Magnificent James audition only adds to Gareth Southgate's right-back conundrum
If Euro 2020 was the X Factor, Gareth Southgate would just be about to whisk his squad off to judges’ houses.
Granted, St. George’s Park is hardly a palatial mansion in the Hollywood foothills, nor is Steve Holland much of a Sinitta, but for the 33-man contingent that the Three Lions have tentatively assembled, this is a final opportunity to prove that they have what it takes to strut their stuff on the grandest of stages.
And if there’s one category that’s looking particularly stacked at the present moment, it is – of course – The Right-Backs.
If this truly were Simon Cowell’s wheezing entertainment juggernaut, the high-waisted honcho might just bite the bullet and form a boy band out of Trent Alexander-Arnold, Kyle Walker, Kieran Trippier, and Reece James. (Presumably, Aaron Wan-Bissaka was kicked out at Boot Camp and Tariq Lamptey was told to come back next year).
But alas, Southgate has a difficult decision to make over the coming days, and it’s one that will have been made all the more complicated by James’ performance in Saturday night’s Champions League final against Manchester City.
In years to come, when Chelsea fans reminisce about that magical night in Porto, they will look back on Kai Havertz’s coolly taken winner or N'Golo Kante’s disciplined, untiring turn in the engine room – somewhere between a Shaolin monk and the Duracell Bunny.
But a large part of the Blues’ triumph was built on a foundation of defensive solidity, and nobody better exemplified the gritted teeth, blood and guts graft of that effort than James.
The 21-year-old had such a stifling effect on Sterling at the weekend that we might as well start calling him ‘Brexit Referendum’.
Raheem didn’t complete a single one of his attempted dribbles in Saturday’s clash, while James’ combined tally of six interceptions, six clearances, and 12 defensive duels won speaks volumes as to the combative and omnipresent nature of his display. So good was he, in fact, that it might even have had a detrimental impact on Sterling’s chances of starting at this summer’s tournament, hammering home the winger’s chequered run of form this term.
In a lot of ways, it was a real eye-opener to see the young man produce such an assured receipt of his credentials in the biggest game of his career to date – not unlike the series of performances that Alexander-Arnold put in during Liverpool’s run to the trophy a couple of years ago – and while it would be rash and perhaps a tad foolish to suggest that the pendulum of favour should swing entirely in James’ direction off the back of one stellar showing, it’s hard to deny that he looked like a player realising his considerable potential against City.
Somewhere, Southgate will have been casting a close eye over proceedings in Portugal on Saturday night, and somewhere, even if it was just a fleeting inclination darting across the back of his mind, he must have been thinking, ‘This boy looks like an England starter’.
There are some big, tough judgement calls to be made in the coming days, and some crushing blows to be doled out, but if nothing else, James has just gone and smashed the most prestigious audition of them all.