Reece James steals spotlight to show why he is England’s right-hand man

Something sweet happened at the end of this light, fun, convincing 3-0 Chelsea victory against a blunt Milan. As the players hugged at the final whistle, speaking to each other behind their hands like underworld informers, the referee Danny Makkelie of the Netherlands declined Reece James’s offer of a handshake and instead went right in for a full embrace, clasping Chelsea’s right‑back to his bosom in the post-match lineup.

In the moment it just seemed entirely appropriate. Mainly because James was magnificent here, delivering a performance of stately, unruffled incision and total assurance in defence.

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He touched the ball more than any other player on the pitch. He made one , scored one and did so while defending on the same side as Rafael Leão, a miracle of attacking thrust and drive, who, thankfully for Chelsea, appeared to be invisible to his teammates, who spent most of this game failing to pass to their sole attacking threat.

It has become a habit in recent weeks to fill any surplus dead air with endless chatter about one hyper-talented right-sided player who isn’t in Gareth Southgate’s utilitarian tactical plans. It has been easy to feel sympathy for Trent Alexander-Arnold in the middle of this, to sense that pressure building on him. But it is also pressure on James, the man in possession, whose own performances must now be hyper‑analysed, judged against the ghost-player, the perfect right-back of our imaginations.

Well, he certainly didn’t show it here. Chelsea’s third goal was a lovely moment, one for the highlights reel. The link with Raheem Sterling worked well all game. James made a run outside that demanded a pass. Sterling stroked the ball into his path. James took his time, waited, narrowed the sights, then leathered the ball high into the net.

He has scored this goal before. He likes that angle, knows which spot to hit. The crowd can feel it coming too, the Matthew Harding stand seeming to take a shared breath, to know the precise square of netting James would hit, to listen for the thunk. It is the kind of finish that just seems to deflate the goalkeeper, like being sat down or hurled through a set of saloon doors.

And at times such as this James really does look like a player to build a team around – but not in a showy kind of way, just as a piece of fine architecture, a player without obvious weaknesses, but with super-strengths too.

He has a presence. He keeps the ball. At times Milan stood off him, allowed him space out there. “His potential is beyond the sky,” Graham Potter said afterwards,” and, again, it all felt in keeping with the day.

Graham Potter has got Chelsea playing a slick and sleek style of football.
Graham Potter has got Chelsea playing a slick and sleek style of football. Photograph: Tom Jenkins/The Guardian

There was a lightness here. With 75 minutes gone Chelsea had five academy players on the pitch, out there beating Milan 3-0 and playing fun, fluent football. This is a gloriously fickle business. Brave new eras bubble up and then are dashed on the rocks. But maybe, maybe this was even the start of the Boehly age, whatever that might be. Hopefully, for everyone’s sake, not much of a Boehly age: the greatest asset this post-Roman Chelsea has is Potter, and this was a significant night for the manager.

The way Thomas Tuchel was sacked was always likely to put pressure on the new man. Make sense of this. Make my gamble work. Be a good decision to cover a bad one. Here Potter appeared freshly trimmed on his touchline, kitted out in a black polo neck, with the air of a celebrity magician, or mid-ranking Steve Jobs wingman.

Potter may be miles out on his own, striding clear of the field, arms cleaving the air, when it comes to astonishingly dull press conferences (is it a bet? Is he doing this for a gag?) but his mature Brighton team was a pretty thing to watch too, full of attacking pep. And Chelsea had something of that here.

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Ruben Loftus-Cheek and Mateo Kovacic was a fun midfield in a tight game, Loftus-Cheek was good here in that central role, using his ability to manipulate the ball, his quick feet to keep possession and drive into space. With the wing-backs pushing on at times Chelsea had six attacking players on the pitch.

Chelsea’s opening goal came on 24 minutes from their fourth corner. It was a scramble. Thiago Silva thrashed around in the six‑yard box like a basking killer whale, scattering the white shirts and eventually the ball fell to Wesley Fofana who eased it into the corner.

Chelsea just walked away with this game in the second half. Fikayo Tomori was at fault for the second goal , attempting an awkward backflip clearance as James crossed from the right, missing it, and allowing Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang to deflect it in.

And that was pretty much that. Chelsea haven’t really played light, pleasing attacking football like this since, when, well, when? Carlo Ancelotti? Bits of Antonio Conte, but in a more relentless, angry machine-football style? These are early days. But there was a lightness here, the sense of a different energy at work.