Chelsea star proved to be a solid addition vs Zenit

81 passes, three tackles: Chelsea ace proved to be a solid addition vs Zenit

Thomas Tuchel tinkered like never before last night.

His Chelsea XI to face Zenit St Petersburg yesterday in the Champions League was arguably the most experimental of the German’s 11-month tenure.

Thanks to an avalanche of injuries cascading upon Stamford Bridge ahead of Wednesday’s European contest, Tuchel had no choice but to reshuffle the pack.

He made eight changes from the weekend defeat to West Ham United, including handing four players their first start in the competition this season.

Kepa Arrizabalaga made some excellent saves to justify his inclusion over Edouard Mendy.

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Malang Sarr is certainly quite a few steps down from Antonio Rudiger.

Ross Barkley played a part in Romelu Lukaku’s second-half goal but struggled to make a significant mark on the match.

Saul Niguez began the evening at left wing-back, a position he did not look entirely comfortable with.

On the opposite flank, Callum Hudson-Odoi was asked to work as a wing-back, despite all his best performances this year arriving in an offensive position.

But perhaps Tuchel’s most debatable decision of the day involved Reece James.

Reason for Reece

Upon first glance of the team sheet, it seemed the England international would be stationed in his customary wide role, with Hudson-Odoi pushed further forward.

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This meant Mason Mount dropped a little deeper to partner Barkley in central midfield.

Yet, when the sides walked out and stood in their respective positions, it seemed the Tuchel had tricked everyone.

James lined up alongside Barkley, whilst Mount sat just behind the two centre-forwards.

The defender has featured centrally before, for both club and country, so the change made sense, but only once Chelsea’s manager explained the switch.

“Unfortunately for many weeks we are without N’Golo Kante and Mateo Kovacic, and now without Jorginho and Ruben Loftus-Cheek was out after the warm-up,” said the Blues boss after 3-3 draw.

“We lost four central midfield players so we had Reece in there for some physicality.”

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Loftus-Cheek remained on the substitute’s bench in light of that pre-game problem, meaning Tuchel had little choice but to move James inside.

But how did the 22-year-old cope in his new role?

Based on the statistics, pretty admirable indeed.

According to, the full-back by trade attempted more passes (81) than any player on the Saint Petersburg pitch.

He did so with a 93.8% passing accuracy, the third-highest for Chelsea behind Hudson-Odoi (played 64 minutes) and Kai Havertz (played 16 minutes).

Clearly confident on the ball, James demonstrated his defensive nous off it.

With three tackles (joint second-most for the Blues), three clearances and two interceptions, the academy graduate got stuck in when necessary.

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Also, rather surprisingly, he completed two dribbles, another high for Tuchel’s men.

It’s just a shame James couldn’t influence the result at the opposite end.

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"Nathaniel is a football journalist who graduated from the University of Derby. He worked at Burton Albion as part of their media team for two years. Nathaniel produced regular articles for the club’s official website and match-day programme. He covered the 2018 U20 Women’s World Cup in Brittany and has reported from grounds ranging from non-league up to the Premier League. Nathaniel is a full-time writer for the Chelsea Chronicle, and was formerly their social media man. His footballing career reached the sparkling heights of winning the Under-13s Bloxham Tournament in 2011."