Reece James and the thrilling rise that Chelsea might have blocked
Scintillating displays are a tribute to Thomas Tuchel and the academy at a club that appeared close to signing Achraf Hakimi
It turns out that Chelsea had no reason to spend any money on strengthening their right flank last summer. There was no need to rival Paris Saint-Germain for the signature of Achraf Hakimi when they already had Reece James, whose scintillating display against Juventus on Tuesday night provided Chelsea with yet another reminder to trust in their brilliant academy.
The beauty of it for the Stamford Bridge faithful was that James was not the only homegrown hero leading the charge against the Italian club. The opening goal came from Trevoh Chalobah, a 22-year-old centre-back who looked likely to leave at the end of last season, and there was a made-in-Cobham feel to the move that saw the European champions go 3-0 up just before the hour. Ruben Loftus-Cheek, who had come on for the injured N’Golo Kanté, danced through before feeding Callum Hudson-Odoi and Thomas Tuchel was on the pitch when the ball flew into the Juventus net, whipping up the crowd and punching the air as he savoured his side producing arguably the most complete performance of his 10-month tenure.
For the manager, it was a night that showed “what makes teams special”. The German spoke about the mix of his squad, revelling in the blend of “superstars from abroad” and academy graduates, and again demonstrated that he is fully invested in Chelsea’s future. Unlike many of his predecessors, Tuchel has realised that the academy is capable of making the first team stronger and he has devoted time to improving Chelsea’s array of gifted youngsters, evidence of which is captured by how quickly James has become one of the world’s best players in his position.
Not so long ago there were a few doubts over what the ceiling was for James. There was a naivety to the 21-year-old’s defending at times and it was not always obvious how refined he was on the ball. He did not appear to be quite as gifted as Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, who seemed certain to become England’s first-choice right-back two years ago, and James’s form had plummeted by the time Frank Lampard’s time at Chelsea came to an end last January.
James needed to produce more and Tuchel did not seem fully convinced at first, even after watching the youngster produce an impeccable performance when Chelsea beat Manchester City in the Champions League final last season. The victory over City was followed by Chelsea looking to buy a right-sided player and they came close to signing Hakimi from Internazionale, only for the exciting Moroccan full-back to join PSG.
Free to nail down a starting spot at wing-back, James has seized his chance. He has dominated the right flank and was sensational against Juventus, whether tracking back to subdue the dangerous Federico Chiesa, rampaging forward to burst into crossing positions or drifting inside to link with Jorginho and Kanté in midfield.
The standout moment, of course, was the venomous shot that made it 2-0 in the 55th minute. It was James’s fifth goal of the season, making him Chelsea’s top scorer, and a glorious exhibition of his technique and power. Yet there was more to the England international’s performance than his goal. It was also a tactically refined and highly technical display from James, interesting in the way that he did not stay glued to the touchline, instead confusing Juventus with his ability to move into central areas, and an eye for a pass that gives Tuchel’s team even more variety and invention in the final third.
The range of the delivery was impressive. There was an early free-kick that almost caught out Wojciech Szczesny at his near post, underlining James’s dead-ball threat, and he rarely looked flustered in possession. His short passing was polished and his long passing incisive, most notably when his diagonal ball allowed Hakim Ziyech to set up Timo Werner for the fourth goal in added time. He also went close with an ambitious free-kick in the first half.
Juventus had been devoured. But they were not the first team to suffer at the hands of a player whose versatility, adaptability and technique make him ideally suited to playing for Tuchel. There was a rampaging display against Arsenal in August, a lovely dinked effort in the 7-0 thrashing of Norwich and two thrilling blasts against Newcastle last month. “We don’t need to do shooting exercises in training with Reece,” Tuchel said after the win over Newcastle. “He shoots like a horse.”
The power is breathtaking at times and the natural ability is not too shabby either. It is no wonder that Gareth Southgate, England’s manager, believes that James can be “anything he wants to be”. He is a special talent and, for Chelsea, his performances should be a source of immense pride in the rise of their academy.