Frank Lampard’s footballing philosophy is finally starting to bear fruit, and it’s clear that keeping his full-backs high up the pitch, with N’Golo Kante sweeping up in front of the backline, is exactly what he envisages.
Last campaign, the left-back issue was simply too big to ignore and splashing the cash on Chilwell was what Lampard viewed as essential to fill the missing piece of his puzzle.
Signing Chilwell for £50m was a cause for concern for many Chelsea fans before the season began but any doubts over his quality have been comprehensively extinguished.
He’s been exceptional.
Whilst Andy Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold have long been considered the best full-back duo in the Premier League, if not the world, Chilwell and James have a rightful claim to that title this season.
The chemistry between left and right flank has been second to none, with Chilwell’s bursts from the left often found by pinpoint cross-field switches from Hakim Ziyech, and with James’ overlapping runs causing havoc down the right, Chelsea have an attack as fluid as any in Europe.
Lampard’s use of inverted wingers enables overloads in wide areas, with the full-backs providing the out-and-out width for the likes of Ziyech, Timo Werner and Christian Pulisic cutting inside onto their favoured foot.
It’s a system that has worked perfectly so far this season, and with a 100% record ever since the move to a 4-3-3 occurred ahead of the Burnley game in late October, Lampard has got Chelsea rolling.
Ben Chilwell: The great all-rounder
A major criticism of Chilwell before his move to Stamford Bridge was that he was fairly average at everything, failing to excel in any particular area.
Once again this season his underlying numbers don’t represent a player who has been one of the league’s best, but the eye test does that for you.
Four goal contributions (two goals and two assists) is level with Liverpool’s Robertson, and Chilwell’s 1.9 key passes per 90 betters the Scotsman’s 1.6.
Whilst from the outset Chilwell’s 1.7 successful tackles and interceptions doesn’t look particularly impressive, Chelsea have had over 60% possession four times in the Premier League since Chilwell’s arrival, and over 70% on three occasions; he simply hasn’t had much to defend.
In terms of Chilwell’s offensive play, it’s come on leaps and bounds since his arrival in West London.
His xG + xA per 90 tally of 0.25 is the best it’s ever been in his career, and his relationship with Mason Mount and the aforementioned Werner is blossoming.
It’s a long-shot to say he’s better than Robertson at the moment, but at 23 years old, he certainly has the potential to be one of Europe’s elite full-backs in years to come.
Reece James: Strong in attack and defence
Perhaps already the most complete right-back in England’s ranks, James has displaced club captain and Chelsea legend Cesar Azpilicueta this season, and for good reason.
Last season, James was sometimes slightly lazy in possession and his defensive work-rate wasn’t quite up to scratch. Just six months later and he’s performing as the best right-back in the league.
James’ 2.6 successful tackles and interceptions per 90 exceeds Alexander-Arnold’s 2.0, and he’s contributed to more goals (two) than the Liverpool man (one).
The argument that Alexander-Arnold is a poor defender is fairly inaccurate, but James is certainly more well-rounded than his competitor; the fight for a starting berth at Euro 2020 is on.
Again, James’ understanding with Ziyech appears second to none, and together they look set to tear up the left-hand side of any club in Europe.
Together, James and Chilwell look as dangerous going forward, and as secure defensively as any full-back pairing in world football right now.
Considering their age, Chelsea have secured themselves two of Europe’s elite full-backs for the best part of the next decade, and that is quite simply priceless.