Thomas Tuchel weighs up maurading Reece James as Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante successor

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 (AP)
(AP)

While Thomas Tuchel tries to come up with a cure for N’Golo Kante’s increasingly fragile limbs, the Frenchman’s heir-apparent is staking his claim to the throne.

Chelsea’s manager is right to explore ways to get Kante on the pitch more often – and that will be vital to any hopes of mounting a credible Premier League title challenge next season.

But the likelihood is Tuchel will have to look for workarounds to mitigate the effects of the midfielder’s absences and turn to other players to match his influence.

No one in the Chelsea dressing room looks better equipped to take on that mantle than Reece James, who is built like a heavyweight boxer, sprints like a 100m runner and has the footwork of an old-fashioned winger.

The England international has it all – and, as if to underline that point, he ended last night’s 1-1 draw with Leicester with a licence to roam as Tuchel went in search of a winner. No one looked more likely to provide it than James.

As the majority his teammates looked ready for the beach after such an arduous campaign, the 22-year-old was tireless.

It was his sand wedge cross to the far post that led to Marcos Alonso’s volleyed equaliser in the first half – cancelling out James Maddison’s opener – and in the closing stages, he was the one shifting between the front three and midfield to try to find a way through Leicester’s deep-lying defence.

At his best, James is Chelsea’s most creative force – and Tuchel’s main issue is that the wing-back cannot be everywhere at once. The German is already weighing up the pros and cons of whether to deploy him out wide or as part of a central defensive three next season.

 (Action Images via Reuters)
(Action Images via Reuters)

He can also operate as an effective holding midfielder, while his ability to move quickly with the ball could also see him utilised further forward. His nine assists are behind only Mason Mount – with 16 - in the Chelsea squad, with 14 fewer appearances.

The season might have looked very different if not for two serious hamstring injuries that ruled James out for extended periods. Tuchel has acknowledged as much but is also cautious about building the player up too soon.

And he shied away from direct comparison to Kante, saying: “He has everything that it takes to be one of the very best, but there is a long way to go for Reece.

“There is some incredible potential and he has the ability, the foundation, the body, the physique, the mindset to make his way to the very top, but there is still a long way to go. We will support him. We will push him so he can be that player for Chelsea.”

The question is how long Kante can continue to be such a vital player for Tuchel – particularly given his ongoing fitness issues. This season he has contended with knee and groin problems, as well as two bouts of Covid, meaning he has started just 20 league games.

He is our key, key, key player - but key, key, key players need to be on the pitch.

“He is our key, key, key player - but key, key, key players need to be on the pitch,” he said. “He plays only 40 per cent of the games, so it is maybe a miracle that we arrive in third place.

“He is our Mo Salah, he is our (Virgil) Van Dijk, he is our (Kevin) De Bruyne. He is simply that player, he is our Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. He is that guy who makes the difference and if you only have him for 40 % then it is a huge problem.

“It puts everything into perspective as I saw Liverpool without Van Dijk last season and they struggled heavily. You see the difference. N’Golo is our key player and we need him on the pitch.

Conor Gallagher is returning to Chelsea in the summer. (Getty Images)
Conor Gallagher is returning to Chelsea in the summer. (Getty Images)

“We do everything to solve it. I don’t blame him - it is just a concern and a fact that we miss him a lot because he brings something that is unique in world football and he has that ability to lift everybody up and make that difference.

“But he can only make the difference if he is on the pitch and on his top level. He is one of the very best. He is one of the very best midfielders in the world.”

Tuchel’s determination to thrust Conor Gallagher straight into his first-team squad is partly due to the midfielder’s energy levels, which he believes are comparable to Kante’s.

Using him to ease the burden on Kante could be one option going forward, even if he is not a like-for-like cover. It is clear the future is about finding alternative solutions, rather than trying to turn back the hands of time.

The future could well be in James’ hands.

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