What is the best way to sum up Lauren James’ influence for England? Captain Leah Williamson has borrowed a phrase from the gaming world.
“I think she’s a cheat code,” Williamson said. “I enjoy being on the same team as her.”
James has had to be patient for an England chance – she only made her full international debut last September – but is grabbing it now. The 21-year-old forward has often been Chelsea’s star this season, and strengthened her claims for a place in Sarina Wiegman’s World Cup starting line-up with another impressive performance against South Korea on Thursday.
Her role in the 4-0 victory in England’s Arnold Clark Cup opener was another demonstration of her growing stature as she scored her first international goal, after winning a first-half penalty.
“The girl is incredible,” Williamson said, “so let’s give her as much support as we can.”
England, strong favourites against South Korea, were met with a stubborn defensive block in Milton Keynes and James provided the key to overcoming it.
Her weaving run led to a penalty that Georgia Stanway converted before England took charge in the second half and cruised to victory, helped by James’ thumping strike in the 78th minute.
“Everyone knows the quality that LJ’s got. Technically she’s probably one of the best there is,” said Barcelona defender Lucy Bronze.
“It’s crazy that she’s so young because this is the player that everyone has been talking about for five years now. Everyone has been waiting for this superstar and it’s exciting to be here now.
“I’m sure she’ll score plenty more goals, win plenty more player of the match [awards] and win more games for England in the future.”
James’ career so far has been punctuated with injury but this has been a breakout season at Chelsea, with the former Manchester United striker scoring seven goals in 17 games.
Blues’ boss Emma Hayes believes there is still improvement to come – an exciting prospect for England if so – and it is clear James is enjoying her football.
“She feels good and you can tell,” said Wiegman.
“She has been a talent of course for a long time. She just needed to be available and have that time at Chelsea. I hope she gets consistency, stays fit and keeps enjoying herself.”
James is only six caps into her England career, but has settled into life as a full international – helped by her manager and team-mates.
She said: “[Wiegman’s] given me freedom and it’s a credit to the team, they’ve made me feel welcome and when you feel welcome you’re able to be yourself and I showed that.”
Against South Korea, James was heavily involved, with 80 touches in total and completing 27 of her 28 passes in the final third.
Her work-rate was impressive too. She won the ball back on 10 occasions, created three chances and was involved in the build-up to Alessia Russo’s clever goal for England’s third on the night.
Former England goalkeeper Karen Bardsley told BBC Radio 5 Live: “She has been such a pleasure to watch. She looks like she is playing with freedom and confidence and is happy to put it on display.
“Maybe in the past she has been apprehensive to fully express that.”
But James is still being reminded to stay humble. She broke into the team after England’s Euro 2022-winning campaign, and knows there is strong competition for places.
Establishing herself will be crucial. Wiegman is not one to tinker with selection – the Lionesses were unchanged at the Euros, becoming the first team in the tournament’s history to name the same starting line-up for every game.
Injured Ballon d’Or runner-up Beth Mead could still return from an anterior cruciate knee ligament injury in time for the World Cup, which starts in July in Australia and New Zealand.
Manchester City’s Lauren Hemp has been a regular since Wiegman’s arrival, while Chloe Kelly is continuing to impress, also scoring in the 4-0 win over South Korea.
“It’s not the World Cup yet. Last season she didn’t play a lot and was still building. This year she is playing more and more,” said Wiegman.
“But we have more players that are really good. We have so many attacking players that are really good. We have opportunities.”
Former England striker Ian Wright told ITV4: “Without a doubt [James is stating her case to start for England regularly]. Starting regularly for Chelsea stands her in good stead.
“We’ve still got Lauren Hemp to come back in but when James is putting in performances like this and she is doing what she is doing every week… She did everything in that game.”
Everton midfielder Izzy Christiansen asked: “Is it too far to say she is undroppable for England?”
Based on recent performances, it is hard to suggest otherwise.