Chelsea news: James has upper hand on Leao that Pioli needs to address if AC Milan are to stop Potter’s biggest threat.
The cat is out of the bag, it’s no surprise, everyone knows it. Reece James is a good footballer and he can do a bit of everything, basically perfectly too.
Can he play the cross-field parabolic pass to the opposing wingback, fullback, winger or randomly placed Thiago Silva? Of course. Can he receive the inverse cross-field parabolic pass from the opposing wingback, fullback, winger or randomly placed Thiago Silva and have it melt onto his chest like a piece of chocolate left on the sofa? Well, duh?
He’s just as good off the ball, and that’s a serious skill because on it he is able to bend the fabric of space and time to get crosses into unreachable corners of the universe. His body is a temple of Michelangelo sculpted proportions, biologically engineered to shove people off the ball or emit a force-field that stops opponents coming too close to him. Careful, this is a natural treasure.
If watchers weren’t too scared to rule out N’Golo Kante or Thiago Silva, there’s no harm in saying James is Chelsea’s best player, and by a distance too. There are players that are better defenders, though really not too many, and there are players that are better attackers. There aren’t many better defenders at attacking though and there certainly aren’t many players that have his attacking output and defend better.
In terms of an all-round game there aren’t many better anywhere. Joshua Kimmich is an example, but he’s not as effective, dangerous or outright scary as James is around opposition boxes, his movement from fullback to midfield does mirror a change that may well happen to James over time though.
In the 20 matches that James started last year in the league, Chelsea lost three, won 10 and drew seven, in those games he scored five and assisted nine, a contribution every 140 minutes, from fullback. If James was a FIFA player, you’d say he was cheating. If he had been around for more of the season then maybe things would have been a little bit different.
Doing it once is impressive, Leao, for all his defensive struggles, is a fantastic player and James’ job on him should be applauded, well done Reece, you won this round. Leao’s threat is always there, but James dealt with it. Against AC Milan at San Siro the story might be different. The Portuguese star will have a fresh chance to impose himself and impress those who rate him so highly. James’ decision to attach himself at the hip to Leao when Milan had the ball in the second-half was a mark of respect as much as anything else. The winger can’t be allowed to just do what he wants.
Going the other way is where Leao’s other problem comes in. He really is no use to Milan off the ball. His workrate makes Cristiano Ronaldo look like a prime candidate for Jurgen Klopp’s gegenpress. Leao, in-effect, elevates his side to 12 players on the ball but 10 when they lose possession. The opposite can be said of James, he’s almost like Kante with the way he snuffles out danger before it’s there. He’s not just a fullback, he’s an inside midfielder, a winger and a centre-back. Leao, for all his quality, is a winger and operates in a way that doesn’t help his teammates off-the-ball. Add in Olivier Giroud’s own lack of pace and James was able to bypass the non-existent press by accident.
If Stefano Pioli’s side allow James the same freedom and Leao doesn’t offer more then they will have the same trouble. The issue is that even if the 23-year-old does try to press James, it doesn’t guarantee anymore success. In a stat that ranks Premier League players for passing under pressure – deemed as with an opponent within two metres – James has the third best success rate.
He completes 87% of passes ‘under pressure’ and is only below Rodri and Bernardo Silva, good company. James is now toying with Leao like an animal eating food. Come on, come get the ball, you need to press, whoopsie, it’s gone.
If Pioli wants or needs Leao to press James more then he’s still playing a dangerous game, he could well be taken out of the equation anyway and that would leave Milan even more open to being played through. It’s a double edged sword, one that James wields with strength, power and confidence, and it’s the perfect trick for Graham Potter to have.