It was a “straight out of Cobham” goal. At a time when the future of Chelsea looks so uncertain, there is no doubt about the axis on which Thomas Tuchel must build his team. It’s also a reminder that, for all the money Todd Boehly plans to invest, this is a club capable of producing its own marquee talent.
In Reece James and Mason Mount, Chelsea have a double act that can serve them well for years to come. Their link-up for Mount’s fourth-minute strike against Leeds last night was a glimpse of what Tuchel missed for long stretches of the season when James, in particular, was injured.
It was a trademark charge down the right that saw James pick up the ball before giving way to his Chelsea and England team-mate. Mount did the rest – curling a shot from the edge of the area into the top corner to set up a 3-0 win that puts Champions League qualification within reach.
The pair are absolutely crucial to Tuchel’s system, with their combination on the right – swapping on the inside channel or outside – Chelsea’s most effective area of creativity. It’s no coincidence that Mount has struggled to reach the consistent levels of the past two seasons during James’ long absences.
With Ben Chilwell also ruled out for the majority of the campaign with knee ligament damage, Tuchel has been deprived of his greatest attacking weapons. Chelsea don’t play with a regular No.10, their midfield is built more on grafting than crafting.
Confidence is built on full-backs and wide forwards – and the relationship between Mount and James is crucial for that. Against Leeds they were at their destructive best – combining for the opening goal and then both playing key roles in Christian Pulisic’s second-half strike that doubled Chelsea’s lead.
Mount, who just made James the best player of the night, also kicked in Romelu Lukaku’s third and final goal by winning the ball just inside the Leeds half. Mount, 23, lacks the elegance or intricate technique of a Phil Foden – and there remain those who have yet to be convinced by him at the highest level. But its impact and effectiveness are indisputable.
He is a player who, more often than not, makes the right decisions. His intelligence and the timing of his runs break lines and disrupt defensive forms. He’s the complete package, with a total of 29 goals and assists in all competitions this season. These are the kind of stats that have made him a mainstay for club and country.
James, meanwhile, has the potential to be the best English footballer of his generation. The question is what position he will settle into, given his array of talents. Tuchel is already planning to deploy him as a centre-back to help deal with the loss of Antonio Rudiger and Andreas Christensen this summer.
He could be a good player in that role – as evidenced by his taming of Vinicius Junior in the Champions League – and a huge asset to England manager Gareth Southgate. But that would deprive Chelsea of their sheer threat from wide positions, which has seen him score six goals and provide eight assists, despite his long spells out of action.
Yet his quality on the ball, passing range, physicality and pace are such that he could dominate play in more central midfield areas, which Tuchel and Southgate have experienced. The possibilities seem endless to him, but his immediate future looks set to be at the back, as long as Tuchel depends so much on getting creative in those areas.
In Reece James and Mason Mount, Chelsea have a double act that can serve them well for years to come.
This will be where Chelsea look to hurt Liverpool the most in Saturday’s FA Cup final, which will explain why James and Mount’s form will provide so much encouragement. Elsewhere, Tuchel has tough decisions to make. Lukaku scored his third goal in two games to complete last night’s win at Elland Road, with Pulisic also impressive.
But Timo Werner will almost certainly be brought back, the German’s pace having hampered Liverpool in previous encounters, while Kai Havertz has been the preferred centre-forward in the biggest games. These are good problems for Tuchel.