Former Blue Pat Nevin knew a thing or two about crossing a ball back in his day, and in his latest column he looks closely at the newest supply line in a Chelsea shirt…
After finally getting the kind of victory our play has deserved at home, there was only one major concern. Why wasn’t it more than three goals against Burnley at the weekend?Frank Lampard said as much afterwards but after a few frustrating outcomes at the Bridge, I reckon we would all have accepted that result five minutes before kick-off.Like everyone else I was delighted to see Callum Hudson Odoi’s first Premier League goal, especially after musing last week that we might just be finally seeing the real Callum back to something near his best after that injury. The suspicion is that he will not look back from here and he isn’t the only one with a right to feel that way.There is an odd thing with some players, they have certain skills they make look utterly effortless, abilities that are bordering on impossible for most other players, even top-class ones to emulate. For example, Frank Lampard made scoring goals look ridiculously easy in comparison to most players during his career. That balanced one-touch finish at speed he perfected as he arrived into the box was made to appear perfectly effortless. The fact nobody else could do it that well was the only clue that it was such a brilliant skill.
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Watching Eden Hazard beat players hid the fact it is one of the toughest things to do in the game, but he befuddled good defenders time and again as if it was as difficult as eating a chocolate biscuit.One skill that looks much easier than it first appears is sending in a vicious cross at pace, with perfect direction while on the run. Think of David Beckham at his best, his crossing was his finest attribute by far, and suddenly you realise that being brilliant at one particular skill can get you a very long way in the game. I mention Beckham because the quality of crossing that we see most weeks from Reece James reminds me of his level.Hyperbole is common in football, but I hope I am not afflicted by the temptation to go down that route too often, so talking about Reece in that company hopefully means something. It is easy enough to put a ball into that area between the defence and the keeper but it is much harder to do it unerringly with pace so the defenders are scared to touch it, the keeper has no chance of coming out to collect it and all the forwards have to do is get on the end of it with any sort of touch. Kevin De Bruyne has that ability along with his many others, but it is rare to that level.
The quality of this ball is so good that it is almost tempting to take it for granted already with young Reece. It is the same when watching N’Golo Kante playing in midfield and winning tackle after tackle when he is second favourite to get the ball. He is in my opinion the best in the world at that skill and by some distance, but we are in danger of thinking it is normal because we see it so often. It isn’t, it is phenomenal every time. I have played with strikers such as Kerry Dixon, John Aldridge and Ally McCoist who would have scored every single week without fail had they been on the field with this quality and quantity of crosses coming in from our young full-back.Reece is extraordinary in this area but looking at his performances of late it is becoming very clear that he is long away from being a one-trick pony. His tackling and recovery have been exceptional and still appear to be improving at a pace. His comfort on the ball is remarkable for one so young. In fact it is already impossible to think of him as a ‘raw’ 20-year-old.He turned out last season for Wigan and as we all know, he was named player of the year for the Latics and had more appearances than anyone else at the club. That is superb in itself, but there were some seasoned Wigan fans at the end of the campaign who were seriously asking the question, ‘Is Reece James the best footballer ever to play for the club in its entire history?’ A bold suggestion, but even asking the question speaks volumes for a youngster only there for a season on loan.The other exciting thing about Reece is that he is clearly comfortable in more than one position. He played in the midfield for Wigan with distinction and when he gets the ball in those areas for Chelsea, he looks just as at home there as he does when posted out on the right side. I almost said right wing there, because he spends so much of his time getting into those forward positions when we are in possession of the ball. Maybe that is no surprise in that he played on the wing as kid.
Brana was exceptional in the opposition box, scoring many fine and important goals for us over and above his defensive duties. Reece has also shown a great willingness to score goals as well with two already this season, and I have no doubt that will improve further.Just as you could see our Serbian former great comfortably moving into the centre-back position when needed, you could see Reece in time being able to do the same thing too. Maybe the one other thing they had in common was not having the blinding pace that so many full-backs have these days, but it rarely held back Brana in his long career. He had the intelligence to compensate in other ways, he was a power runner and Reece is the same. Reece’s performance against Wilfried Zaha, one of the fastest and the most skilful players in the Premier League, showed his ability to cope with any question asked of him.
I am not sure I know which position he will end up playing throughout his career, the options are limitless. I do however know that he is going to be, if he isn’t already, a top international-class player.At the moment England are well served in that department with the likes of Kyle Walker and Trent Alexander-Arnold, but you feel at some point very soon Reece will be given a chance and I find it hard to imagine he will do anything other than perform perfectly well. Walker may have more pace, but does he have anywhere near the crossing ability? Or indeed the versatility or the comfort on the ball? For a player with only 11 Premier League games for the Blues, this might sound gushing, in a way I wouldn’t be so bold even with Mason, Callum or Ruben.There will be difficult days of course, no one is immune from that. From what we have seen so far however, Reece James is the closest thing to a certainty to get to the very top and stay there that you are likely to find in the game.