Chelsea fans eagerly await Reece James’ return to fitness. He is both the heir to the right back spot and also part of a lot of hype.
Cesar Azpilicueta has struggled under the weight of a world of “modern fullbacks.” Fullbacks cannot just be defenders anymore; they now have to be adept at getting forward and crossing but they also need to hustle back. It is an incredibly niche type of player, not unlike a wingback, that has forced a lot of good players to go unnoticed and others to fall by the wayside like Azpilicueta.
Now Azpilicueta certainly has struggled with the start of Chelsea’s season. And his spot should not be guaranteed simply because he is the captain. He absolutely can and should do better because behind him is Reece James.
James has missed the entirety of preseason with injury. When he is fit, there is a belief that he will walk right into the starting lineup over Azpilicueta. Right now James is the heir to the role. But he is also coated in a sheet of hype that is somewhat dubious.
James was one of the Championship’s brightest stars and by and far Wigan’s best player. He seemed to do all the jobs of a fullback or a midfielder with ease compared to anyone else with him on the field. But underneath all of that was a certain kind of rawness to his style. At times it looked unpolished, but he was simply so much better than everyone else that he could work his way through it.
And that is where both the heir and hype come in. Is Reece James the Chelsea right back of the future? Almost certainly and perhaps even by the end of the season. But that does not mean he is the Chelsea right back of the present. He is not the finished article yet.
The biggest thing in James’ favor right now is Frank Lampard’s continued unprompted mentions of him. That is as much of a show of support for him as it is a challenge to Azpilicueta. This kid is coming captain; it is up to you to fend him off.
This is also not quite the same situation as Mason Mount or Tammy Abraham. Both have a few years of experience under their belts but both also do not have much of a barrier to entry into the Chelsea starting XI. Whatever barrier they did have, they used preseason to push through it. James still has that barrier but he missed the preseason to make his case.
So no, he is not walking right into the lineup over Azpilicueta, especially if Azpilicueta turns his form around. James will, however, get a chance just like everyone else. But he has quite a ways to go before anyone can start talking about crowning him a starter yet.
James is good and will be even better. But let him get fit first and then see if he can overcome Azpilicueta on the training pitch. Azpilicueta will push him hard and he will need to show something special to unseat him. It is entirely doable, but it is by no means the guarantee that some are making it out to be.