Is Reece James the world's best right back?
"Messi at RB" was the phrase we used around here to describe Reece James's role during his loan at Wigan in 2018-19. Even at a club that finished 18th out of 24 in the Championship, his attacking talent was almost supernatural – and downright mindboggling for an 18-year-old. He dribbled. He crossed. He linked up the play. He shot. He scored. Was there anything he couldn't do?
Coming from a footballing family probably helped James's development, but this smarterscout young prospect was doing things that no one else had ever done, at least not in our database. And then he did this:
James's first season at Chelsea showed that his performances at Wigan were far from a fluke. In a more regimented role, with his dribbling and crossing markedly reduced, he still maintained extremely high attacking output. He became a more aggressive defender, too, with a substantial improvement in quality.
Given the change of role and team playing style, it was no surprise that James's ball retention also shot up at Chelsea. The change was more impressive than it looked at first glance, however. Last season, James came inside more often and attempted risky passes closer to the edge of the penalty area, as these smartermaps show:
It's also worth noting that James's attacking output only came down slightly despite the fact that he was no longer his club's designated corner taker – from both sides.
Fast-forward to this season, and James is close to breaking to scale in every major metric. Across his minutes in the Premier League and Champions League, only one of his eight model ratings is below 90. He's also well above average both ways in ground duels and excellent in the air on dead balls (though he could still get better!). He's only average at aerials in open play, which is sort of comforting for the rest of the human race. Less comforting are his involvement statistics:
James has been involved in just over half of Chelsea's moves leading to shots in the Premier League and the Champions League. But he's had a part in a far greater share of Chelsea's expected goals, which weight those shots by the quality of the chances. And yes, you read those numbers correctly – while playing RB, he's had a touch during every single move that led to a goal, 100% in both competitions.
That last statistic may be hard to keep up for the rest of the season; goals are idiosyncratic, after all. Moreover, only three players have come close to James's model ratings at RB in the past couple of seasons – Andre Almeida, Serge Aurier, and Juan Cuadrado – and none for as many minutes as James has played in the Premier League this term. In other words, they look like blips.
Another caveat is that Chelsea attack through their fullbacks more than most clubs, and that might be helping James's numbers. Yet there are reasons to believe that James could continue to perform at this astronomical level. For one thing, his ratings are actually not too different from the ones he posted last season. And we'd be foolish to think that a 20-year-old had already reached his ceiling. Right?
Well, there happens to be another RB in the Premier League and Champions League who had an outstanding campaign at age 20. Trent Alexander-Arnold is 22 now, and his numbers so far this season have been similar to the ones he put up in 2018-19, except for slightly less impressive defending:
Alexander-Arnold became a regular for Liverpool at age 19, halfway through the 2017-18 season. Now he's had about four full seasons as a starter in the highest tiers of global football. Most young talents would begin this stage of their careers at age 22 or 23 and finish it at age 26 or 27, the time that we usually think of as their athletic peak. So in effect, Alexander-Arnold began this stage three or four years early. Is it possible that he's at his peak now? And does that mean James could be at his peak in a couple of seasons?
Perhaps. In a few other sports, it's an established fact that age in competition can matter more than biological age. But at this point, James seems to be on an uphill climb with no peak in sight. Let's enjoy the views along the way.
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[Photo: James Boyes]