As Daniel James prepares to make his £25 million move from Manchester United to Leeds United, there won’t be many Red Devils fans who are sad to see him go. The Welsh wide man struggled to make an impact at Old Trafford, and while he was a well-liked dressing room figure, the consensus seems to be that he wasn’t quite at the requisite level for United’s title ambitions. There was a time, though, when James looked like the exact sort of player Manchester United have thrived with over the years.
Billy Meredith, George Best, Willie Morgan, Ryan Giggs and a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. United has always been a club that canonises their wingers. So when James arrived from Swansea City for £15 million two summers ago, his status as a wide player with electric pace was sure to buy him some leeway with a fanbase unsettled by United’s chastening collapse at the end of the previous season. The fact he had seen a move to old rivals Leeds collapse during the previous January certainly did not hurt.
As it turned out, James did not need a grace period from United fans. The Welshman came off the bench against Chelsea for his debut and scored the final goal in a 4-0 rout of Frank Lampard’s men. He would register again in his third appearance, an 89th-minute equaliser against Crystal Palace, although United fans’ relief would turn to despair as Patrick van Aanholt’s injury-time winner would cancel out James’ strike. But there was still solace to be taken from the promising start for the new signing.
James made it three goals in four Premier League games as United visited Southampton, with a right-foot thunderbolt into the top corner. The hype around the 21-year-old was reaching fever pitch. Fans were ready to crown James as the successor to Welsh wing greats Meredith and Giggs, perhaps hastened by United’s mixed start to the campaign. James would claim the club’s Player and Goal Of The Month awards, marking an instant impact for the summer buy.
Much more was expected from him, but in truth he had already scored 50% of the Premier League goals he would manage for the club. James would go nine months without a goal in any competition after his initial purple patch. His next three strikes would be spread across 46 league appearances.
But what caused such a rapid decline? In truth, there was more than one factor at play here. Firstly, James was a victim of his own success. His rapid ascent was a statistical anomaly when compared to his previous performances. At Swansea, the winger had only netted four league goals in 33 games. The fact he came within one strike of equalling this tally after just four games suggests an overperformance on James’ part, and his numbers for the rest of his Old Trafford spell are closer to those he registered at the Swans.
Another issue has been the stunning emergence of Mason Greenwood. The breakthrough of the young forward has limited James’ game time, and seen him cede the right-wing berth where he has played the majority of his football at Old Trafford. In James’ debut season, he made 33 league appearances, while Greenwood played three times as he made his baby steps into the first team from the youth set-up. The following year, the England international would play 31 league games, compared to just 15 for James. Initially a striker, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s deployment of Greenwood on the right saw Daniel tumble down the pecking order.
The third factor has been teams working James, and United, out tactically. When Solskjaer took over, he set out his stall as a counter-attacking manager. The former Swansea winger was ideally suited to trying to catch defenders high up the pitch, before out-running them. As opposing managers cottoned on to this, they began to instruct their defences to sit deeper against United. This in turn led James to be less effectual.
His two appearances this season demonstrate the problem in microcosm. Against his new employers, Leeds, James constantly found joy in speeding past Marcelo Bielsa’s high line to create chances. Last time out at Wolves, a team who set up to play on the counter themselves, the winger struggled to find the time and space to hurt the opposition with his speed. James is something of a specialist, incredibly effective in certain situations, but unable to change his tactical approach in others.
After an electric start, some moments of brilliance, and plenty of moments of frustration, Daniel James is about to leave Manchester United. That he does so to join the club he first agreed terms with in January 2019 feels appropriate, and Bielsa will surely be glad to finally work with a player he has targeted for so long. It will be very interesting to see if the Welshman can repeat his outstanding first four appearances in red. If he manages it, then Leeds might well have a Premier League star on their hands.