Not many Chelsea players covered themselves in glory in Saturday’s FA Cup final defeat to Leicester City, but the one player whose stock rose highest was ironically the man whose mistake ended up costing Chelsea the game.
Deployed as the right-sided centre-back, Reece James’ sloppy pass was intercepted by Ayoze Perez and ended up at the rocket-launching feet of Youri Tielemans, whose long-range screamer will be remembered as one of the best moments in cup final history.
It was a costly mistake from James, but it was the only downside in what was an otherwise outstanding performance from the young defender, whose display has given Thomas Tuchel a welcome dilemma.
A right-back by trade, James was shifted inside to help manage the pace of Leicester forward Jamie Vardy, whose attempt to rattle the youngster with a crunching tackle early missed its mark. James relished the scrappy brawl with Vardy, using his physicality to brush the forward aside and making it clear that he was there for a reason. Game on.
An outstanding athlete, James tracked Vardy from the first whistle to the last, putting in an excellent last-ditch tackle to deny the Leicester man and keeping his side in with a shot of victory.
He was Chelsea’s best player on the pitch, even though he’s a large part of the reason why they lost, and that says something about just how impressive James was throughout.
For long-term admirers of James, this performance was no surprise.
It was in this position that the young defender dominated academy football as part of Jody Morris’ Under-18 side who won two FA Youth Cups and two league titles between 2016 and 2018, putting in a particularly impressive performance against Manchester City’s Jadon Sancho in 2017.
Back then, it was the dynamic Dujon Sterling who dominated the wing-back role, but James’ talents were too good to be ignored. A fantastic defender with imposing physicality, the decision was made to switch him into a central role, and James excelled.
That experience worked in his advantage against Leicester as James looked right at home in a role which some painted as alien to him. He might not have played there much at senior level, but a lot of James’ learning actually came in this position.
While he may struggle as a traditional centre-back in a pairing, James could well be the perfect man for Tuchel’s back three, and you only have to look at what Antonio Rudiger offers on the other side for evidence of that.
The German is asked to be aggressive and push forward both in and out of possession. Tuchel wants Rudiger on the ball a lot and driving forwards, almost operating as an auxiliary left-back with his passing and balls into the box. He almost plays like a full-back.
That game is perfectly moulded to James’ strengths. With immense physicality, stamina and positioning, the youngster does all of those things as a wing-back already, and he does most of that to a higher level that Spaniard Cesar Azpilicueta, who has normally taken that third centre-back spot under Tuchel.
James did enough to prove he deserves more minutes in that central role, and with Chelsea on the lookout for a new centre-back this summer, his emergence may have just come at the perfect time.
If Tuchel plans to change to two-man defence next season, that new centre-back may still be needed. However, if he sticks to this three-man group, James is absolutely ideal.
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