Reece James has a new fear that could potentially benefit Pochettino and Chelsea
Reece James hasn’t played 90 minutes of Premier League football for over seven months. It is now well over a year since he last played five full games in a row. The Chelsea captain is now putting himself and his body first during this international break though and it is a boost to Mauricio Pochettino that he is doing so.
Having missed the World Cup 12 months ago due to injury, one that not only saw him sidelined for two months over winter but that would also plague his season, reducing his gametime to the lowest it has been in his professional career, it would have been easy to accept Gareth Southgate’s call out of desperation, fantasy and hope.
The England boss was keen to take him with the squad for the camp ahead of the final Euro 2024 qualifiers this week but was rebuffed. “I was hoping to call up Reece James but he doesn’t feel he’s quite ready,” Southgate said on selecting his team for matches with Malta and North Macedonia.
“I understand that, he’s had a long path back from a number of injuries. He’s probably a bit cautious in that respect, but I can understand why.” James’ road to recovery has been long, littered with setbacks and filled by the nagging thought that a premature return could see him hit by another issue.
It is rebound knocks that have seen him struggle to complete large portions of the past three campaigns, consistently coming back or working towards getting to full fitness, never hitting his stride. With the strength of England’s right-back options – Kyle Walker, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Kieran Trippier all ahead of Arsenal’s Ben White – it is tempting to think that James cannot risk missing this slot of games with a major tournament around the corner.
That is just what Southgate hinted at as well. “There is [a lot of talent ahead of James] and that’s the risk,” he said. “He’s only got one more squad before the Euros. So he knows that. We’ve got belief in what he can do. We did discuss [reporting for duty to attend team meetings] and he was very keen to make clear, ‘Look I don’t want you to think I don’t want to be there’.
“We had a really good long conversation and exchange of messages after that as well. But I’m very understanding. His injury record, you can see the number of matches and the different phases. So we are all conscious that we want to have a fit Reece that can play consecutive games.”
James has now started the past three games for Chelsea having been absent since the season opener against Liverpool. Before that, he made two appearances off the bench but is still being extremely carefully managed. Pochettino made the brave call to take him off when his side were behind against Manchester City, opting to put his captain’s fitness ahead of the team’s needs.
The same happened against Tottenham, though he did get ten minutes more in north London before Malo Gusto came on. With the 20-year-old available, even going through issues of his own, Pochettino can be more confident than previous managers in replacing James and not seeing levels drop.
Now there are two weeks for James to take advantage of and continue to build with as he works towards playing a big part in a testing December fixture list. The Blues take on Newcastle twice before the new year, once on November 25 at St James’ Park in the league and then on December 19 in the Carabao Cup. They also have games with Brighton and Manchester United to plan for.
The good thing for Pochettino is James will be under his watch at Cobham for the period leading into those games rather than out of the club’s hands. The battle between club and country across the league remains and causes worry to managers that wish to see their star players wrapped in cotton whool, James right now is no different.
He may wish to accelerate a stop-start England career but must also put that in the context of having been a liability in terms of selection for much the past 14 months. For a player of his quality, to have only played 16 times since October 2020 for the Three Lions is a disappointment and it is now over a year since his last game for his country, something that only enhances the wish to play again, especially now he is on somewhat of a roll.
He has never suffered a bad injury when away, but still falls short of being first-choice currently. Compare this to the situation that Tottenham and Arsenal are in with Rodrigo Bentancur and Gabriel Jesus both being called up for Uruguay and Brazil respectively despite concerns of their own and maybe Chelsea have gotten away with one.
They could easily have seen James accept the call and been out of their hands for two weeks, not that Southgate wouldn’t looked after the 23-year-old. “Physical reliability is going to be really important,” he added last week, explaining just one of the points James will have to prove to his boss in order to be in with a shout of gametime in Germany next summer.
“I think we will always manage a player as well as we can but there is a reality around his training at the moment. He plays and there’s a couple of days’ recovery.
“There’s a little bit more angst from his side. I totally get that. We would have loved to have him with us, don’t get me wrong. But I’m perfectly calm with the conversation.”
James himself will be determined to be back playing for England. He only got one game at Euro 2020 (played in 2021) and that was a 0-0 draw with Scotland. His best run in the side coincided with the calamatous 2022 Nations League campaign that saw three defeats and no wins including a 4-0 loss to Hungary at Molineux. To put it lightly, the best of James has not been seen in an England shirt.
That is a gripe for both James and his county at a time whereby his leadership and general skill on the pitch would be invaluable in pushing towards an expected semi-final at least. As a player he is the difference between success and failure, something Chelsea have been all too aware of in recent times.
For now his priorities are getting back to playing regular football and from there Chelsea will be hopeful of getting the best from him and then allowing a gradual build towards another England call-up in the future. If this works out then Southgate will be hard pushed to leave a fit James out of the side, the worry is watching him do too much in the lead up and damaging himself in the process.