WHEN Gareth Southgate was asked about his apparent obsession with right-backs, after selecting four from his initial Euro squad, the England boss gave an interesting answer.
“You feel like you are looking at four right-backs,” Southgate replied, “I only see four good footballers.”
He might have added that Reece james, Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier are four of the best English.
And the more you watch James as he emerges in world class status, the more you understand the wisdom of Southgate’s lyrics.
James is not a traditional right-back, or even a typical right-back.
The 21-year-old Chelsea the man is on the verge of becoming a complete footballer.
Having produced a defensive masterclass to pocket Raheem Sterling in the Champions League final victory over Manchester City, James is the top scorer of the season for the Premier League leaders.
When his teammate Christian Pulisic was asked if James could remain the top scorer, he replied: “Honestly, the way he hits the ball, I wouldn’t be surprised.
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“He helps the team in so many ways. The sky is the limit for him.
James has already scored five goals and five assists in all competitions – Mohamed Salah being the only other Premier League player to have achieved that feat.
Even Roberto Carlos, with his famous Hollywood free-kicks, has never scored more than five league goals in a season. James has four in November.
But even Galactico’s Brazilian left-back lacked James’ final prowess in open play.
As Joe Cole noted, after another james bravery display in the 4-0 demolition of Juventus on Tuesday, the Londoner has “the technique and composure of a top striker.”
Mastering the role of the full back is perhaps the most difficult in football – it requires speed, endurance and intelligence to decipher the best time to use these attributes, along with crosses and defenses. individual.
But James has more than that in his locker – he’s a deadly finisher, too.
When last month’s visit to Newcastle ended in a draw after 65 minutes, James settled the game with a cushioned strikeout with his right foot and a left foot finish, followed by a banger with his right.
Against Juve, James forced two fine saves from Wojciech Szczesny before lowering his chest and squeezing Chelsea’s second goal.
Thomas Tuchel demands his full-backs play exceptionally high – initially preferring specialist winger Callum Hudson-Odoi to the right-back.
So it’s unlikely that this will be a one-time purple patch for James.
Those who have worked with James, on loan at Wigan internationally, speak of a relentless desire to improve in all directions.
There were hiccups – Bayern Munich’s electric widebody Alphonso Davies toasted James in a 3-0 home Champions League loss early last year – and he would be fascinating to see these two young people start over.
And there was a red card for England last fall when James unusually lost his head on the final whistle of a home loss to Denmark.
Full-backs have long been underestimated in England. None have ever been voted PFA player of the year.
And Ashley Cole, perhaps England’s greatest full-back, never received the respect he deserved, even though he wasn’t as complete a player as James promises.
Back to Southgate, then – and an admission many of us have fallen into the trap of believing in the caricature of boring and defensive old Gareth.
England’s last two correct games, against Hungary and Albania, have proven that team sheets can often be misleading.
With James out against Hungary, Southgate sent in four attacking players and five attacking players, but England missed a 1-1 draw.
But when it came down to a 3-4-3 against supposedly decent Albania, England were five at halftime, with James creeping in.
It will surely be the model for next year’s World Cup – with Walker in the last three, James at the back and Alexander-Arnold as a replacement.
England reached the Euro final without Ben Chilwell and James was only used in the goalless draw against Scotland.
Now this Chelsea duo threaten to become an English version of Carlos and Cafu or the excellent French duo of 1998 World Cup winner Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu.
As Southgate has said, we need to stop thinking of James as just a right-back.