It’s not quite Messi-Ronaldo, but if you’re lucky enough to have followed football in the noughties, which was *checks notes, gasps with horror* a whole two decades ago, you’ll no doubt be privy to the age-old Steven Gerrard vs Frank Lampard debate.
Both peaking between around 2004 and 2008, though really very good for a long time after that as well, the pair were among the finest midfielders of their generation. Not only were they starring figures in what was at the time a heated rivalry between their respective clubs, Gerrard was also linked strongly as a transfer target for Chelsea in 2005 (story still available on the Guardian), though this of course prompted more debate that also dominated issues in the England national team at the time; not just about which one is the better player, but could they play together?
We never got to find that out at club level, and the jury is kind of out on whether they ever really made it work for England. Perhaps luckily, this generation’s Gerrard and Lampard won’t have that problem as you can’t have two right-backs on the pitch at once (though with tactical trends developing and changing so quickly now, who knows where we’ll be by the end of this decade?).
It’s pretty surreal for those of us who grew up debating about Gerrard, Lampard, and even Paul Scholes and other similar players, that full-backs are now the big glamour players as we head into the 20s. While in many ways we should perhaps have seen it coming in the 10s as Dani Alves became almost as important to Barcelona’s best teams as Xavi, Iniesta and even Lionel Messi himself, and Pep Guardiola then relied similarly on big-money signings Kyle Walker and Benjamin Mendy to really kick-start his era of success at Manchester City, the fact that this new generation of exciting young talents is headed by Trent Alexander-Arnold and Reece James signals a continuing and relentless shift in this direction.
Less than two weeks ago, Liverpool thrashed Leicester City 4-0 at the King Power Stadium, with there really being no question at all that right-back Alexander-Arnold was the architect of it all. The 21-year-old put in an absolute masterclass to finish the game with a goal and two assists, running the show from box to box in a way that Gerrard himself would have been proud of back in his pomp, albeit from a wider position than Stevie G played.
We’ve always had great full-backs, with Ashley Cole and Gary Neville among recent examples in this country alone, though of course as recently as 2013 Jamie Carragher trolled his co-pundit by claiming: “There’s only two things for a full-back. You’re either a filed winger or a failed centre-back. No-one wants to grow up and be a Gary Neville” (1.13 in the video above). While that was perhaps a harsh assessment from Carragher, there was some element of truth to it, as before the last five years or so you could probably count on one hand the number of times a right-back or a left-back was named man of the match. Midfield and attack have always been the glamour positions, while centre-backs and defensive midfielders get all the credit for being the true ‘spine’ of a team.
Aged only 21, Alexander-Arnold already has two iconic displays under his belt, with the recent performance at Leicester alongside his big-game performance in *that* Champions League semi-final comeback against Barcelona. In the noughties, we were treated to the tricks and flicks of Ronaldinho, now we have the audacity and imagination of Trent’s quick corner that set up Divock Origi’s winner at Anfield that night. And, like Ronaldinho, Alexander-Arnold takes a pretty mean free-kick too.
Still, how long before we’re talking about Chelsea’s Reece James in the same way? The 20-year-old is enjoying a superb breakthrough season at Chelsea, and though he only has two goals and two assists to his name so far (Alexander-Arnold has set up nine already this term, by the way), you can probably blame some of that on the poor finishing of some of his team-mates, as you’ll see from his highlights against Nottingham Forest in the video below:
Reece James Vs Nottinghampic.twitter.com/4VPpDCcxRe
— BNS Comps (@BnsComps) January 5, 2020
Like Alexander-Arnold, James looks to have this incredible combination of speed, skill, creativity, and crossing that a peak David Beckham would be envious of. It’s surely only a matter of time before he’s at Alexander-Arnold’s level, while a transfer to a stronger team would probably also help aid that leap.
It remains to be seen if Frank Lampard will follow Jurgen Klopp in implementing a system that is so reliant on the quality out wide coming from overlapping full-backs, but he’d almost be foolish not to with a talent like James on his hands.
Blues fans can probably rest assured, however, that the club are well aware of the youngster’s ability to replicate Alexander-Arnold. Speaking with Talk Chelsea blogger Simon Phillips, it seems there has been a special buzz about him for some time.
“Reece James is rare,” Phillips told CaughtOffside. “He’s one of those players that has everything about his game without any real weaknesses. He can play anywhere and look good.
“But his best asset is his right foot, he has such a great whipped cross on him that he could even teach Beckham how to bend it. He’s been the best crosser at Chelsea for about three years now, without a doubt. Those inside the club have known for many years that he will become world class.”
Even if James doesn’t make it as a right-back, it says a lot about just how well-rounded players in this position are now expected to be that it’s also been suggested he could easily change position in the future.
CHO – "Me and Reece have been playing together for years, we always had that link-up and we really enjoy playing with each other.
"It showed in this game. It causes problems so we want to keep linking up together and create chances"
Hence why I love this right hand side.. ! pic.twitter.com/9itbHv1S5P
— Simon Phillips (@SiPhillipsSport) January 6, 2020
“Right-back would be his favoured position,” CFC boss Lampard was recently quoted by the Metro. “Whether it be there, right wing-back or right of a three.
“As he’s coming into the team, you’d see him there but he does have that all-round game that he could handle playing centrally in midfield if needs be.”
While natural talent is always important, it also seems James’ versatility comes through his coaching, with much of his early development coming under his father, who works as a football coach. Speaking to Alex Goldberg earlier this season, he gave some insight into the philosophy that has ended up producing as versatile a talent as James, explaining how he played him in every position on the football pitch and slamming the use of squad numbers for pigeon-holing players.
Why is Reece James such a versatile footballer?
Listen to this brilliant answer from his Dad, who is also a coach. pic.twitter.com/bSV1HBcr00
— Alex Goldberg (@AlexGoldberg_) October 16, 2019
“Reece would never play in the position that he played at Chelsea,” his father said. “If Reece was a central midfielder, he’d play centre-back for me. When he was young and playing at centre-forward, he’d play left-back for me, he’d play right-back for me. Reece has actually played every single position on the pitch.
“I never used to believe in putting numbers on the back of shirts. If you give someone the number 9, he automatically thinks ‘I’m a centre-forward’, but if you just put them out there and say ‘you’re going to play here, you’re going to play there and the next ten minutes you’re going to play there and you’re going to play there’, they all know ‘I might have to play in defence’ but there’s no numbers to confuse them.”
Clearly, James brings something of the unexpected to this Chelsea team, and his potential in a variety of positions is enormous. Still, looking at Alexander-Arnold at Liverpool, it’s hard to imagine that it isn’t at the reinvented role of right-back that these two enormous talents become the Gerrard and Lampard of their generation.