Manchester United’s identity since Sir Alex Ferguson’s retirement from management has been intangible at times, to say the least. Under David Moyes, it was about the individual quality making a difference. With Louis Van Gaal, it was largely possession-based with not enough creative impetus. And under José Mourinho, the club grew into more of a defensive and counter-attacking unit. Now under the latest incumbent, Ole Gunnar Solskjær, the club has seemingly found themselves a fixed system and ideology.
One of the beneficiaries of the system has been 2019 summer arrival, Daniel James. The Welshman had arrived from Swansea City in the summer of 2019 after early speculation linked him with a move to Manchester United. However, the transfer could have not happened at all, had James moved to Elland Road to join Marcelo Bielsa’s Leeds United in January, though that is a tale for another day.
Since making the step up from the EFL Championship to the Premier League, James has scored four goals and made six assists in his debut season so far at United. While those numbers aren’t suggesting a great output in terms of the end product, for a 21-year-old making this transition, it is a decent start.
Given his age, James needs time to settle in and someone to learn from in his position. He could face competition in his position, should United choose to recruit someone like Jadon Sancho in the summer. In this tactical analysis, we try to answer some questions – How does James fit into United’s tactics? Is he a gem in the making? Let’s try and create an analysis of the pacy Welshman as we go on.
Player profile analysis
James has made 37 appearances so far for the Red Devils of Manchester. That just about totals up to 2,777 minutes of first-team football for the youngster. Although he clocked up more or less the same number of minutes for Swansea City in the previous season, the change in the level of competition has also challenged his ability to produce an appreciable output.
When you look at the numbers, according to fbref, James has 2.52 Shot-Creation Actions and 0.33 Goal-Creation Actions. Those numbers aren’t massively impressive, and that’s something he definitely needs to improve upon.
In terms of his versatility on the pitch, James is capable of playing anywhere across the attacking third of the pitch. He has been utilised on both the right and left side of attack by Solskjær this season. He came off the bench to play from the right flank to score his debut goal against Chelsea on the opening day of the season, in a memorable 4-0 victory.
Start out wide, come central
Much like the modern-day winger, James likes to start as wide as he can when he approaches the final third, so as to attract or push away the opposing full-back/deeper midfielder. This does two things, if a midfielder comes closer to him to apply pressure, there is more space centrally to be exploited for James’ teammates. On the other hand, if they choose to hold back, there is space in front of James, which he loves to exploit to either cut inside and shoot or go on the outside and cross.
James has now received the ball and is attacking the box. Cédric Soares falls back expecting his teammates James Ward-Prowse and Jan Bednarek to press James down and make him hurry and falter. However, the Welshman maximises his opportunity by making a decision in what seemed like a fraction of a second. He took one touch to control the ball and then lashed it into the Saints net between Bednarek and Jannik Vestergaard. This scoring pattern would later repeat itself as the season went by.
This is a scenario from United’s game against LASK Linz in the UEFA Europa League. United are on the charge and attacking LASK, after winning the ball back deep in their own territory. Here, Ighalo sees that James is in space on the left and plays the pass to his feet. Then James does what he does best and attacks the space in front of him, and approaches the edge of the penalty area. He then side-steps past Gernot Trauner, the LASK defender hoping to hold him back.
And then with one more touch, he sets himself and rifles the ball past Alexander Schlager in the opposition goal.
James playing on the right – analysis
James has had the versatility and effectiveness to play anywhere across the front three since his days at Swansea. At United, Solskjær has also experimented with using the Welshman on the right flank at times.
From the right flank, James has been able to set up four goals. This is mainly because on the right, he does not have to cut inside to create space. Therefore, he can just use his pace to build momentum and get crosses away.
The young winger also possesses good awareness of the runners around him and uses the chemistry he has with the rest of the United attackers, especially Marcus Rashford. He especially benefits from James’s presence because of his extreme speed and intensity on the counter. This has seen James make three assists for Rashford starting from the right, a positive partnership developing between the two.
This is from United’s 3-1 away victory at Norwich. United on the break once again, with James on the ball, as he sprints forward, he takes a quick glance at Rashford who is racing past Max Aarons at the top of the screen.
Without wasting much time, James plays Rashford through on goal with a precise lobbed through ball and the goal was scored with composure by the striker.
United have lacked penetrative pace in their attack in wide areas for a while now, and James gives them the raw pace and energy to dictate the game in a different manner as well.
Attacking the Space
Unlike other dribblers in the Premier League, James likes to attack the space in front of him rather take on his defender in a 1 v 1 scenario. His pace allows him to do so. And when there is space to be had in front of him, he exploits it to devastating effect.
One good example is the game against Liverpool at Old Trafford. United have won the ball back and once again catch their opponents out in transition.
Andrew Robertson is high up the pitch and nowhere to be seen in this frame. Georginio Wijnaldum is struggling to catch up with James who is on his bike at full speed.
James then whips the ball into the penalty area early and as Joël Matip approaches to intercept it, it bounces kindly into Rashford’s path. He makes no mistake in taking the chance.
Looking at James’ numbers
James’ work ethic and determination cannot be doubted, however, it’s the final product that he has to improve upon. Most scout reports will suggest the same.
As mentioned earlier, James is not a 1 v 1 dribbler who would nutmeg his opposing defender. Rather, he uses his direct nature to either drag the defender away to create space for him to exploit. Or, he could just knock the ball past the defender into space and collect it himself, he is just that quick.
Now, in terms of the Progressive Distance and Ball Carries per 90, James still has some way to go to compete with the numbers of the wingers from the rest of the league. His combined xG+xA figure of 0.29 is something that he needs to improve upon a lot. However, the general feeling around James is that he may not be first-team quality yet. He needs time to settle into the pace and physicality of top-flight football.
Due to his pace and obvious threat in transitions, James is also one of the most fouled players in the league per 90. Inserted below is a small sample size of wingers in the Premier League who have been most fouled per match. James has been fouled 2.07 times, a frequent target of the physical and defensive nature of the Premier League.
There are a lot of areas that James can improve apart from using his pace. In fact, it is his pace that gives him the potential of being able to do a lot of things well. He has time on his side, given that he is only 22 years of age.
So, what have we learned about James from this scout report? We know for a fact that he is going to be a very useful asset in the coming years at Old Trafford. Given that this is only his first season in top-tier football, it is premature to make definitive judgements about his potential – there is plenty of room for him to grow. Exhilarating pace, an eye for a goal, and his direct nature are three big attributes that one can think of when it comes to James.
Solskjær may not be the most tactically innovative coach. However, it is clear that he has a system to get the best out of attackers like James.
Daniel James may not replicate the glory of the last Welsh player blazing the wings at Old Trafford. However, he has the talents and the determination to make a top-class Premier League winger in the future.