Every Monday, RunSportBet’s Daniel Rouse breaks down the week that was in English football. Welcome to the “Eye on England.”
Reece James cut inside on the edge of the 18-yard box and then – after seeing Charlie Taylor desperately throw his weight, life savings, and late grandmother’s prized Chinese vase into his path – the Chelsea bairn swiftly moved back onto his right foot and cuffed a shot which shuddered Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope’s frame.
England boss Gareth Southgate was at Leeds United’s Elland Road home on Saturday but, with hindsight, he may wonder if watching James daze Taylor at Stamford Bridge may have been a better use of his time than viewing Sheffield Wednesday’s surprise 2-0 win.
Perhaps Southgate’s weekend planning determined James is so far behind his surplus of right-back options that scouting him was a needless exercise. It’s fair enough, really. England’s right-back glut is one of those predicaments pundits describe as a “nice problem to have” for a manager – but it’s still a problem for Southgate to solve before Euro 2020’s kickoff.
The timing of James’ breakthrough into the Chelsea team isn’t surprising. The bustling yet technically accomplished defender was the club’s Academy Player of the Year for the 2017-18 campaign; last term, he was named in the EFL’s Championship Team of the Season and awarded Wigan Athletic’s Player of the Year with 96% of the Latics fans’ votes. He also won Wigan’s prize for Players’ Player of the Season and Goal of the Season during his season-long loan.
Also, his rise coincided with Chelsea’s transfer ban during the close season.
So, James’ timing isn’t surprising, but it’s not ideal from an international standpoint. Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold has leapfrogged Joshua Kimmich, Jordi Alba, and Dani Alves as the world’s greatest right-back over the past 18 months; former Tottenham Hotspur teammates Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier offer experience and differing skill sets in reserve; Southgate is a longtime supporter of Joe Gomez, who can operate at center-back and right-back; Aaron Wan-Bissaka is quickly emerging as the Premier League’s most unyielding full-back.
Then, behind Alexander-Arnold and the four backups, there’s James and two other promising players vying for the right-back berth with the Under-21s:
|Kyle Walker||Manchester City||48|
|Kieran Trippier||Atletico Madrid||19|
|Aaron Wan-Bissaka||Manchester United||0|
|Max Aarons||Norwich City||0|
|James Justin||Leicester City||0|
“It’s arguably our most competitive position on the pitch,” Southgate said last August.
He continued: “All of our right-backs are a slightly different profile with different qualities, but we’re interested to see whether we can develop them as individuals.”
As depth charts go, it’s probably England’s deepest position since Glenn Hoddle mulled over his strikeforce for the 1998 World Cup. The manager’s snub of midfielder Paul Gascoigne overshadowed the fact four of the five top-scoring Englishmen from the 1997-98 Premier League season (Dion Dublin, Chris Sutton, Andy Cole, and Darren Huckerby) and Robbie Fowler were left out of his tournament squad.
That selection policy was, in part, a sign of the times. Big names had to miss out. Strikers were strikers – big and strong or small and nippy – and couldn’t possibly adapt to be an inside-forward, assume a withdrawn post, or shoulder other less traditional tasks. But today, footballers’ roles are malleable and full-backs may be the most multifaceted of the lot. And through his center-back deployment of Walker at Euro 2016, Southgate proved he’s not averse to plugging gifted right-backs into alternative spots.
There are calls – admittedly, plenty of them on social media – to move Alexander-Arnold into midfield, therefore clearing two flanks for his lush passes to explore while giving him the chance to dictate England’s tempo from the heart of the lineup. But why? The suggestion reeks of an outdated opinion of full-backs, a position where limited players were often consigned to.
Alexander-Arnold would be better than most candidates for England’s problem position at the base of midfield but, to crack that puzzle, Southgate shouldn’t sacrifice the planet’s top right-back and potentially stifle one of his most creative players. Full-backs are so important.
When James skinned Taylor, the Burnley defender staggered like a drunk who’d settled down in a bank’s entrance for the night, only to discover his temporary abode was an operating roller-coaster simulator. James attempted 10 crosses and eight long balls during Saturday’s 3-0 win, and Willian was the only Blues colleague to play more key passes. The 20-year-old had 92 touches – comfortably more than Burnley midfielders Jeff Hendrick and Ashley Westwood managed between them.
Sadly, as a left-back, Taylor might be closer to the England fold than James is right now. It’s not a nice problem for Southgate to have. In fact, it’s a bloody irritating problem.
Where will Aguero end up?
If Sergio Aguero leaves at the end of his current Manchester City contract, he only has 54 Premier League matches left to rack up his goals tally.
He’s one of the best strikers in the history of English football, and his effervescence was on display in Sunday’s trip to Aston Villa. The ruthless Argentine rifled his first effort from distance, evaded four defenders before neatly dispatching his second, and the devastating hit for his third was a reward for his excellent poaching instincts.
Aguero has now scored the most Premier League hat-tricks (12) and is the highest-scoring foreign player in the competition’s history. How high will he finish in the Premier League’s all-time scoring list?
Danny Ings has packed a lot of goals into this season.
The Southampton artilleryman went 1,113 days without a professional goal while he dealt with two serious injuries during his Liverpool stint, but is now outfiring all of his former club’s attackers and the vast majority of the Premier League’s other celebrated strikers.
Ings has a 52% share of Southampton’s goals with 14. Without his conversions, the Saints would have 13 fewer points and still be deep in the relegation mire.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another Premier League player more important to his team’s fortunes.
We’re about to make some readers feel very old
Exeter City gave Ethan Ampadu his first opportunity in professional football when he was just 15 in 2016, but the Grecians went even younger when they called Ben Chrisene off the bench during an EFL Cup tie in August. Chrisene was 120 days younger than Ampadu when they made their respective professional debuts.
Chrisene finally logged his first league appearance in Saturday’s 2-0 win over Cambridge United, a day before his 16th birthday. Chelsea, Liverpool, and Bayern Munich are among the clubs linked to the teenage midfielder, according to DevonLive’s Daniel Clark.
When Chrisene was born, “Hey Ya” by OutKast was No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100, we were 20 days away from Janet Jackson’s controversial wardrobe malfunction at Super Bowl XXXVIII, and the first season of “The Apprentice,” a reality TV show hosted by Donald Trump, was underway.
I need a nap.