Chelsea right-back Reece James poses an interesting fantasy conundrum for managers. He is part of a formidable defence that kept 19 clean sheets under Thomas Tuchel in the German’s 30 games (all competitions) in charge during the latter stages of the 2020-21 season. The 21-year-old England national also poses a potent attacking threat as one of Chelsea’s two wing-backs in their 3-4-2-1 formation, offering good assist potential. However, the main sticking point is how much of a hold James has over that right-back spot, with teammates Cesar Azpilicueta and Callum Hudson-Odoi also being deployed there by Tuchel last season. So the pressing question is how nailed is Reece James in Chelsea’s starting XI?
ANALYSIS – 2020/21 SEASON
Tuchel took charge of 30 games as Chelsea’s manager during the 2020/21 season. 19 of these were Premier League games, 7 in the Champions League and 4 in the FA Cup. That means the maximum amount of minutes one player could have registered under Tuchel was 2,700. Reece James played 1,831 minutes (67.8%) during this period – 1,561 minutes at right wing-back and 270 minutes at right centre-back. The graph below plots the minutes played in each game by James in all competitions.
What the graph shows is that James registered 18 starts (60.0%) and 11 substitute appearances (36.7%) in those 30 games, only being an unused substitute in one match during Tuchel’s spell in charge last season – the German’s first game at Stamford Bridge which saw Chelsea draw 0-0 with Wolves. It highlights how Tuchel viewed James as both a competent starter and a serious bench option.
However, one important trend to note is that as the season came to a close, James became more of a starter and less of a rotation risk. During the first 15 games, the right-back started seven games (46.7%). Yet in the second 15 games, James was named in the starting line-up on 11 occasions (73.3%), representing a 26.6% swing.
This included the FA Cup final, Champions League final and the last five games of the Premier League season (where Chelsea were in a close scrap with Liverpool and Leicester City for top four). Tuchel clearly trusted James in the big games, which cements his place near the top of Chelsea’s hierarchy. This should bode well for 2021-22.
Focusing in particular on the 19 Premier League games (as these are the games that count for fantasy), the percentages slightly increase. James played 1,194 minutes (73.7%) out of a possible 1,620, starting in 12 of the matches (63.2%) and being subbed on in six (31.6%). This meant the right-back’s probability of starting increased slightly for league games, while his chance of being subbed on decreased. Below is a graph detailing the minutes played by James in each league game under Tuchel in 2020-21.
The first significant trend from the graph is that when James started a league game under Tuchel, he stayed on for the full 90 minutes. This means he is not a starter that carries a substitution risk, which could potentially thwart clean sheet points.
The second trend to consider is how much of an option James is off the bench though. This is something worth bearing in mind for fantasy as it would mean accepting points hauls alternating with numerous 1-pointers. He was benched seven times in 19 matches (36.8%), accumulating 114 minutes as a substitute, which works out as an average of 16 minutes per game. Not a massive amount of time to influence the game and get an assist.
LOOKING AHEAD TO 2021-22
So what does this mean for this coming season? Well, if we extrapolate his league percentages across a full 38-game season, James would be playing ~2,520 minutes across ~24 starts and ~12 substitute appearances. This gives a rough estimate of what one could reasonably expect from the 21-year-old (providing he stays fit and Tuchel utilises him similarly to last season).
Therefore, the key to extracting the best out of James as a fantasy asset will come in judging where those substitute appearances might come. If you can pre-empt them to avoid the inevitable 1-pointers and then capitalise on the gains when he starts, he could be a valuable asset to own moving forward.