There has been a lot of hype around Lauren James for a very long time. This is a player who was training with Arsenal's first team at the age of 15, debuted for the club a year later and helped fire Manchester United into the top-flight in the same season that she celebrated her 17th birthday.
Given the pace at which her senior career began, not many predicted it would take until just a few weeks before she turned 21 for James to win her first senior England cap. But there have been some bumps in the road on the way to her first Women’s World Cup this summer.
All of those experiences, good and bad, will help to mould this prodigious young talent into a top, top footballer, one whose technical abilities are already talked up in a remarkable manner. It’s hard at times not to get carried away because of some of the things she does on the pitch.
But it is important to remember that James is still just 21, that she is only now heading to her first major tournament and that she is still so new to the very highest level.
She clearly has an X-Factor that few do. So, how can that help England in their quest to win the World Cup?
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Always shown potential
To watch James play is to see a player full of confidence, one with little fear as she looks to glide past opponents and make things happen. It’s fitting, then, that her career was kickstarted with a brave move.
After starting out with Chelsea, the forward joined Arsenal as a 13-year-old and was on the fringes of the first team as a youngster, making eight appearances in the 2017-18 season. Indeed, Gunners star Leah Williamson, remembering that younger version of James, told reporters in February: "She was always going to be this good. It was just a matter of time."
But at the end of that campaign, she left London to be part of the first professional Manchester United women’s team. “It was weird at first,” James said recently, reflecting on the move several years on. “I was young, I was 16, it allowed me to - well, without making that move, I think I probably wouldn’t be where I am now. Sometimes people would say it was a step back because I went to the Championship, but sometimes it allows you to go steps forward and maybe I wouldn’t be here without that move.”
She scored 14 goals in 18 league games as United topped the table to win promotion to the Women's Super League, form she carried into the top-flight. The day before her 18th birthday, James scored the club's first ever WSL goal. “She can be as good as she wants to be,” then-United boss Casey Stoney said.
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Sadly, though, injuries would come along and hamper James. She played just 12 league games in her first year in the WSL and only 10 the following season before leaving Manchester in the summer of 2021.
Returning to London and to Chelsea, the Blues were incredibly patient with the young winger as they looked to help her get on top of the struggles. In fact, manager Emma Hayes named James in her starting XI just once in her first season back with the club, that a 7-0 win over Leicester in the FA Cup.
“Emma is always helpful,” James said. “She’s played a massive role in just getting me back to being myself again. She just says, ‘Enjoy it. Start enjoying the moments.’ Obviously, I’ve had two years of just constant injuries. She managed me well and it’s allowed me to find my feet again.”
Hayes continued to do that even in James’ second season. The England international was on the bench for both legs of Chelsea’s Champions League semi-final against Barcelona, for example, despite being a player that added a lot in transition. But with her suddenly playing a lot of football after significant struggles, and having never played at as high a level as the Blues do, Hayes’ management has been key in what has been an outstanding past year.
“In the moment everyone is like, ‘Why is Lauren not playing?’” James said. “I want to be playing on the pitch, but in the long run it’s obviously paid off and it’s kept me on the pitch this season.”
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The first signs that James was set for a big year came in pre-season when she caught the eye in Chelsea's draw with then-European champions Lyon. A couple of weeks later, her England debut came in a World Cup qualifier against Austria and then the WSL season began, with the young winger quickly a star performer.
Key contributions would come in both games against former club United, while her first Champions League goal came against Paris Saint-Germain in December - her second following just seven minutes later. James certainly played her part as Chelsea did another league and cup double.
“I think she's a unique player,” said team-mate Niamh Charles. “Obviously, I'm very privileged that I get to play with her every day. I don't actually know what her stronger foot is because she's just so comfortable on both! Her ability to, [when we] give her the ball, you know she's going to hold it up and turn players, it's very unique and hopefully it can be a weapon for [England].”
That’s certainly been the case all season long, with James taking her form from club level to the international stage each time the camps have come around.
Becoming a Lioness
After making that England debut in September, James has impressed more and more with each international window that has been and gone. In October, she was handed a start against the Czech Republic and she shone brightly throughout the hour she was on the pitch, coming so close to getting a goal when she hit the post early on.
A few months later, at the Arnold Clark Cup, the winger played so well in England’s three games that she was named Player of the Tournament. It was unsurprising, then, to hear Williamson heap praise on her at the time. “She's a cheat code,” her captain said.
That ability to take her club form to England has helped James really stake a claim for a starting role at this World Cup. “[Wiegman's] been brilliant with me,” the Chelsea star said of the coach that has given her the opportunity to become a Lioness. “She’s just allowed me to express myself and not tried to change me, which obviously plays a massive role because it allows you to just play freely and have confidence. So yes, she’s been calm with me.”
Competing out wide
James is one of the newest additions to an incredibly talented pool of wide players that Wiegman has at her disposal. As well as the Chelsea star, the Lionesses’ World Cup squad includes the electric Lauren Hemp, who has been a real mainstay on the left; Chloe Kelly, Hemp's Man City team-mate who scored the extra-time winner in the Euros final last summer; and Katie Robinson, the young Brighton forward who Wiegman has really taken a liking to.
“LJ likes to cut in and shoot,” Hemp told reporters last month, discussing the variety out wide. “She's very good at getting past players and using her strength to see if she can rob the ball which brings something different because normally me, Chloe and Katie like taking players on down out wide.
“Sometimes I cut in, sometimes I do other things. LJ can do both sides. It's the same with Katie to be honest. They just all bring something different and unique. We all know each other's favourite crosses and things we prefer to do. It's about working off each other but they bring massive depth into the squad, which is great to have so you don't have a carbon copy of each other.”
It's a great summary of the different options Wiegman has to choose from, and James is right in the conversation when it comes to being in the starting XI.
Or as a No.10?
But it might not strictly be as a winger that James operates this tournament. In England’s send-off match against Portugal, she spent the second half in a No.10 role and thoroughly impressed, driving at the heart of the opponent to create chances.
“You can tell that she can play on the side but she can also play on the centre,” Wiegman said afterwards. “She’s tight on the ball, she’s very powerful and has vision, and I think we could see someone who actually did really good things. I also think you could see in some moments that she could make some decisions a little quicker, so we’ll review that with the team later.”
The latter statement is not so surprising given James has rarely played in the role and because she is still so young and new to the top level, but the threat she can bring in those areas was certainly evident and will have given her coach food for thought.
Making her mark
Whether James starts or acts as an impact sub, whether Wiegman plays her out wide or more centrally, one thing that feels certain is that she will make her mark at this World Cup. Her talent is so big and her skill so great that she can be a game-changer regardless of the circumstance and despite her inexperience, particularly with her well-supported by her new team-mates.
“I don’t think it’s a case of looking after her,” said Chelsea and England defender Jess Carter of the winger. “She knows we get on really well and we have good honest communication. I think she knows if she needs to reach out, she can. She’s got good relationships here in the team for someone who’s only been in the squad for the past year, like with Lucy [Bronze], who has been here forever.”
That relationship with the Barcelona full-back is not just off the pitch, either. When the pair are both on the right-hand side of England’s team, they also link-up really well. “I'm just there to help her find the way she should play,” Bronze said.
There will be a lot of hype around James going into this tournament – there always is. But she’s learned to deal with that in the five years since her Arsenal debut. “I’m someone who always wants to just play football,” she said. “I try not to let the external noise get into me. I like to stay grounded.”
That joy she takes in getting out on the pitch is certainly evident when she does so, too. It’s a large part of what makes her a superstar in-waiting for England, and for Chelsea, and she is more than ready to show everyone that in Australia.