He was Manchester United’s wildcard buy. Just last week, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer referred to the X-factor that he brought to the team. Harry Maguire had felt like a sure thing and Aaron Wan-Bissaka looked a safe bet to secure the right-back slot for years to come, but Daniel James? His signing was seen as a gamble. It is a gamble that is already paying off.
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The Welsh winger has been a standout performer so far, winning the club’s August player of the month award. His phenomenal pace has been just as explosive as everyone expected. “He is unbelievably fast,” Luke Shaw tells Sky Sports. “It is quite scary at times in training. Some people don’t realise how quick he is until he has taken the ball and gone.”
2:58 FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from West Ham’s 2-0 win over Manchester United
James was only on the pitch for 16 minutes of his debut against Chelsea but was clocked as the quickest player on it. The same happened against Leicester in United’s last match at Old Trafford. He is averaging 16.5 sprints per 90 minutes this season – a shade behind team-mate Marcus Rashford who topped the averages among Premier League regulars last year.
With numbers like that to his name, it should be no surprise that James is already a fan favourite. Aside from anything else, there is a visceral joy to witnessing something like that in the flesh. A murmur among the crowd. That collective lean forward. The audible urging for him to run at the opposition defence. They do love their wingers at Old Trafford.
But while his speed and energy is no surprise, what few had anticipated is how effective James would prove to be in terms of his all-round game. “It’s not just his pace, he’s good with the ball,” says Shaw. “He likes to run in behind but he can come short as well.” After scoring four goals in 33 league games for Swansea, he already has three in six for United.
During the first half of his team’s 2-0 defeat at West Ham on Sunday, James drifted beyond his marker before putting Rashford through on goal down the left channel only to see the striker delay his shot. Later in the half, he was helping out at the other end – racing back to intercept just as Mark Noble looked set to open the scoring for the home side.
Key moments against West Ham
17 – Wins corner after troubling Fredericks with his pace.
20 – Drops the shoulder and puts Rashford in on goal but the striker dallies.
23 – Chases a lost cause and wins a foul off Diop. Fans chant his name.
39 – Top defending to nick ball off Noble as West Ham skipper is about to shoot.
40 – Switches to the right flank for the remainder of the first half.
50 – Another purposeful run bounces kindly for Mata whose shot is deflected.
55 – Careless pass after a good run by Rashford racing onto Mata’s pass.
63 – Beats his man on the outside but knocks the cross out of play.
78 – Almost through on goal but just can’t quite get there ahead of Fabianski.
87 – Blistering pace to outstrip the defence but shot hits the side-netting.
Perversely, given his inexperience, the issue for James has been the lack of support from elsewhere. He was the last United player to leave the field at the London Stadium, receiving warm applause from those who had stayed.
Those fans know that the individual moments of quality that James is producing should be merely decorating Manchester United’s matches with the driving force behind the performances coming from the senior men. Instead, too often James has been the one bright spark in the final third.
“I have said many times that Alan Hansen was right, you don’t win anything with kids,” Gary Neville told Sky Sports at the weekend. “We didn’t win that Premier League, we had world-class performers. [Roy] Keane, the most inspirational captain and leader. [Eric] Cantona, world class. [Peter] Schmeichel, best in the world. [Denis] Irwin, who was brilliant. They pulled us through it.
“If we had gone into this team we would have had no chance.”
Take out the penalties and James has scored half of the six goals that Solskjaer’s side have netted in the Premier League this season. Take out the penalties and he has had more shots from inside the penalty box than any other Manchester United player too. This was supposed to be a big step up but he already looks like his side’s best route to goal.
That debut strike against Chelsea owed much to a fortunate deflection but he has since curled in a cracker against Crystal Palace and then drilled home from a similar position on the pitch against Southampton. They were two very different types of finish but the zone from which they came is significant – James is at his best when cutting in from the left flank.
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Playing from the left opens up the opportunity for him to cut inside onto his favoured right foot and threaten the goal. His great pace means that defenders naturally drop off a yard for fear of him going on the outside and this allows him the space in which to work. “For me, that left position was always my favourite,” James himself admitted in the summer.
He has already forced a rethink from Solskjaer after initially being deployed on the right of a three-man attack. It was there that he came on against Chelsea and it was there that he started the subsequent games against Wolves and Palace. It was only after Anthony Martial’s injury pushed Rashford up top that the vacancy emerged on the left wing.
“I’m sure you will see him on both sides during the season,” says Solskjaer. But James is clearly more at home on the left where the options for him are greater – he is not so effective when cutting inside onto his left foot. As a result, United’s longstanding imbalance in terms of forwards who are more comfortable on the left than the right remains.
It was on that left wing that Martial found some of his best form the season before last, only for Alexis Sanchez to arrive and take up that role. Rashford is happier there than on the right and now James too. Sanchez has gone but there is a feeling that whoever is asked to fill in on the right will be doing a job for the team rather than playing where they can thrive.
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Mason Greenwood is the exception. He offers a more natural solution on that side. Like James, he has great pace. Unlike James, he has a great left foot too, allowing him to cut inside effectively. The teenager could yet be the one to seize the role for himself. Eventually, that could see Solskjaer faced with a decision to make regarding the other three.