Is Daniel James Manchester United's signing of the season?
Background image: Joevare, CC BY-ND 2.0
Despite not scoring since Manchester United's fourth game in 2018/19, Daniel James remains among the few positives for Manchester United. In the past fortnight, he's contributed three crucial assists, setting up Marcus Rashford for the go-ahead goal against Liverpool, the eventual winner against Norwich and drawing the penalty the United No.10 converted against Chelsea in the EFL Cup. Signed from Swansea City in the summer, the 21-year-old has been exceptional. He looks the real deal.
When the summer transfer window opened, many United fans expressed interest in another James. Real Madrid's Colombian attacking mid, James Rodriguez, just completed a two-year loan at Bayern Munich. For reasons they may now regret, sitting fourth in the Bundesliga and licking their wounds after a 5-1 hiding from Eintracht Frankfurt, die Roten opted not to make the player's loan permanent. With Zinedine Zidane back at the Merengues' helm, James initially wasn't wanted at the Santiago Bernabeu. Via social media, Red Devils faithful urged the club to sign him but manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had other ideas.
The Norwegian sought to restore the culture that existed at the club under Sir Alex Ferguson. He looked to sign younger players, preferably British, with potential. Thus the only James to join United was the young Welshman, not the 28-year-old World Cup Golden Boot winner.
Truth be told, not much was expected of the erstwhile Swan. He had just the one full season of professional football under his belt, in the Championship. Five goals in 35 second-tier games hardly made him the next big thing. To say the least, his impact was unexpected.
The Wales international played in all 11 Premier League games to date. He began the opener against Chelsea on the bench, came on to wrap up the scoring and hasn't looked back.
United haven't been great. Their showing against Norwich City last week was their best performance in a while. Things could have been much worse but for the side's improved defence. Despite their lack of clean sheets, United rank fifth in the Premier League, conceding 11 goals in as many matches, a pace that, maintained, would see them yield only 38 for the entire campaign. In the past five completed seasons, only two teams, Manchester City in 2015/16 and Liverpool a year later, finished in the Champions League places when conceding more than 39.
Meanwhile, United are on pace to score 45 goals this term. No side in the past five campaigns has finished better than seventh when finding the net so seldom. While the Red Devils' problem is clearly scoring, James directly involved himself in six of United's 18 goals across all competitions. His ability to find Marcus Rashford in recent games fuelled a streak of three wins away from Old Trafford when the club hadn't managed one since their famous victory last May in Paris.
United do look short of ideas when attacking. Paul Pogba's absence is keenly felt. Fred has tried to be United's deep-lying creative spark and Andreas Pereira in a more advanced position, but it hasn't worked. Beyond James, there simply isn't enough dynamism in the side.
The Welshman has been a breath of fresh air wherever Solsjaer uses him, on the right, left or even inside the box. He's a confident lad who doesn't need a second invitation to run at defenders. The last thing fullbacks want is a fleet-footed winger eager to take them on at every opportunity.
James is a real pain to play against. Despite an early reputation for diving, his size is working for him too, making referees more amenable towards awarding penalties and free kicks in dangerous areas.
Not all about the dribbles, he knows where the goal is and can see a pass. He's setting a pace to exceed double-digits in goals and assists across all competitions.
While Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka solidify the defence, James is proving critical to the attack. In the long term, he may prove to be Solskjaer's most inspired signing.