This time last year, the role of full-back or wing-back on the right hand side of England’s defence belonged to Trent Alexander-Arnold.
He was part of a Liverpool team who had picked up 28 points from a possible 30, and sat six points clear at the top of the Premier League. The 2020 European Championships were just around the corner, and it seemed inconceivable that anyone could hijack Alexander-Arnold’s England starting position.
But fast forward a year, and global pandemic later, and that thought could very much become reality thanks to the rapid rise of another young English full-back – Reece James.
After a successful loan spell at Wigan Athletic over the course of the 2018/19 season, the fresh faced 20-year-old returned to parent club Chelsea raring to go.
His return coincided with the arrival of Frank Lampard, who promised he would give young players at the club a chance – in part due to the transfer ban in place. After making sporadic appearances last season, and generally good progress, James already finds himself a first team regular, starting eight of Chelsea’s ten Premier League fixtures so far.
The faith Lampard has put in James is highlighted by the decision to pick him over club captain Cesar Azpilicueta, who has been a constant over the course of his eight-year tenure at the club.
However, this faith looks to have been repaid with James looking more like the real deal as each game week passes by. You need only look at his recent performance during Chelsea’s tactical battle with Tottenham in a 0-0 draw at Stamford Bridge.
In a game that lacked genuine quality, a bright spark came in the form of James who was undoubtedly Chelsea’s most potent attacking threat. On numerous occasions the young full-back boomed down the right flank and had the quality to put in some simply sublime crosses. Sadly, teammate Tammy Abraham – for want of a better phrase – couldn’t finish his dinner when James put it on a plate for him.
Tall, quick and strong, James has all the traits to succeed at the highest level. His start to the season has garnered plenty of attention, even persuading Liverpool legend and Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness into admitting that he has ‘absolutely everything in his game.’
Furthermore, his excellence has coincided with an injury picked up by Alexander-Arnold in Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City at the start of November. The 22-year-old hasn’t been seen since, though he has been tipped to make his comeback against Wolves this weekend.
That period of time on the sidelines has ignited debate over who should be first choice for the national team, owing to James’ quick start to the campaign and Alexander-Arnold’s inability, so far, to hit the heights of last season.
Last year, Alexander-Arnold set a Premier League record for the most assists by a defender, notching up 13 over the course of the season. He only has one so far this time round, a stat which will be all too familiar to the many who picked him in their 2020/21 fantasy football teams.
There also remains lingering doubts over whether he possesses as much quality defensively as he does going forward. Alexander-Arnold was at fault on several occasions during Liverpool’s astonishing 7-2 defeat to Aston Villa, and many fondly recall to this day his comedic own goal against Leeds on the opening day – even if it was ruled out for offside.
But how do his statistics actually compare with that of James? Looking at their attacking stats, there is very little between them.
Both have one assist to their name this season, but James has been on the scoresheet once this campaign – that coming against Brighton on the opening day. Furthermore, James has completed 62 crosses in comparison with Alexander-Arnold’s 55, though it should be noted the latter has played 31 fewer minutes.
Perhaps the area where the key differences can be seen is defensively. James has completed 14 successful tackles in comparison with Alexander-Arnold’s six this season, while he has won a staggering 15 aerial battles whereas his fellow countryman has only come out on top in two.
With only 33 Premier League appearances to his name, James remains in the infancy of his career. Alexander-Arnold, on the other hand, has over 100 league appearances under his belt, not to mention Champions League and Premier League winners medals.
You would forgive Southgate if he decided to stick with a man who’s ascent over the last few years has been nothing short of remarkable. But James’ performances, both domestically and in the Champions League, will have given England’s manager food for thought.
The Three Lions’ current wing-back system suits both, but there’s no disputing that when the time comes to switch back to a four, James has a vastly superior defensive skillset to Alexander-Arnold.