Malo Gusto has proved to be the perfect Reece James replacement

Reece James is unquestionably one of the most talented players in the Chelsea squad but has already missed over 140 days this season due to a recurring hamstring injury. His proneness to injury has remained a constraint for the Blues as one of their most influential players has not played most periods of the last few seasons.

In Chelsea’s squad rebuilding period, the recruitment team was insistent on finding a capable right-back of a high caliber so that there was no drop-off in team performance upon James’ future absence while also befitting the hierarchy’s youth-focused hiring policy.

The Blues landed on French prospect Malo Gusto, who had captured many clubs’ interest after an outstanding 2021/22 season for Lyon. Since his move to England, Gusto has never looked out of place and has emerged as one of the brightest young talents in the Premier League.

Lighting Up Ligue 1

Gusto broke into Lyon’s first team in 2021 and established himself as a starter after France international Léo Dubois departed the club. The young right-back recorded over 1,800 minutes of experience in senior men’s football and attested to be an attacking threat from the flanks.

At the end of the campaign, Gusto ranked as one of the best attacking fullbacks in the league at the early age of 19. Inevitably, the Frenchman drew interest from top clubs across Europe, including Real Madrid, Manchester United, and Chelsea.

However, it was quite a surprise that the Blues were alone in their pursuit of Gusto – facing no concrete competition from potential suitors. After lengthy negotiations, the West London club finally agreed to a €30 million deal for the right-back in late January of 2023 but the Frenchman spent the remainder of the season on loan at Lyon.

(Shot-creating Actions: Offensive actions by a player that leads to a shot)

The Perfect Fit

Despite Chelsea enduring another underwhelming season, there have been a few reasons why the club’s supporters remain hopeful, with Gusto’s performances being one of them.

The Chelsea fanbase was excited to see what Gusto would bring at the start of the season. Still, it would be fair to conclude that most did not predict the youngster to adapt to life at Stamford Bridge so quickly – especially considering that many of his peers have endured a rough initiation period.

Like James, Gusto is a well-rounded fullback who is uncompromised in both aspects of his game – offensive and defensive. The Frenchman has substantiated his prowess in one-versus-one duels with his recent performance against one of the best dribblers in the league – Jérémy Doku – substantiating that claim.

However, Gusto’s inexperience can cause careless mistakes.

The example below is from Chelsea’s 4-1 victory over Spurs. Although the final scoreline was gratifying for the Blues – indicating a commanding performance – the match was not as smooth sailing as the result may suggest despite the rivals being down to nine men.

The home team pressured Chelsea in periods of the game, especially toward the last stretch. In the 85th minute, Gusto committed a needless foul when Emerson Royal was not in a threatening position.

It allowed Pedro Porro to deliver a dangerous cross into the penalty box that found Rodrigo Bentancur, who scuffed the opportunity and saved Chelsea from an embarrassing draw.

Nevertheless, such instances have seldom occurred, with Chelsea fans remembering Gusto for more good moments than not. His pace, strength, agility, and intelligence have made the youngster appear wiser than his age suggests, with plenty of high-class defensive performances this season.

The Frenchman has looked his finest when charging down the right wing and whipping crosses into the penalty box. He constantly provides an overlap option for his wing partner – supplying Chelsea with a menacing combination on the flanks.

Most of Gusto’s assists in blue have occurred in such cases, and they have come in some of the most crucial moments.

Against Crystal Palace, Chelsea was down a goal after Jefferson Lerma scored a screamer from distance in the first half. With the Blues desperate for a goal, Gusto provided an accurate cross for Conor Gallagher to convert two minutes into the second half, which propelled the team to a 3-1 victory.

Having suffered a humiliating defeat to Wolves a few days prior, Chelsea’s FA Cup tie against Aston Villa felt like a do-or-die battle for Mauricio Pochettino. Although the away side scored first anyway, Gusto’s assist for Nicolas Jackson to double the lead in just twenty-one minutes provided Chelsea security to see out the tie despite a late surge from Unai Emery’s men.

This goal demonstrates the upside of having a double threat from the wings mentioned earlier.

In the first screengrab, Noni Madueke steams towards Villa left-back Àlex Moreno, who cannot commit to the winger or the overlapping fullback since it would leave the other in acres of space. Instead, the Spaniard opts to keep both opponents at arm’s length. However, the plan backfires in the end since Gusto has plenty of time to ping an accurate cross into the box, with Moreno not timely closing down the fullback.

Limitless Potential

Gusto has been nothing short of excellent for Chelsea this season – capable of even adeptly filling in at left-back if needs must. The youngster’s utility and quality have attested to him being the recruitment team’s best value-for-money purchases.

Though he is barely a season into his stint in West London, the relatively cheap signing fee and the subtle nature of his arrival are reminiscent of when the Blues signed club legend César Azpilicueta in 2012, who also arrived from Ligue 1 and was capable of playing in different positions across the backline.

Gusto was signed to be the Chelsea captain’s understudy but has turned out to have more than enough quality to compete with James for a spot on the team sheet. The right-back department will be an area Chelsea does not have to concern themselves about for the next decade with the high potential of their newfound gem.

At just 20 years old, the sky is the limit for Malo Gusto.

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