The quality and class of Chelsea’s Reece James has sometimes been reduced to a footnote in the fevered debate surrounding the England status of Liverpool defender Trent Alexander-Arnold.
Alexander-Arnold is a rare talent, no-one can make any argument against this, as he proved again with his superb free-kick in Liverpool’s Champions League win against Rangers at Anfield on Tuesday.
England manager Gareth Southgate, however, clearly prefers the all-round game of 22-year-old James as first-choice right back and he delivered such a complete performance in Chelsea’s 3-0 victory over AC Milan at Stamford Bridge that it was difficult to argue with that logic.
Alexander-Arnold’s goal against Rangers added more fuel to a debate that will rage until Southgate names his squad for the World Cup in Qatar – and probably beyond if he is named in the travelling party.
The argument against Alexander-Arnold is his vulnerability as a defender, which has been seen this season. Events, including his goal against Rangers, did not tell us anything about him that we did not already know.
No matter what nuances are brought into the debate, it seems a very simple situation.
In his opinion, Southgate believes James – and indeed Manchester City’s Kyle Walker and Kieran Trippier of Newcastle United – offers him more solidity and tactical flexibility than Alexander-Arnold.
This not to decry Alexander-Arnold here or suggest he should not even be in the World Cup squad but equally it is very difficult to make any sort of strong case that he should displace James, as proved by his powerhouse performance as Milan were well beaten.
Alexander-Arnold’s supporters will continue to press his claims but James is the player in possession. He has been in better form in recent months and provides a rounded range of attributes that simply cannot be ignored.
Southgate knows this one will run and run but it does appear his mind is made up and it is not as if James represents an inferior alternative. He deserves his place in England’s team and has done nothing to lose it.
James and Alexander-Arnold may well end up both going to Qatar but there is no doubt who is at the forefront of Southgate’s thoughts.
There has been talk of shoehorning Alexander-Arnold into England’s team as an auxiliary midfield player but this would be a punt and it is too late for further experimentation of this nature with the World Cup six weeks away.
Southgate has made James his pick and for all the noise around this preference over Alexander-Arnold, England’s manager has every right to be comfortable with his decision based on current form.
James took the man of the match award at Stamford Bridge and rightly so for his starring role as Chelsea took the game by the scruff of the neck in the second half.
Chelsea were leading by Wesley Fofana’s goal when James made his crucial interventions, providing a perfect cross for Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang when he added the second after 56 minutes.
He was on target himself five minutes later, finding space on the angle in the area, having the confidence and composure to thrash an unstoppable finish high past Milan keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu at his near post.
Alexander-Arnold’s attacking assets are rightly acknowledged but anyone who ignores what James can offer in this department, as he showed here, is dismissing a big part of his game and doing him a disservice.
Stamford Bridge rejoiced as they noisily acclaimed “one of our own”, a smiling James taking the applause on a lap of honour after the final whistle.
James was an integral part of what was a statement win for Graham Potter, the sort any new manager craves to show they mean business after taking on the unique beast that is Chelsea.
This was convincing, albeit against a Milan side with key absentees, and the delight of Potter was clear to see.
Aubameyang showed he still possesses that predator’s touch that makes him so potent. Chelsea may be the beneficiaries of a striker with something to prove in London after he came back to the capital from Barcelona following his exile at Arsenal.
James is rock solid at Chelsea, a home-grown talent with a contract that runs to 2028. He is a key element of this often turbulent club’s long-term future.
England manager Southgate is fortunate to have James at his disposal. He is fortunate to have the ability to call on Alexander-Arnold.
However, he got all the evidence he needs at Stamford Bridge to present as ‘Exhibit A’ in his case for James as his England right-back in Qatar.