In pictures: Zenit v Chelsea
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Thomas Tuchel took an unorthodox approach to try and solve Chelsea’s midfield crisis by deploying Reece James in a more central role during the Blues dramatic 3-3 draw with Zenit St Petersburg.
James, who was celebrating his 22nd birthday in Russia, has arguably been the Blues player of the season and has made cameo appearances in a midfield position before.
But it could be a more frequent occurrence over the coming weeks given the current injury crisis in the Blues’ engine room.
In truth, Tuchel’s decision to start with a midfield pairing of James and Ross Barkley was an enforced one.
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The German’s hands were effectively tied after touching down in Russia on Wednesday night with a dearth of natural midfielders; with key men such as Jorginho and N’Golo Kante missing for the European champions.
On paper, it may seem as though James has all the attributes needed to thrive in a central midfield role. He’s certainly proven his credentials in just about every way imaginable during his stunning start to the season.
But Tuchel’s experiment quickly descended into a bit of a nightmare against the Russian champions.
Chelsea went in 2-1 down at the break after two quickfire goals from the hosts cancelled out Timo Werner’s early opener.
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Although the Blues looked solid for the first half an hour, the central pairing of James and Barkley didn’t really work out as Tuchel would have intended.
There seemed to be no real balance to Chelsea’s midfield pairing; who put up minimal resistance during Zenit’s first half goals, with Barkley guilty of some sloppy play in the build-up to Zenit’s second goal.
It was a different story for James, who appeared to be all on his own in the middle for Chelsea at times.
He had the most touches (37) of any Blues player in the first half and he was constantly eager to get on the ball, completing all but one of the 34 passes he attempted. But he was left exposed on more than one occasion by Barkley, who doesn’t look a natural fit next in that deeper role.
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Barkley redeemed himself by playing a key role in Romelu Lukaku’s leveller, but it looked an unusual pairing from the off.
However, James certainly showed enough to hint that, alongside a more natural partner in that deeper central role, he could be an adequate solution for Tuchel in the middle until Chelsea’s injury crisis ceases.
It’s hard to argue him being retained in that spot beyond then given he had nowhere near the level of impact that he usually does from his favoured wing-back spot.
But his versatility has already been a major plus for Tuchel, who may be encouraged to utilise it on a temporary basis more often to soothe his current central conundrum.
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