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At this time last year, the role of winger or winger on the right side of England’s defense belonged to Trent Alexander-Arnold.
He was part of a Liverpool team that had scored 28 points out of a possible 30 and sat six points clear at the top of the Premier League. The 2020 European Championship was just around the corner, and it seemed inconceivable that anyone could appropriate Alexander-Arnold’s starting position in England.
But a year later, and a global pandemic later, that thought could become a reality thanks to the rapid rise of another young English winger: Reece James.
After a successful loan stint at Wigan Athletic over the course of the 2018/19 season, the 20-year-old returned to parent club Chelsea eager to go.
His return coincided with the arrival of Frank Lampard, who promised he would give the club’s young players a chance, in part due to the current transfer ban. After making sporadic appearances last season, and generally good progress, James is already in the first team, starting eight of Chelsea’s ten Premier League matches so far.
The faith Lampard has placed in James is reflected in the decision to choose him over the club captain, Cesar Azpilicueta, who has been a constant throughout his eight years at the club.
However, this faith seems to have been rewarded with James looking more like the real deal as each week of play goes by. You just need to see 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 winger made a big bang down the right flank and had the quality of making some simply sublime crosses. Sadly, her teammate Tammy Abraham, for lack of a better phrase, was unable to finish her dinner when James put it on a plate.
Tall, fast and strong, James has all the traits to succeed at the highest level. His start to the season has attracted a lot of attention, including persuading Liverpool legend and Sky Sports insider Graeme Souness to admit he has “absolutely everything in his game.”
Moreover, his excellence has coincided with an injury suffered by Alexander-Arnold in Liverpool’s 1-1 draw with Manchester City in early November. The 22-year-old has not been seen since, although he has been told that he will return against the Wolves this weekend.
That period of time on the sidelines has sparked the debate over who should be the first choice for the national team, given James’s quick start to the campaign and Alexander-Arnold’s inability, so far, to reach last season’s heights.
Last year, Alexander-Arnold set a Premier League record for the most assists by a defender, hitting 13 over the course of the season. So far, he has only one, a statistic that will be all too familiar to the many who chose him on their 2020/21 fantasy football teams.
Doubts also persist as to whether he has as much quality on defense as he does in the future. Alexander-Arnold was to blame on several occasions during Liverpool’s stunning 7-2 loss to Aston Villa, with many remembering to this day his comical own goal against Leeds on opening day, even if it was ruled out. offside.
But how do his stats compare to James’s? Looking at his attack stats, there is very little between them.
They both have an assist to their name this season, but James has been on the roster once this season, which was against Brighton on opening day. Additionally, James has completed 62 crosses compared to Alexander-Arnold’s 55, although it should be noted that 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 compared to Alexander-Arnold’s six this season, while winning a staggering 15 aerial battles while his compatriot 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 more than 100 league appearances to his credit, not to mention the medals of the Champions League and Premier winners.
You would forgive Southgate if he decided to stick with a man whose rise in recent years has been nothing short of remarkable. But James’ performances, both domestically and in the Champions League, will have given the England manager pause.
The Three Lions’ current forward system suits both, but there is no question that when it comes time to return to the four, James has a far superior set of defensive skills than Alexander-Arnold.