Do Chelsea have the Premier League’s most complete right-back?

Date published: Thursday 16th January 2020 8:36

With Japhet Tanganga again impressing on his second start for Spurs in their 2-1 win over Middlesbrough on Tuesday, the Big Six all have an Englishman at right-back. Gone are the days of no-one wanting to grow up to be like Gary Neville – the Premier League is now graced with a ludicrous number of high-quality, homegrown footballers in that formerly unfashionable position.

And there’s now a diversity of playing style far more typical among strikers or central midfielders: the one that can cross really well; the one that can tackle anyone; the one that can run fast; the one that’s not Serge Aurier; the one that plays out of position. But Chelsea boast the most well-rounded of all of them.

Reece James was superb as he claimed two assists in Chelsea’s 3-0 win over Burnley on Saturday, and in contrast to his main rivals vying for what must be the most hotly contested international position in world football, he is equally as good at one thing as he is at another.

The classic caveat on the brilliance of Trent Alexander-Arnold is that he can’t defend – which isn’t true. The fact that Liverpool haven’t conceded a Premier League goal in the last seven games makes any attempt to belittle his defensive improvement ridiculous. But where he does still fall short is how easily he’s dribbled past – rather more often than James per 90 minutes (1.3 v 0.8); there’s still a sense that any joy against Liverpool will come either outside Alexander-Arnold or between him and England team-mate Joe Gomez – they don’t always appear to be on the same wavelength. And such is his competitiveness, he always looks on the edge of doing something reckless. There’s no particular evidence of this, just a feeling when he grimaces and bites down on his tongue as he leaves his foot in a tackle or goes for man as well as ball. Maybe not.

And while this is not the time to highlight Aaron Wan-Bissaka’s inability in the attacking third – that time was back in November – a solitary assist and no goals since then has done nothing to change the narrative that the United right-back is nowhere near as good in attack as he is in defending his own box.

It would be tough to argue that James is as creative as Alexander-Arnold or as assured as Aaron Wan-Bissaka in defence – it’s hard to think of anyone as good at either discipline. But it’s the combination of skills that sets James apart from his more illustrious counterparts – he looks and feels like a modern full-back.

He shares the unerring ability – with Alexander-Arnold – to whip a cross at pace into the corridor of uncertainty between goalkeeper and defence; he’s joined him aboard the hyperbole-filled David Beckham comparison bandwagon. Where he betters the Liverpool man is in his ability to power past defenders to provide those assists – he’s quicker and stronger.

And while his defensive technique differs hugely from Wan-Bissaka, opposition teams will soon realise they will get similarly short shrift from James when attempting to attack down his side. The United full-back’s game is all based on timing – sticking a gangly leg out to stop a winger mid-dribble, whereas James appears to lure them into trying to go past him, before beating them for pace or shrugging them off if they come anywhere near him.

This isn’t to say the 20-year-old doesn’t make mistakes; he dawdles on the ball from to time to time and very occasionally plays an errant pass. But these are signs of inexperience rather than technical inadequacies needing anything other than minutes on the pitch and the consistent engagement of brain to body that comes with age.

Of the other Big Six right-backs, it’s probably Ainsley Maitland-Niles who is closest to James in terms of equality of skills across the board. But he seems little more than a serviceable option for Arsenal and has perhaps been a victim of his in-and-out career at the Emirates, as they continually wait for Hector Bellerin to make more than a brief appearance from the treatment table. Ex-pat Kieron Trippier is another in the all-rounder full-back category, and given his resurgence at Atletico Madrid it may take time for Gareth Southgate – who has all but professed his love for the former Spurs man – to realise James’ obvious superior quality. But he will.

And we’ve taken it upon ourselves to retire Kyle Walker from international football short of his 30th birthday – not because he’s got any worse, but because he’s got no better, which has made him look a whole lot worse in comparison to the smorgasbord of right-back talent England now has available.

James may just be the success story of a Chelsea season laden with academy triumphs. And while there has been puffery surrounding some of Chelsea’s other young stars, in James’ case the hype may be justified as he’s the perfect modern-day full-back.

 

Will Ford is on Twitter

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