The ‘what might have been’ in the minds of Chelsea fans this season centres around their wing-backs. The last time Reece James and Ben Chilwell both played in the same team for Chelsea was in the 3-0 win over Leicester – way back on 20 November. The Blues were top of the league, three points clear of Manchester City and four clear of Liverpool. Chilwell hasn’t played since and James has started just four Premier League games this year.
It’s overly simplistic to put Chelsea’s struggles solely down to their absence. Wider issues – not least the off-field controversy – have blighted Thomas Tuchel’s side this season. But a three-way title race became a head-to-head as soon as Chelsea lost the pair key to their Champions League success.
How might Liverpool have fared without Andrew Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold? They may not have drifted from contention to quite the same degree as Chelsea, but it’s unlikely they would still be locking horns with Manchester City; talk of the quadruple would not have got off the ground.
Chelsea, like Liverpool, rely hugely on the attacking output and balance their brilliant wide men provide, and that dependance has cost Tuchel and the club dear this season. Marcos Alonso has filled in admirably for Chilwell, but is limited by his lack of pace, while the wide variety of other stop-gaps, from Malang Sarr to Ruben Loftus-Cheek, have either failed dramatically to meet the standard required, or lacked the consistency and threat of their illustrious counterparts.
With this season – FA Cup final besides – fading to nothing, and with Chelsea currently facing next term without one world class player in Antonio Rudiger, 90min understands that the club is focusing on tying both Chilwell and James down to new and improved deals, with James the priority.
If you were to build the perfect modern full-back, someone very similar to Reece James would emerge at the end of the production line. He combines extraordinary physicality with wonderful technique and football know-how beyond his meagre 22 years. He’s played at wing-back, full-back, centre-back and in central midfield and would probably do a pretty decent job leading the line or with the gloves on. He’s a jack of all trades and master of most of them.
Real Madrid – who have seen his brilliance firsthand in the Champions League this season and last – have been linked with an audacious move in recent days. But 90min understands that Chelsea’s plans to offer James a new deal are not thought be as a direct result of the La Liga giants’ interest.
The Cobham academy graduate is currently under contract until 2025 but is among the club’s lowest earners, with his weekly wage thought to be around £60,000 per week, around half what Callum Hudson-Odoi takes home. Chelsea are looking to extend his deal by a year or two and their desire to do so is thought to be more to do with paying him what he’s worth rather than over any undue concern he may leave his boyhood club.
James is the present and future of Chelsea: vital to the football Tuchel wants to play; already one of the best in his position with the potential for at least another decade of bullying forwards, raiding down the wing, delivering pinpoint crosses and smashing balls into the top corner at Stamford Bridge.
James and Chilwell’s absence has made Chelsea hearts grow fonder this season, to the extent where challenging for the league or Champions League looks impossible without them. With a grand recent history of transfer mistakes, the new Chelsea owners must control what they can, and offering new deals to the players – whom without this season has imploded – would give them much-needed certainty in uncertain times.