When Reece James joined Wigan Athletic on loan for the 2018/19 Championship season, many tipped the youngster to raise a lot of eyebrows.
The 20-year-old proved to Chelsea why he was going to be the man to take the right-back spot at Stamford Bridge and make it his own in the years to come.
A hard working defender
The work ethic and attitude of James was something that stood out to his Wigan manager Paul Cook and after James contributed to a 2-2 draw against Bristol City in April 2019 with a stunning 30-yard strike, Cook was full of praise for the young man.
“Reece is outstanding. He is so self-confident, and that is backed up by his ability and work ethic. All season he has been showing people that he has a very strong career ahead of him, and we are delighted to be playing a small part in his progression.”
Despite James’ Wigan side finishing 18th in the league that season, the defender scored three goals and won three awards for that campaign: Player of the Year, Player’s Player of the Year and Goal of the Season, capping off what was a superb loan spell away from his parent club.
While he was with the Latics, James showcased his ability to also play in central midfield as well as his favoured position of right-back.
As well as playing in the middle of the park at times for the Chelsea academy sides, it was at Wigan where James really started to show his midfield talent and back in May, the 20-year old revealed to Sky Sports that he is more than happy to play in either position, although right-back is his favourite out of the two.
“I probably prefer right-back but there is not much in it. I will happily play right-back and midfield - I have played there enough that I am comfortable playing that position as well.”
Could James follow the example of other top players?
Seeing Reece James play as an occasional midfielder, this kind of defence/midfield versatility in not uncommon in football, the likes of German fullbacks Joshua Kimmich and the now retired Phillip Lahm both known for their ability to slot into the centre of the park when needed - both of these players considered some of the best in the world in their natural defensive position.
Lahm, during his time with the Bayern Munich B team during his youth years, had proved that he could play in the midfield as well as on either defensive flank, but despite this, right-back is where he played for the majority of his career.
As his career progressed and he reached the later years of his playing days, he was played more as a defensive midfielder under Pep Guardiola’s management at Bayern and for Germany under Joachim Low during the 2014 World Cup.
Kimmich, who is just 25, can be deployed as a midfielder at times, but right-back is his main position at the moment for the unstoppable, attack-minded Bavarians. Saying this, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Kimmich considered solely as a central midfielder like Lahm as he reaches the twilight years of his career and as his pace, which is crucial for many attacking sides nowadays, decreases.
While James is more than comfortable playing in midfield, the chances of him getting regular opportunities there is unlikely, with the club set to chase West Ham’s Declan Rice as another central option to add to what is already a stacked midfield. Despite this, James’ positional versatility is something not to be sniffed at for a man of his age; if worst comes to worst and starting midfielders become injured, the youngster, as he mentioned, will be more than happy to play in midfield if required.
Don't forget your roots
If Reece James doesn’t get the regular game time as a midfielder at Chelsea that many fans would like to see him have, this will mean he’ll have much more time to improve his game at right-back. If he continues to put in top performances like he did on Monday evening against Brighton and at Wigan, both scoring goals and creating them, he will reach the very top in no time at all.