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In Malo Gusto, Chelsea finally have sufficient wing-back cover for Reece James

Posted on September 18, 2023

When Reece James limped off in Chelsea's opening weekend 1-1 draw with Liverpool, Mauricio Pochettino suggested he was withdrawn due to tiredness rather than injury. A few days later, the Blues boss confirmed James had sustained a hamstring problem. "It's a hamstring. It's not a few days, a few weeks maybe," Pochettino said almost a month ago, and James hasn't featured since.

Fortunately for Chelsea, their skipper should be fit to return to action later this month. While Sunday's trip to Bournemouth does come too soon for James, supporters can rest assured his injury wasn't more severe. Crucially is that Chelsea also have relevant cover for James at right wing-back, whereas previously they would have struggled for a replacement when the 23-year-old inevitably spends time on the sidelines.

The likes of Cesar Azpilicueta and Ruben Loftus-Cheek would have been called upon to operate in the role in years gone by, and the lack of attacking output and experience in the position has shown. Chelsea have been robbed of a key outlet down the right in James' absence in the past, but the Blues have corrected this issue.

Back in January, Chelsea confirmed the signing of Malo Gusto. The Frenchman would go on to stay at Lyon for the second half of the campaign to garner regular game time prior to his switch to west London over the summer. He perhaps couldn't have expected to have been thrust into first team action so soon, though James' injury history means that shouldn't have come as a surprise.

Nevertheless, Gusto hasn't looked out of sorts in the Premier League, and this has been a welcomed boost for the Blues. Chelsea's start to the season hasn't gone quite according to plan. They have picked up four points from the opening four games, falling to defeat at West Ham and at home to Nottingham Forest prior to the international break, with the old issues still a worry.

No team has missed more big chances than Pochettino's side (11), while a conversion rate of 7.5% is the fifth worst in the division. Pochettino wasn't immediately going to rectify their goal woes, but five goals in four games, three of which were at home against Premier League debutants Luton - two of those were assisted by Gusto - doesn't make for great reading.

There have, though, been positives, albeit a handful, and Gusto's adjustment from French to English football is one. While the Frenchman isn't of the same calibre of James when it comes to creating chances - Gusto has only made two key passes, the same is the Blues skipper, despite registering more minutes - it's the desire to beat an opponent to open up space in the final third that helps put Chelsea on the frontfoot.

A return of 1.4 dribbles per 90 is the third most of all Chelsea players with Gusto's willingness to get the ball down and run at markers a key weapon the Blues' armoury as they seek to stretch opponents. There's also the defensive work that Gusto puts in to provide additional protection to the backline, with 2.4 tackles per 90 ranking third for the Blues. It's a small sample size, granted, but the early signs are positive.

Most importantly, though, is that Chelsea do have an attacking wing-back that can deputise when James is sidelined for one reason or another. That's not to say that Gusto will keep his place in the side - as captain, James will be one of the first names on the teamsheet when fit - but whereas there were understandable concerns in previous seasons when James was absent, Chelsea can at least maintain that attacking balance with Gusto a more than able deputy at right wing-back.

Chelsea have rightly been criticised for spending over £1bn in the last 12 months, assembling a squad that is nowhere near ready to compete for top honours, yet Gusto has quickly taken on Pochettino's demands to become a key squad member. In a misguided recruitment drive since Todd Boehly took over the reins, Chelsea's decision to sign the 20-year-old deserves praise.