On June 12, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made 21-year-old Daniel James his first signing as Manchester United manager. The pacy winger didn’t exactly pull up trees for Swansea City in the Championship, but nevertheless offers a tantalizing array of skills that should worry any opponent. James will get plenty of playing time in 2019/20, but he’s still mostly one for the future. Let’s dive in for a closer look at Ole’s first buy.
Daniel James can fly. And, in an FA Cup match last February, Brentford learned that the hard way. In the 53rd minute, he pounced on a loose ball near his own penalty area and unleashed a blistering run down the pitch that left the Bees — and most fans — utterly stunned. James galloped 84 yards in just 8.48 seconds, capping off the play with a cool finish past the goalkeeper. After the highlight went viral, some (over)excited pundits even compared the speedy youngster to Kylian Mbappé.
But James’s performance in that 4-1 win was much more than just one breakout moment. Three different Brentford players picked up cards for fouls on James during the match, showing the extent to which he terrorized their defense.
In the next round, against Manchester City, he impressed again. Swansea gave the treble winners a scare in the 3-2 loss, with Pep Guardiola even conceding that his team spent extra time preparing for James’s speed during the week.
The highest praise, though, comes from Wales boss Ryan Giggs. “His best attribute is his speed,” the United legend said. “I’ve probably not seen anyone as quick as him in my whole career. That’s a big shout, because obviously I’ve played [with] and against quick players.”
Importantly, James’s pace is no one-note talent. Sure, he’ll skin defenders over long distances, seeming to gain speed with the ball at his feet as he drives right at them. But James also takes off like greased lightning from a standstill. To say that he keeps the opposition on their toes is a massive understatement.
Although James’s speed stands second to none, his attacking numbers — four goals and seven assists in Championship matches — won’t blow anyone away. He mainly plays on the left wing, where neither Anthony Martial nor Alexis Sánchez have impressed, but can fill in anywhere across the front. The right-footed James fits the modern inverted winger profile, but also keeps width by drifting to the touchline to receive the ball. That drags his defender out of position, allowing James to either knock the ball behind and outrun his man or bring it back inside onto his natural foot.
He also slots right in to either of Solskjaer’s preferred formations — 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1. Ole tinkered with a diamond midfield in some big matches and, in that case, James could play as a #10 or up front. In short, his versatility should keep him on the field no matter the system or opponent. After Solskjaer took over as caretaker boss in December, United led the Premier League in fast breaks on the counter. Just imagine the speedy James attacking all of that open space.
Still, patience will be important. While most probably expect Aaron Wan-Bissaka to hit the ground running at Old Trafford, James will likely need time to adjust to the higher level of competition and find his place in the team.
Relentless and resilient
In 2017, James lasted just two months on loan at Shrewsbury before both sides terminated the season-long agreement early. It’s hard to believe that James came up so short in League One — not even playing a single minute in Shropshire — before catching fire and securing a big Premier League move.
Instead of dropping his head, James dug in and earned a place in the Swansea first team. Then, in January 2019, he seemed on the verge of a transfer to Leeds United before it collapsed at the last minute. Again, James buckled down and earned an even bigger jump to Manchester United this summer.
Former Shrewsbury teammate Alex Rodman isn’t at all surprised that James has shrugged off any adversity on his way to the top. “He’s a good lad with a level head and that’s why he has kicked on so much,” he told Sky Sports. “You kind of expect a young lad to have his head all over the place at that age, but he is really level-headed. He is a homely type, not someone who is out and about. He is very focused on his football.”
Another big plus is James’s willingness to pitch in on defense. He enthusiastically presses high up the field, forcing opponents into risky passes en route to winning the ball back. The tireless youngster also tracks back all the way into his own box and doubles up with the left back to nullify a tricky opponent. James plays a complete game that will be appreciated by the Old Trafford faithful.
And it sounds like his United career is already off to a flying start. After a quick trip out to Dubai for a training bootcamp, James impressed the coaching staff with his energy in the first few days of preseason at Carrington. In a chat with MUTV, Solskjaer could scarcely contain his excitement over his first signing: “Daniel has already set the marker and the standard on work-rate and attitude in training.”
If James keeps this up, he might crash the United starting eleven a whole lot sooner than anyone expected.