'Lauren James can be the best player in the world' - The moments that made England's Women's World Cup sensation

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Lauren James World Cup GFX
The Lionesses star was involved in five goals as they beat China on Tuesday, her night in Adelaide the latest stand-out display on a growing list

The greatest individual performance from an England player at a Men's or Women's World Cup. That was what Lauren James produced in Adelaide on Tuesday as the Lionesses beat China 6-1 to win Group D and set up a last-16 tie with Nigeria, the Chelsea star scoring two beautiful goals while also providing three assists on a truly remarkable night for the player and her team.

James has been stealing the show ever since she was 16 years old. Showing glimpses of her talent after coming through Arsenal's youth ranks, she firmly asserted herself as the brightest talent in English football while with Manchester United and has only enhanced her reputation while playing at the highest level for Chelsea - and now, England.

Her performance against China was the latest in a long list of outstanding outings in what looks set to be a long and successful career in the sport for this 21-year-old superstar. Let GOAL take you through some of the moments that have defined James' young career to date and helped her ascend to the very top...

  1. Joining Manchester United

    Joining Manchester United

    Arsenal are the most successful club in the history of English women's football. They've been the biggest club in the game for some time, too, and certainly were when James was coming through the youth ranks in north London, making sporadic appearances in the 2017-18 season as a 16-year-old.

    But in the summer of 2018, she made a huge decision. She left the club and moved some 200 miles up north to join Manchester United, a club that was relaunching its women's team and would play in the Championship in the upcoming season.

    Casey Stoney was to be the head coach and she knew all about James, having trained with her while she was a player at Arsenal. "She has the possibility to be the best player in the world," Stoney wrote in her column for The Times earlier this week. "I said that to her at 16."

    Under the former England international, the teenager would thrive, marking her competitive debut for the club with the only goal of the game as the Red Devils beat Liverpool and also netting twice on her league debut.

    "It was weird at first," James said recently. "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. 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.”

  2. Making her mark in the Championship

    Making her mark in the Championship

    James excelled in the Championship and in no game was that more evident than when United beat Crystal Palace 7-0, with the teenage forward scoring four of those goals.

    She turned her marker inside out three times for the first, burst past three opponents to score her second from an angle in the box, anticipated Charlie Devlin's cross well to head in her hat-trick and then burst through the Palace defence to finish - on her second attempt - for four.

    It was a performance that really emphasised that James was ready for the next level and she was about to go to it, as this win sealed the Championship title and with it, promotion to the Women's Super League.

  3. Writing her name into the history books

    It didn't take long for James to make her mark in the WSL. United started with two really tough games, against regular Champions League participants Manchester City and Arsenal, and would lose both by narrow 1-0 scorelines.

    But the visit of Liverpool in their third league match provided them with a chance to bounce back and it was James who broke the deadlock late in the second half. Picking the ball up in the box, she coolly sidestepped her marker before smashing the ball into the back of the net.

    It was the club's first ever WSL goal, her first ever WSL goal and one that set them on their way to their first ever WSL win.

  4. Finding form in the WSL

    It's one thing to score the odd goal at the highest level, but during that 2019-20 season, James showed real rhythm and form, finding her feet well in the WSL at the age of 18.

    Her two goals, and the penalty she won for the other goal, against Everton in a 3-1 win in December were a real marker of that. It meant the teenager had netted six goals in six games for the club, the hype around her really starting to grow as every week passed.

    They were different goals, too, James showing her instincts in the penalty area to tap in the first before producing what's becoming a trademark for the brace, leaving a defender for dead before firing into the back of the net from the edge of the box.

  5. Lighting up Old Trafford

    Lighting up Old Trafford

    One of James' final acts as a Manchester United player was to write her name into history again, scoring the team's first ever WSL goal at Old Trafford when the Red Devils beat West Ham 2-0 at the Theatre of Dreams in March 2021.

    The forward struggled for fitness in her final season in the north west and despite this match coming a couple of months before the end of the campaign, it would be her penultimate appearance for United.

    This goal was another case of being in the right place at the right time, heading in from close range after a corner, and though the game was played behind-closed-doors as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was still one to saviour for her and the club.

  6. Signing for Chelsea

    Signing for Chelsea

    After three seasons with United, James returned to London in the summer of 2021 when she joined childhood club Chelsea. James was on the books at the club before she signed for Arsenal as a 13-year-old, and the Blues were so keen to bring her back that they paid a then-record fee for a transfer involving two WSL clubs.

    It was going to be a big step up. United had established themselves towards the top of the league, but Chelsea were on another level, having won the treble and reached the Women's Champions League final a few weeks before she signed.

    James' struggles with injury were an important thing to note, too, with her needing to get on top of those before she was going to have any impact at the club. But once that was sorted, this was a place where she could take her game to the next level.

  7. A rare start

    A rare start

    While it must have been tempting to unleash this incredible talent more than she did, Chelsea boss Emma Hayes was excellent at managing James' minutes and fitness during her first season with the club. In fact, her only start of the whole campaign would come in February 2022, as the Blues battered Leicester City 7-0 in the FA Cup. She played 65 minutes before being replaced by Jessie Fleming, the rest of her 10 appearances that season all from the bench.

    "Emma is always helpful," James said in June. "She’s played a massive role in just getting me back to being myself again. She just says ‘enjoy it’, like ‘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.”

  8. Back to full fitness

    Back to full fitness

    Having spent the 2021-22 season dealing with the niggles that had plagued her for two years, James looked sharp and ready to go as soon as Chelsea started their pre-season campaign the following year.

    Playing against Lyon in the U.S., the forward scored a wonderful goal in an entertaining 2-2 draw, showcasing talents that suggested she could really hit the ground running for the club in the coming campaign.

    It might've only been a pre-season friendly, but it was important for her fitness, her form and her confidence. Someone on the outside was pretty impressed, too...

  9. England debut

    England debut

    That someone was none other than England boss Sarina Wiegman, who called James into her first Lionesses squad after the triumphant home Euros. The Chelsea star had been in national team environments before, at youth level and as part of a training camp when Phil Neville was in charge, but this would be her first opportunity to actually play for her country at senior level.

    "We have been following her for a long time, both since I have come in and also my former colleagues too," Wiegman explained at the time. “She didn’t play that much [for Chelsea last season] but she did play some and we know she is a very talented player. She did work over the summer and had very good preparation [to this season] with Chelsea, playing minutes, so we want to give her a chance to show what she can do with the national team.”

    A couple of weeks later, James made her England debut, coming off the bench in victory over Austria. It was the start of what's already turning into a pretty decent international career.

  10. Arriving in the Champions League
    Getty Images

    Arriving in the Champions League

    James' first season with Chelsea at full fitness would be a delight. Playing regular minutes, staying fit and building rhythm, she oozed confidence and was certainly developing with the regular top-level experience she was now getting.

    One of those experiences that was totally new to her was the Champions League. The forward had never played in the competition before and would get to try her luck against some of the world's best defenders in it, as Chelsea sought the one trophy they crave so much.

    It was in a group stage match against Paris Saint-Germain where she really announced herself on the European scene, netting twice against the French giants back in December to score her first goals in the competition.

    Two cool finishes, that they came on a special night under the lights at Stamford Bridge made the night all the more memorable.

  11. Staking her claim to start for England

    Staking her claim to start for England

    England's preparation for the 2023 Women's World Cup stepped up with the Arnold Clark Cup in February, a tournament created by the Football Association that sees top-level opposition invited over to play three games in quick succession, replicating the demands of a major tournament.

    It would be an important international window for Wiegman, who was pondering her squad for the tournament and her starting line-up. On the flip side, then, it was a big opportunity for players to really make their case to be involved in both.

    What James did in the tournament was sublime. She was the absolute star of the show across it, winning both the Player of the Tournament and the NXGN Young Player of the Tournament awards as a result. Moreover, she showed what an asset she had the potential to be as a starter for her country at the World Cup.

  12. Haunting her former club

    James' game is defined by excellent close control, wonderful balance, dazzling dribbles, the ability to use both feet and the wicked shot she can unleash off either side. But there's also another element of her's that appears to be growing in confidence and quality, and that is how she creates for others.

    As a winger, she's always had to do this, she's danced down touchlines to tee up team-mates or whipped in great crosses. Recently, though, her vision and awareness seems to be hitting new levels, and that was certainly evident when her former club visited Chelsea back in March.

    It was a tight game between two title contenders, one that would have huge implications in the race to be the champions of England, and it was decided thanks to a sensational long pass from James to Sam Kerr, who finished beautifully for an all-round spectacular goal.

    On a huge occasion, James came up with the goods and she did so in a way that showcased her development as a footballer.

  13. Benched for Barca
    Getty Images

    Benched for Barca

    One thing that has been important to remember throughout this past season, though, is James' age, inexperience and the fact that this has been her first full campaign, fully fit, at the very highest level. While it can seem like the hype grows too big around her at times, it's representative of the sheer talent she possesses. Fortunately, in Hayes, the forward has someone who is great at managing all of this.

    When Chelsea faced Barcelona in the semi-finals of the Champions League earlier this year, James was on the bench for both legs. The Blues were taking on the best team in the women's game and they were doing so without one of their best players on the pitch.

    From the outside, it was baffling. This was a match-winner, a player who could get at Barca in transition and make things happen. Why wasn't she playing?

    But Hayes has always been careful with James. She's looked after her physically, she's made sure to control the hype as best as she can and she's sometimes made tactical decisions at the expense of the England star that have been best for the team. That has been hugely important in getting James to where she is now.

    "In the moment, everyone is like, ‘Why is Lauren not playing?'" James said recently. "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.”

  14. A World Cup match-winner

    A World Cup match-winner

    After being on the bench for England's opening game in the Women's World Cup, a 1-0 win over Haiti, there were so many calls for James to start in the second match against Denmark. The Lionesses hadn't looked particularly threatening in their first outing and the Chelsea star was seen as someone who could change that.

    Wiegman gave her the nod in Sydney and it certainly paid off. On a night where none of England's other forwards really shone, James was electric, scoring a stunning goal that would prove to be the match-winner.

    “It’s an amazing feeling, something I’ve always dreamed of," she said afterwards, sitting beside her Player of the Match trophy. "I’m just happy to have helped the team get the win.”

  15. The best World Cup display ever by an England player

    The best World Cup display ever by an England player

    If James' outing against Denmark was good, what followed four days later was simply out of this world. Needing a point to top Group D, England's chances of getting that were hardly ever in doubt as the 21-year-old ran riot against China in Adelaide.

    Setting up Alessia Russo and then Lauren Hemp to put the Lionesses into a comfortable 2-0 lead, James lit up the evening just before half-time with a gorgeous strike from the edge of the box to make it three. A cute finish, volleying home a fantastic cross with the side of her boot, made it 4-0 in the second half before her pass through to Chloe Kelly was misjudged by the goalkeeper and tapped into an empty net by the Man City star. She could've had a hat-trick, too, had VAR not intervened.

    Still, the display made James the first England player ever to be directly involved in five goals in a game at the Men's or Women's World Cup. It was statistically the best performance of any player from the country at the biggest tournament in the sport. The eye test wouldn't disagree, either.

    With the most goals and assists of any player at this year's World Cup, James looks a force to be reckoned with. Who is going to stop her?