Mon. May 20th, 2024

James is performing exceptionally – but can she lead Chelsea to a quadruple?

By Sanchez Mar 30, 2024
James is performing exceptionally - but can she lead Chelsea to a quadruple?James is performing exceptionally - but can she lead Chelsea to a quadruple?

There has been a lot of talk about Lauren James for a long time, about her potential to be something great, to be the best player in the world, even. But this season feels really significant as she continues that journey, one in which she has taken greater strides than ever before towards realising such high expectations.

James’ world-class talent has been seen in glimpses over the years; in her breakthrough in the senior game with Manchester United, in her first full season at the very highest level with a Chelsea team competing on four fronts, in her first World Cup campaign last summer. This year, though, we’re not talking about glimpses. We’re talking about consistent, match-winning performances.

The 22-year-old has shown that she can deliver in the biggest moments, and they are about to get even bigger. Chelsea’s bid for a quadruple is heating up and the first leg of it comes on Sunday, as they take on Arsenal in the Continental Cup final. And if you asked someone to predict which player will make the biggest difference at Molineux on Sunday, it’d surely be a surprise if they didn’t pick out James’ name before any other.

Injuries galore

It’s been a really difficult few months for Chelsea when it comes to injuries. Last season, they were missing many key personnel throughout the campaign, most notably Fran Kirby and Pernille Harder, but they didn’t make excuses. They did what champions do and found a way to win, picking up another Women’s Super League title and an FA Cup to boot.

If they can enjoy a fruitful end to this season, it’ll be even more impressive. Not only have Chelsea been without experienced leaders like Millie Bright, Maren Mjelde and Ann-Katrin Berger for spells, they’ve also been extremely depleted in attack.

In January, star striker Sam Kerr ruptured her ACL. A month later, Mia Fishel, her back-up, suffered the same fate. With Kirby in and out of the team due to issues here and there, summer-signing Catarina Macario not debuting until March due to her own ACL recovery and striker Mayra Ramirez missing a handful of games since her blockbuster transfer in January, Emma Hayes has had to reshuffle her front line plenty.

Stepping up

Emphasis has been on others to step up, then, and they certainly have. Youngster Aggie Beever-Jones has enjoyed a breakthrough season after a couple of years out on loan, going on a goal-scoring run of five in five games just before Christmas despite only one of those appearances coming as a starter.

Johanna Rytting Kaneyrd, meanwhile, has flown under the radar as a really impressive performer on the right, enjoying the best spell of her Chelsea career to date after signing at the start of the 2022-23 season.

Ramirez and Macario have also come up with big moments when they’ve been able to. Before an injury sidelined her for several weeks, the former scored a match-winning goal in a difficult FA Cup tie with Crystal Palace, while Macario’s role as a super-sub has been quite remarkable given it has come after almost two years out injured.

But none have stepped up to a level as impressive as the one James has found, the England star regularly proving to be the difference in games and hitting form that has put her in the race for the WSL Golden Boot with some of the division’s top strikers.

Signs of brilliance

There was a feeling back in October, as the new campaign began, that James could be in for a special season. Coming off the back of some truly world-class displays at the World Cup, and with a full season at Chelsea under her belt after her first was all about getting on top of niggling injuries, she entered the campaign in a good place and with a solid foundation to build on.

Against Tottenham on the opening day, James was the star of the show, delighting the Stamford Bridge faithful with a wonderful performance. When Chelsea faced Liverpool in November, meanwhile, she was an absolute menace, netting her first hat-trick for the Blues and just the second of her senior career. A week later, at home to Leicester, it was more of the same, with two goals on that occasion.

Big stage

But recent weeks have shown that James can deliver these performances in the big moments against the toughest opponents, too. Chelsea’s Continental Cup semi-final clash with Manchester City was not a classic, but rather a scrappy affair and, at times, the Blues had to hang on. But when James got an early sight of goal, she capitalised and found the back of the net with a strike that would decide the game.

Against Arsenal a week later, in a huge clash at the top of the WSL table, she once again ran the show and led Chelsea to an absolute demolition of their London rivals in a game that could’ve easily hampered the Blues in their title chase.

Four days after that, James grabbed the headlines once more. Chelsea looked to have the toughest Champions League quarter-final tie on paper, taking on an Ajax side that had out-qualified Roma and Bayern Munich, but they emerged with the most convincing first-leg result as James led them to a 3-0 victory in Amsterdam.

At just 22 years old, she is turning up for these big games and she is doing it every few days, too. The consistency is so impressive, especially given she still has so much experience to gain on these stages.

Adapting her game

Also admirable in James’ efforts is the fact that she has had to adjust her role amid the injuries Chelsea have been hit with. Being without Kerr, Fishel and Ramirez in recent weeks has meant the team has lacked a recognised centre-forward and so Hayes has trusted James to play something akin to a ‘false nine’. She lines up in that central position but when Chelsea have possession, she has been roaming freely into the spaces where she feels she can hurt the opponent.

“We let Lauren do her own thing because on the ball, she can produce something out of nothing and she has that unique ability,” Erin Cuthbert, her Chelsea team-mate, told Sky Sports after the win over Arsenal. “I think for me, it is just keeping her defensively in check and narrow, keeping the spaces close, but when she gets the ball, she’s free to do whatever she wants and she is such a talented player.”

Hayes’ trust

To be given trust like that at such an age speaks volumes of James’ ability and the manner in which she has developed in her defensive duties. It also points to the relationship she has with Hayes, who has been something of a motherly figure to the forward since her arrival in London.

After ensuring she was well looked after at the club and not rushed back from the injuries that had plagued her towards the end of her time at Manchester United, Hayes didn’t over-play James in her first full season, and instead made sure to introduce her to the very highest level in a measured manner. Now, all of that patience is paying dividends.

“For me, the reason why Lauren is now coming into this [form] is because she knows she has the support from Emma,” Kirby said on Three Players and a Podcast earlier this month. “She knows that Emma has her back and Emma sees her, as we all see her, as one of the best players in the country, one of the best players in Europe, probably one of the best players in the world at the moment.

“If you’ve got a player like that, obviously, you can take them on if they’re not doing the work for the team, if they’re not doing their defensive role or whatever it is, but Lauren is in a place now where she feels comfortable with the way that she’s playing and she knows that she has the manager’s [backing].

“As a player, obviously, when a manager is giving you these compliments and they are making you feel good, you feel untouchable. You feel like when you go on the pitch, you can just move around and have the confidence to do what you do. I think that’s what Emma has brought to Lauren and what Lauren has brought to the club.”

Quadruple dreams

It’s quite the time for James to be hitting this form, too. In recent years, when Chelsea have reached the business end of the season, Kerr and Kirby have often been their go-to match-winners, the ones who score the goals and put in the performances that win them the titles. But Kerr isn’t here to do that this time around and Kirby has had her niggles throughout this campaign. Chelsea have needed someone to step up.

To play for a club like Chelsea, you have to be ready to deliver in the biggest moments and, so far this season, James has shown that she can do exactly that. Now, as the chase for the quadruple intensifies, as the cup finals approach, the title run-in gets tight and the latter stages of the Champions League loom, she has shown she can be the key to Hayes bidding farewell to the club in style.

By Sanchez

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