried and failed to sign Achraf Hakimi, arguably the best right wing-back on the planet, earlier this summer. Tuchel clearly wanted a little more from him.
With Lukaku in to help out, James can hit that level. He can continue his development and prove himself as one of the premier players in his position.