The role of the full-back is the one position in football that has changed more than any other on the pitch, except maybe the goalkeeper. As Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville argued over, the end line is that a full-back needs to be a failed winger rather than a failed centre-back nowadays. Reece James and Ben Chilwell certainly fit the initial mould.
However, old school though it may sound, defenders need to defend. If a full-back is so good at attacking that they can claim upwards of 10-15 assists per season, but they are also costing their side goals at the other end, let alone the strain of being out of position in transition and also having to tactically prepare for all of this, should a full-back not play somewhere else?
Without this becoming a full-on assault towards Liverpool’s admittedly remarkable full-backs, their output over the last two-and-a-half seasons has been staggering but also unsustainable. Andrew Robertson has had more touches this season than any other player, second-placed? Trent Alexander-Arnold.
But, considering these two are also in part responsible for defending Allison’s goal, their touches are so advanced on the pitch it is impossible to cover both ends of the pitch and be as effective as they have been, and keep it up. No wonder Liverpool have already conceded 15 goals this season.
How this works at Chelsea
So, when it comes to Frank Lampard developing his team identity; having a high pressing, fluid, and also defensively solid side in and out of transition, it is vital that he has the tools to pull it off. Two of the biggest tools in the team are without a doubt the two full-backs.
People will jump to criticise those who continue to give Lampard time, claiming that Chelsea was first waiting for Loftus-Cheek to return followed by Christian Pulisic, followed by Thiago Silva, duly followed by Ben Chilwell, a perfect attacking line-up and also one of Declan Rice or Ethan Ampadu in January. The point is that some believe Lampard is clutching at straws and waiting for all the stars to align before being judged, that isn’t the case.
However, one position not mentioned so far in this time giving scenario is Chelsea’s right and left-backs, except for Marcos Alonso but he has been so far outcasted that he really isn’t even a dot on the horizon, he may as well be looking for houses in whichever sunny European nation he fancies.
“There’s a star-man playing on the right…”
And he’s only 20-years old but plays with the maturity of a retired pro, the quality of a player with bundles more experience, and the coolness of someone who knows that their work is only just starting. Reece James, what a player.
Arguably Chelsea’s best player so far this season, James has brought solidity to a backline that has lacked it. His arrogant elegance makes him glide across the pitch whilst he brushes players aside with worrying ease. For someone in just their third senior season and only their second Premier League campaign, James looks like he has been here all his life.
Moreover, James’ importance to Chelsea and to Lampard comes not from solely his quality, but the balance he brings to the squad and what that balance means to the rest of the team.
James’ role this season
Full-backs are the stabilisers on a bike, the front wheel on a reliant robin, the pendulum on a clock. When they are there, in high quality, the whole complexion of a team changes.
James specifically has the ability to come inside the pitch, as an inverted full-back, allowing central midfielders to either push on or move out wide, therefore creating more avenues for attack. In the case, as it was against Burnley, James was able to give Hakim Ziyech the space to do whatever he wanted. He was granted not only space but the time that space brings, Ziyech is far too good of a player to not make use of time on a football pitch. But, when you see Ziyech floating around in space you don’t see James, there is no tangible reward for his movement, but recognising it will give you an immense appreciation for what James brings Chelsea through his intelligence and versatility while playing.
A manager’s dream
These aren’t instructions or tactical plans, they are just extra opportunities that smart players will exploit when playing. Defensively, if James again comes inside it can help to crowd out the midfield and help Chelsea look stronger in a defensive transition. This is again another example of Lampard’s identity, a high press doesn’t always need to be players sprinting and chasing the ball as it is passed around the opposition goalmouth. It can be the positioning and awareness to squeeze up the pitch in a transition and to snuff out danger before it even arrives, James brings all of this Chelsea, even if you don’t see him win the ball back like N’Golo Kante.
This is without even starting on James’ quality and the end product that he brings in the final third. His crossing? There’s a reason he now takes corners and free kicks, he has serious quality from these positions. As seen against Burnley, a link-up between Tammy Abraham and Reece James is one that is only just starting to blossom, it is almost inevitable that the pair will find themselves joining together to make more goals.
Visible Improvement: Reece James
Last season, James seemed a bit scared and hasty when attacking but this season already you can see the calmness he has when carrying the ball forward. He wants the ball, he is confident that he can produce wherever he has it and as touched on before, he has the intelligence and awareness to be in a good position for a turnover. It is his unflappable confidence and drive that makes him such a key component to Chelsea’s side this season.
With Alonso and James, there is imbalance because the Spaniard insists on being 30-yards out of position no matter where the ball is, therefore he either makes James look out of position himself (eg. West Brom away) or James looks uninterested and too passive.
Step up, Ben Chilwell.
£50 million well spent
The Englishman has truly taken to Chelsea like a duck to water and added much more than a competent corner taker to Lampard’s Arsenal. Chilwell, like James, brings so much that isn’t seen to Chelsea. His positioning in relation to James, the two centre-backs and his midfield is vital to the balance that Chelsea have shown in the fleeting versions of 4-3-3 that we have seen. It shouldn’t be a surprise that since Chilwell has been introduced into this Chelsea side they have not only scored 14 goals but have only conceded 3 in the 6 games he has started.
In tandem, James and Chilwell sort Chelsea out in the full-back position for 10 years. They really are just getting started at Stamford Bridge. The whole side right now brings the best out of each other and that is a perfect point for a manager and a team to be at. But so much of this balance comes from the full-backs that James and Chilwell simply can’t receive too much praise.
Written by Tom Coley @tomcoley49
Edited by Jai Mcintosh @jjmcintosh5