Enzo Maresca could be about to make immediate Reece James and Malo Gusto change at Chelsea

Reece James and Malo Gusto will be battling it out for a starting spot in Enzo Maresca's Chelsea team
-Credit: (Image: Darren Walsh/Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

The incoming arrival of Enzo Maresca as Chelsea head coach could potentially result in a key change when it comes to Reece James and Malo Gusto's game. Such key players in the Chelsea side, James unfortunately had a season to forget with injury restricting him to only 11 appearances in all competitions.

Making his comeback off the bench in the 3-2 win over Nottingham Forest in May, the 24-year-old demonstrated to everyone exactly what he can offer only three minutes into his return with a sumptuous cross that Nicolas Jackson headed home. Having to settle for more minutes off the bench in their following game away at Brighton & Hove Albion, the England international received a red card in the closing minutes of the contest and will now serve a four-match ban as a result.

Having already sat out the final match of the 2023/24 season against Bournemouth, James will be absent for the first three games of Maresca's Chelsea tenure. Once he is available again, Maresca could potentially look to use a tactic on the Blues academy graduate or fellow right-back Gusto that worked so well during his time as Leicester City boss.

Lining up with a back four, Maresca transformed Ricardo Pereira into a right-back-turned-central midfielder. Rather than just staying in his usual position down the right, the Portuguese star would always come into the middle of the park when Leicester were in possession of the ball.

Pereira excelled in his new role and proved to be a key figure in their successful Premier League promotion push. Speaking to Marca about his positional change, the Leicester defender, who also claimed that Maresca is the "best coach" he's had, said: "Throughout my career I have played almost everything. I love challenges. Now I play a lot inside. I'm almost a defensive midfielder in attack and I like it because I have a lot of ball and I can play fast, with one or two touches."

The use of inverted full-backs is a regular sight in the Premier League with a number of teams operating this way. Liverpool's Trent Alexander-Arnold is perhaps one of the best examples as he initially started out as an overlapping right-back before gradually moving more inside.

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Due to the player's quality on the ball and his ability to pick out a pass, this is a role that has suited him down to the ground and it is also one that has really served Liverpool well. There has been a big debate in recent years about whether Alexander-Arnold would be better utilised in midfield on a permanent basis due to his attributes, with the England international only strengthening those claims after shining when moving infield.

Like Alexander-Arnold, James is also good on the ball and excellent in terms of his passing. The Chelsea captain is also no stranger to operating in midfield having done so earlier in his career.

During his season on loan at Wigan Athletic before breaking into the Chelsea team under Frank Lampard, James made 13 appearances for the Latics in the holding role in midfield and he has also played there on three occasions for the Blues. Speaking in April 2023, Lampard was asked about the possibility of James following in Alexander-Arnold's footsteps and stepping into midfield.

"He can be a lot of things because of his level – and you see that with some modern full-backs with managers moving them into the midfield. But you can only do that if you have got the level of player to receive the ball in midfield and Reece has certainly got that," outlined the Chelsea legend.

"But in the short term, I do see him as a right-back or a right wing-back – that is how he has come through. In the modern day, you can be effective if you look at what Liverpool’s full-backs gave them in their really strong years recently.

"A huge amount of their attacking play was generated by their full-backs in terms of assists and making space for the wingers to get inside and score goals. It certainly does not feel like there is any urgency to move Reece, but as he matures, maybe he can develop in other ways.

"It is hard to put a limit on it because who knows, and different managers will have different ideas how to utilise his talents. But at the moment I see him as one of the best full-backs around for sure – and I am talking about world football. And that is at a young age. There is a big ceiling there for him."

Maresca may indeed be a manager who has "different ideas" when it comes to how to utilise James' talents. The same may also go for Gusto, who was a shining light in what was an extremely mixed 2023/24 season for Chelsea.

Like James, the Frenchman has the qualities to be a success in a more central role having played as a midfielder as a youngster before eventually transitioning into a right-back. The ex-Lyon man does have a tendency to come inside and play from there due to his ability on the ball, thus potentially playing into Maresca's hands in the process.

Making such a key change with Pereira at Leicester 12 months ago and reaping the rewards in the process, the Italian will be hoping to do likewise with James and Gusto at Chelsea. It really could be a tactical masterstroke from Maresca as he looks to really stamp his mark on the Chelsea team.