Willian and Reece James might be at different stages of their careers, but the pair’s impressive form prompted discussion from Frank Lampard on what the future holds for them – and he also put in perspective where we stand in running for the Premier League title.
It was a big week for James, who came off the bench against Ajax in midweek to score the equaliser in a thrilling 4-4 draw before showing further signs of his potential with an excellent showing in the 2-0 win over Crystal Palace on Saturday which moved us up to third place going into the international break.
The right-back does not turn 20 until next month and he returned to his boyhood club at the start of the season following an impressive campaign with Wigan Athletic, where he swept the board at the Latics’ end-of-season awards dinner.
James now heads off on England Under-21s duty for matches against Albania and Holland, and he does so with plenty of positive feedback from his head coach here at Chelsea.
‘He’s got the abilities to go very far,’ said Lampard. ‘It’s hard to cap that, or not cap it, but I think that from what I see from him in training, what I saw at Wigan, and Jody Morris and Joe Edwards know him very well from the youth teams here and speak so highly of his talent.
‘You always see when experienced players respect young players that come and train with you regularly and see the quality, it’s always a good sign. I’ve got huge belief that he can as far as he wants in the game, because I see so much improvement.
‘His raw talent and ability, which was there to see against Crystal Palace, is just the start of the story. There’s a lot more to add on to that which is going to see him be a big, big player for this club.’
At times last season James was utilised in a midfield role at Wigan and though Lampard did not rule out that possibility at some point in the future, he certainly does not see the Academy product veering too far from his natural position.
‘Right-back would be his favoured position, whether it be there, right wing-back or right of a three. As he’s coming into the team, you’d see him there but he does have that all-round game that he could handle playing centrally in midfield if needs be.
‘At the moment we’ve got good players in there who are used to playing in there anyway, but he could always do that as he matures through his career.’
James came into the team for the Palace game ahead of captain Cesar Azpilicueta, himself a goalscorer in midweek, and Lampard admitted the decision was taken with the wider picture of a long, hard season in mind.
‘He [Azpilicueta] took it, as I thought he would do, as a perfect professional and it was not a problem,’ he added. ‘He wants to play, of course he does, but I think he also understands the quality of Reece.
‘He’s played every game barring the Carabao Cup, and every minute of the games, so I don’t think it’s the worst for him to have a bit of a rest and now he can go away and have a rest. We’ve got massive games coming up after the break.’
Although the change meant we named our youngest-ever starting XI for a Premier League fixture at 24 years and 88 days, there was still plenty of experience in the side, most notably from Willian, who took the captain’s armband in Azpilicueta’s absence.
The Brazilian was the only player above the age of 28 in the team which took to the field against Palace, but the 31-year-old’s age is of little concern to Lampard if he continues to put in performances like that.
‘I know Willian’s qualities from playing with him, but when I looked at Willy over the last couple of years he was in and out of the team and I’m not sure; from the outside I want to see him happy, I know him and he’s a happy, really easy-going lad who loves his football,’ said Lampard, whose final campaign at the club in 2013/14 was Willian’s first.
‘That was the first thing, when I looked at him at the start of the season, I saw him being huge for me and the way we want to play. Naturally, on the ball we all know his ability to go by one-v-one and shift people and then cross or get shots away is big.
‘But the off-the-ball work he’s done is an absolutely outstanding example for Callum Hudson-Odoi, Christian Pulisic, for other young players and wingers who think the only part of the game is going past people and crossing or shooting. He does the other side brilliantly, with absolute humility, so he’s been a joy and one of the experienced players that’s really helping the young boys.
‘The selfless side of the game is always a starting point for me. As we work as staff here, it’s how good can we be off the ball and think about on the ball afterwards. When you’ve got someone showing the example high up the pitch, that just reflects everywhere.’
Although unwilling to discuss the finer details of contract discussions, Lampard made his stance on Willian’s future perfectly clear.
‘I can’t get involved in the money, that’s up to the club, but I think everyone sees from what I’m saying, and I’m relying on him and picking him and he’s producing, I love him at this football club,’ he stated.
With the bulk of his squad now heading off to join up with their respective national teams, there is a break in Premier League action for a fortnight.
When we return to action against Manchester City, we will do so a point ahead of last season’s champions, who lost to Liverpool yesterday afternoon. That result has left the league leaders eight points ahead of us and Leicester, although we trail the Foxes on goal difference, but Lampard isn’t getting carried away with talk of a title charge.
‘I don’t see beyond the next game – ours being Man City,’ he said. ‘It’s nice to be above City, because I’ve got huge respect for them, but I certainly won’t announce us in the title race.
‘We’re relatively new, we’re slightly in transition, and to get carried away would be our biggest enemy. To say that would be a bit naïve, because we’re not even a third of the way through the season. If we can keep replicating the form and the results, then we’re certainly going to close the gap. That’s the first step.’
Read: More from Lampard on the Palace game