Malo Gusto form should help Chelsea avoid repeat of Reece James woe

This time, there should be no need for Chelsea to rush captain Reece James back from injury.

The need to have James, one of the best right-backs in the world, on the pitch has led Chelsea to make some mistakes in the way they have handled him in the past.

It is never easy to get the balance right when assessing exactly when to recall a key player following a spell out through injury. Despite all the data and medical advances made to assess individuals, there is no crystal ball. Luck, certainly bad as far as James has been concerned, does come into it.

Yet because Chelsea are so much better balanced when James is on the pitch, he has come back too early on occasion. The best example of this was last season. After suffering a knee injury against AC Milan in October, he suffered the same problem again during his comeback match against Bournemouth two months later where he surprisingly started rather than being given a gentle introduction late on off the bench. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it proved to be too much too soon. He ended up missing another five weeks of the campaign, returned to the side for only two months, then got injured again.

It has been a similarly exasperating story for the England international in 2023-24. He has made just nine appearances, during which he has not once completed 90 minutes, due to hamstring injuries. In December, he had an operation on his right leg, with the specialist who did the procedure expecting him to be out for three or four months.

James will want to recover as soon as possible because he is Chelsea’s captain and wants to help the club, but there is also the slim hope of making the England squad for the European Championships in the summer on his mind.

But Chelsea can afford to be patient to ensure James gets back to feeling 100 per cent right physically and mentally. Why? The form of Malo Gusto.

No one would say Gusto is as good as James in the right wing-back role… or at least, not yet. However, the biggest compliment you could pay the France international is that he is limiting how much the 24-year-old is being missed.

Gusto is in his first full season at Stamford Bridge having been signed from Lyon for £26.3million (plus add-ons) in January last year and spending the second half of last season back on loan at the Ligue 1 club.

You could argue that he is second only to Cole Palmer in terms of the best buys the new owners have made since they took over in May 2022. Gusto turns 21 in May and is already beginning to look an absolute bargain.

His display in the 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace on Monday was the perfect demonstration of this. Even when Chelsea laboured during a very poor first half, he was one of the few bright spots due to the width he added to Chelsea’s attack.

Malo Gusto battles with Tyrick Mitchell of Crystal Palace (Chelsea FC via Getty Images)

It was Gusto’s fine cross, one of 11 he delivered on the night, that set up Conor Gallagher for Chelsea’s equaliser just after half-time. He had a remarkable 132 touches in the game and a 92.6 per cent pass completion rate from 94 passes.

Another sign of his influence was that 50 per cent of Chelsea’s attacks came down the right flank. To put that in perspective, only 30 per cent of their attacks came on the opposite side where the more experienced left-back Ben Chilwell was operating.

Gusto now has six assists in all competitions, a fine return. The inch-perfect cross he provided for Nicolas Jackson in the 3-1 FA Cup victory at Aston Villa last week was worthy of James himself.

Inevitably for one so young and new to English football, Gusto will make mistakes and have games where he is not at his best. His display in the 4-2 loss at home to Wolves earlier this month, where he conceded a penalty for a rash tackle on Matheus Cunha, was an example.

Still, Mauricio Pochettino is delighted with his contribution, even if he understandably still laments James’ absence. When asked by The Athletic whether the speed of Gusto’s development is negating the need to accelerate the captain’s return, he replied: “I think when we assess Malo Gusto, we brought him in to try to compete with Reece James. He’s really, really young, but now with the injury of Reece James, he needs to play and play a lot and compete every single game.

“We can see some good things and things he needs to improve because he is so young and in the first season in the Premier League, but yes, we are so happy. He is going to improve.”

Gusto will need some protection from the intense workload himself. Pochettino revealed he had to be substituted in the 84th minute at Selhurst Park due to fatigue rather than an injury. Backup is available, albeit none of them are ideal for various reasons. There is Axel Disasi, but he normally plays at centre-back. The same could be said for fit-again Trevoh Chalobah, while academy graduate Alfie Gilchrist is only just getting his first minutes as a senior player, so is very raw.

But Gusto is now a trusted member of the first XI and will continue to feature regularly for the rest of the season. That should also mean James will not have to take any risks. His competition with Gusto can wait until he is good and ready.

(Top photo: Vince Mignott/MB Media/Getty Images)

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