Chelsea risk ruining Reece James for everyone as possible negligence leads to injury setback

Will Ford
Chelsea defender Reece James comes off the pitch

Reece James has missed a third of the games in his career so far through injury and you would have thought Chelsea would take better care of their most prized asset.

“For him, the best thing is that he is playing football – the World Cup is finished now and he can concentrate on playing football,” Graham Potter said ahead of James’ first action since injuring his knee at the start of October.

He “concentrated on playing football” for 53 minutes against Bournemouth before limping off again having aggravated the same knee.

James Ralph, his personal trainer, posted a not-particularly-cryptic message on Instagram having seen one of his Chelsea clients struck down. Accompanied by a frustrated emoji, a crying emoji and a zipped-mouth emoji, Ralph wrote: ‘I need to bite my tongue despite having a LOT to say.’

And that suggested display of negligence came a week after Wesley Fofana, who’s also been out since the start of October, suffered a similar setback in a behind-closed-doors friendly. It’s probably a coincidence, and we can in no way be sure that Chelsea have shown any less care over their players than others, no matter how much we pore over arcane social media posts. But what they can do is make changes to ensure James, who is perennially out through injury, isn’t quite so important to them.

Chelsea are a far, far better team with James in the starting XI. It was no coincidence that they produced their best attacking display under Potter on Tuesday. He’s very quick, impossibly strong, incredibly calm, reads the game beautifully, can cross the ball on to a dinner plate and, as Thomas Tuchel said, “shoots like a horse”.

Apart from anything else, James is another attacking outlet for opposition teams to worry about, unlike the only other recognised option in his position, Cesar Azpilicueta who, even in his prime, had nowhere near the range of qualities James possesses.

Club legend though he is, having won everything possible in his decade-long stint at Chelsea, Premier League football has moved on from Azpilicueta as a starting right-back. His best form came as a right centre-back in Antonio Conte’s title-winning team, and he remains a serviceable replacement in that role should Potter opt for a back three, or as a substitute right-back to bring on when seeing out a game. But he’s too limited to be even a short to medium-term backup option for James, whose absence is currently felt far too significantly, to the extent where him at 80 per cent capacity is better than the alternative.

That simply shouldn’t be the case at a club that spent over £250m in the summer and are linked with £105m players in positions where they are comparatively well stocked.

Owing to James’ rise, Chelsea haven’t signed a right back since 2017, when both Emerson and Davide Zappacosta joined the club. It’s that negligence that’s the problem, and must be remedied in January, to avoid the continuation of a state of affairs which has seen James  miss 67 games – almost exactly a third of his senior career thus far – through injury. Chelsea need not need him quite so badly.

Celtic’s Josip Juranovic, who impressed for Croatia at the World Cup, keeps being mentioned. Denzel Dumfries is another option from Inter Milan, with whom Chelsea have built a good relationship through recent deals for Romelu Lukaku and Cesare Casadei.

It’s likely to a be a difficult sell, particularly to Dumfries, who’s already starting for a Champions League side, to arrive at Chelsea in the knowledge that a fit James is going to be first choice. But the closer the transfer can be in quality to the main man, the less angst there will be over future injuries.

A right-back should be Chelsea’s priority in January, as they will ruin James for themselves, England, James himself, and those of us watching if they continue to not be able to function without him.