LONDON -- For 53 minutes all felt right in the Chelsea world. The taste of three defeats before the World Cup had been washed away by two first half goals and a greatly improved performance in attack. More than that, however, the hero had returned. Reece James was back and the Blues were cruising. That was no coincidence.
So it was that the abiding memory of this game was not the precise build up to Kai Havertz's opener, a returning Christian Pulisic bringing his USMNT form to the blue and white or the ageless excellence of Thiago Silva. Instead, it was the moment that James pointed to that knee again. As one, west London held its breath.
Equally it took the shine off what might have been a welcome reset moment for their manager just before any pressure could build on the Stamford Bridge dugout. With all the caveats that come with victory over an extremely ordinary opponent in Bournemouth, this began with Chelsea as they have rarely been seen in the dog days of Thomas Tuchel's tenure or the first tentative steps under Graham Potter.
Since taking over in west London, Potter's early tweaks have been reliably unpredictable. When it pays off, for instance when Sterling pops up as a left wing back, his adjustments can look like the genius of a coaching preternatural. Perhaps after that run of losses to Arsenal, Manchester City and Newcastle, now was not the time for anything more outré. Chelsea's players were much better than Bournemouth's, put them where they are most comfortable and away you go. From goalkeeper to center forward, every player could reasonably feel they had been deployed in their best position. Beyond even that, the blend was just about right.
Jorginho might move the ball with elegance but he has the first step of Treebeard. Denis Zakaria was more than willing to do his running for him, the Juventus loanee who had seemed bound for the January scrapheap carrying his autumnal renaissance into the Premier League's restart. Havertz will naturally gravitate to deeper positions from his center forward spot. Christian Pulisic and Raheem Sterling were primed to attack the space he vacated.
The invisible cord tying this team together, on his return from an injury that had robbed him of the chance to burgeon his reputation at the World Cup, was James. At the worst times in the weeks after his initial injury against AC Milan in October, it seemed Chelsea were in a holding pattern, waiting for the return of their best player to become anything approximating an attacking force. As Havertz, Sterling, Mount and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang faltered, the get out question always seemed to be "how much better do they look when James is providing for them?" For a moment Stamford Bridge got an answer.
When the ball came into Kepa Arrizabalaga's possession his first instinct was to give his right back a quick ball. Chelsea flew down the right at will. James held his width, pulling Bournemouth's back five wide enough that there were driving lanes for Sterling, gaps in the half space from which Mount could pick a pass. James might not have played the killer pass in the buildup to Havertz's opener, but without him in the XI the spaces would not have emerged for his team mates to exploit.
Whenever a team mate needed to find a man in space James was on hand. Every cross from his boot was begging to be attacked. Just before the interval, 50 percent of Chelsea's attacks had gone down the right third of the pitch, looking at that oversized number it somehow seemed remarkable that it was not higher. James was tilting the pitch towards him.
Then out of the blue his hands were on his knees. He dropped to the deck, seemingly not doubting for a moment that this was his game. There had been no obvious contact to precipitate his exit, no fresh blow to the pre-existing issue. All he needed to do to sound a five alarm around Stamford Bridge was point to that knee again. "We're going to have to see in the next 24-48 hours," said Potter. "It's disappointing to lose him as quickly as we did."
"Reece is a world class player. You see it from the outside but it's not until you work with him that you see how good he is. He could play for any team in the world. Any team would miss him," Potter said after the match.
"He's disappointed, of course he is. At the moment we're in a stage where we're just hoping it isn't as bad." To make matters worse, Potter went on to reveal that James was only a few minutes away from a well deserved break when he limped down the tunnel. "The plan was for him not to play 90 tonight but to play 60, 65 minutes, which was a build up to what he had done previously."
Chelsea had done enough with James on the pitch to win the game but on his exit this became a more even contest. As Potter acknowledged, "the Reece situation affected us a little bit." Territory and possession came Bournemouth's way again. Had Ryan Christie converted in the 79th minute the jitters might have risen around Stamford Bridge again.
More instructive for Potter was what happened immediately after. The ball came to Sterling in an advantageous position on the right flank. Facing off against Jordan Zemura he stood and waited for the support that would never come. James would have been bombing over his right shoulder. Cesar Azpilicueta's head and heart were doubtless willing. At 33 his legs were not always. There was no replacing James and Chelsea will find it desperately hard to get another right back in January who is both of sufficient quality to even approximate their No.24 and willing to commit to a backup role.
Three points better off they may be, but as they await news from James' scans you could not blame Chelsea for fearing they are about to be thrust back into the same state they found themselves in before the World Cup: waiting on the return of their blue chip star before they can become the best side they can be.