[Author’s Note: I started writing this piece before the season was suspended. It should have ran before the Manchester Derby, but...you know. So if some parts seem dated, imagine you’re reading this in early March.]
If back in August I had told you that entering the month of March Manchester United’s 21-year-old £15 million signing from Swansea City would have three Premier League goals and six assists, you’d have signed on the dotted line for that.
Daniel James was nearly a sensation from the moment he stepped onto the Old Trafford pitch as an 74th minute substitute against Chelsea on the opening day of the season. His pace electrified fans and they wouldn’t have to wait long for his first United goal — just seven minutes, actually.
James arrived at Old Trafford as a raw, unfinished product from the Championship. His three goals and six assists are more than Alexis Sánchez ever provided United in a Premier League campaign.
But the turn of the year has seen James substantially slow down. He hasn’t recorded an assist in his last eight games. He hadn’t scored in 24 until breaking that duck in United’s final match befor the “break” against LASK. After the goal James didn’t have a look of excitement, he had a look of relief.
For some fans in today’s 24/7 social media-driven what-have-you-done-for-me-lately world, it’s simply not good enough. Those fans say that James needs to be dropped from the team, and his chances given to the promising 18-year-old Mason Greenwood.
How did things go so wrong for James?
Well, they really haven’t. James was never supposed to play as much as he has. It wasn’t the plan.
This is how United lined up to start the season.
Jesse Lingard was a key part of United’s front three during their winning run under Solskjaer last season. When he got hurt, the attack never really recovered. His inclusion on the opening day of the season was never in doubt. Andreas Pereira makes the XI too because of his work rate and because Solskjaer was ready to give him a chance to see what he could do this year.
A meh performance from Pereira and a bright appearance from James saw one change made the following week at Wolves.
At this point it was pretty clear what Solskjaer’s plan was for the season. James, Lingard, Pereira, and Juan Mata would compete for two spots (CAM, RW). Greenwood would appear as a sub and would be eased into the team over the first half of the season during the cups.
But we all know plans in football last about as long as as a gallon of milk. After four games, James had three goals, Lingard had been dropped, Pereira wasn’t much better, and Anthony Martial was now hurt. Suddenly there were three open spots for four players, except two of those four players didn’t deserve to be on the pitch. James had three goals. Solskjaer had no choice but to keep playing him.
And play him he did — over and over again. Eventually Lingard and/or Pereira should have found their form and allowed some flexibility up front, but that simply never happened. Thus James had to keep playing, and by January he completely hit a wall.
While James was running himself ragged in the Premier League, Greenwood was performing quite well in the cups. He rolled into Christmas with four goals and three assists in seven Europa League and Carabao Cup games. He also had scored two Premier League goals as a substitute.
With Greenwood clearly on form, and James desperately needing a break, why wasn’t Greenwood given (more) opportunities to start in the league? Furthermore, Greenwood had been getting more time before the season was suspended with the injury to Marcus Rashford, but if Rashford were fit, who would likely be the preferred option on the right wing?
The answer to that is similar to most positions on the field. It depends on who United are playing.
James has a great all-around game. His end product, though, is just not there yet. It’s developing, but right now he has very little.
Greenwood on the other hand is a bonafide goal scorer. You get him the ball in or around the box and you feel good about your chances of scoring a goal. It’s just that all the other areas of his game aren’t fully developed yet. That’s fine too — it’ll come sooner rather than later, but it’s still not there yet.
Combine these two into one player and you’re talking about someone like Cristiano Ronaldo. Unfortunately, due to the limits of science, they’re still two different players.
For Solskjaer, it’s a matter of how each player fits into the overall team. This United team is built from the back. It’s built on structure. Defensively they move as a unit and everyone has to play their part.
This was especially imperative at the beginning of the season when United were battling injuries and struggling for goals as a result. Keeping clean sheets was the best way they were going to win.
This is where James especially excels. He can press high up the pitch, defend out on the wing, or even tuck inside and form more of a 4-3-3.
He’s also very good at tracking back and making recovery runs.
This is an area where Greenwood struggles, especially earlier in the season. Watch here how he’s so focused on the ball that he slowly drifts inside, allowing the Partizan fullback (his man) to get open down the flank.
Earlier in the match, he needlessly leaves his man to help out (where his help isn’t needed) and doesn’t really recover. You can almost see the lightbulb go off in his head when he realizes he needs to get back to his man.
These are relatively minor errors that didn’t end up hurting United, but that’s partially because it’s Partizan. Switch off for a second in the Premier League, and teams can make you pay.
Even Newcastle — one of the worst attacking teams in the league — looked to exploit that.
It’s no coincidence that their two best chances of the match came from attacking Greenwood’s flank.
The other obvious attribute that James brings is his pace, and with that pace, the ability to play on the break. James’ pace means that even when he drops back to defend, it doesn’t stop him from being able to get out and break at other teams.
We can do this all day.
He can even start the break from deep and lead it.
This is an area where Greenwood really struggles. United are a team that like to play on the break. Too often this year Greenwood has had opportunities to break but either hasn’t, or has made the wrong call and disrupted the break.
In the above clip, United win the ball and look to break, but Greenwood — who has the whole right flank to try to beat his man — just pulls up and dishes it back inside to Nemanja Matić. Matić ends up playing it square (because that’s what Matić does) and the break is off.
Here United are on the break and again, instead of trying to take his man wide ,Greenwood immediately just holds up play. It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but when you’re playing Colchester, you should have the confidence to take on the fullback in that position.
In this one, Aaron Wan-Bissaka is leading the break with Greenwood charging down the middle. There’s just one problem — Greenwood is running almost into Anthony Martial, instead of running through the hole and giving Wan-Bissaka an option. By staying central, neither him nor Martial are open, and Wan-Bissaka is forced into playing a pass with a very low probability of succeeding.
Here’s a chance against Watford. United should be able to break here easily. Either Greenwood goes right down the line, or cuts inside and lays it off to Fred. Instead he does... neither. He cuts inside and runs into traffic. All of his passes are taken away and he ends up giving the ball back to Watford.
It’s little things like these that add up.
By now, we know how Solskjaer wants his team to play. Ideally, Anthony Martial acts as a bit of a false-9; he drops deep to get the ball and the two wide players make runs into the vacated space. Solskjaer has also at times switched it up, deploying a back three with split strikers up top.
The split striker formation isn’t a natural fit for any of United’s forwards but it’s been especially tough on Greenwood.
Greenwood started in a front two against Manchester City in the second leg of the Carabao Cup semifinals. It was hard to have less impact on a match than he did that day.
That’s fine — he’s 18 and there’s a learning curve. He’s not going to light the world on fire every week. Plus he was playing against Manchester City, who happen to be pretty good.
Greenwood was replaced by James at halftime and the match changed. The Welshman brought pace and directness that put fear into City. If he wasn’t running by City defenders, he was getting fouled. That allowed United to maintain some modicum of possession and keep up their attacks despite playing 15ish minutes with only 10 men. They managed more shots that game (13) than they did in any of their other matches vs City this season.
Greenwood would again start in a front two against Everton where once again he struggled. United didn’t look particularly threatening that match until they switched to a 4-2-3-1 when Greenwood was removed. Again, we shouldn’t expect an attacker that young to light the world on fire every match, but it also seems pretty clear that playing as part of a front two doesn’t really suit his game. At least not yet.
When we hit pause on the season, there was a lot of negativity around Daniel James, thanks to his lack of productivity. Some just don’t see him as enough of an attacking threat.
But consider this. This season United have chased a late goal in many games. Only three times (Crystal Palace, Sheffield United, Everton) have they actually scored a second half equalizer or winner. Mason Greenwood has scored two of those, and the other was scored by James. James also assisted Greenwood’s equalizer against Everton and assisted Rashford’s almost winner against Sheffield.
Statistically, United score more goals when James isn’t on the field than when he is, but that itself is a misleading stat as it doesn’t take into account who James plays against and against whom he rests.
As a means of not tiring James out, Solskjaer has essentially used him (and Greenwood) as a once-a-week player. James has slotted in to the Premier League role, so the games against the Colchesters, Astanas and Tranmeres of the world weren’t for him. Even in the Premier League, the four games he hasn’t started have been Chelsea (H), Newcastle (H), Norwich (H), and Everton (A).
Three of those games saw United score four goals, but two of them were against very poor teams. Obviously United’s goal total without James would be inflated from those games. There was good reason for leaving him out of both, as United had more important fixtures following them (Burnley away, FA Cup replay vs Wolves).
Similarly, James has hardly featured in the Europa League this season but he has featured in United’s four toughest/most important games in that competition as well (AZ away, Partizan away, Brugge second leg, LASK first leg). Against the inferior competition there, he hasn’t been needed.
James’ value goes far beyond production, and a look at United’s underlying numbers show his importance to the team.
So even though James doesn’t get to play against the weaker teams, United still manage to be more creative, and better defensively, when he plays than when he doesn’t. Even in the Europa League where the goals have flowed, United create better chances when James is on the pitch compared to when he isn’t. That doesn’t seem like a coincidence.
United head in to the final stretch of the season with a full strength squad, which means James and Greenwood will go back to battling it out on the right wing. Who should get the nod?
As always, it depends on who your opponent is. In theory, James’ pace would be great to come off the bench and kill teams late, but in matches against teams that might attack United early, Greenwood’s defending could be exposed. That would make James the better fit to start the team’s opening match against Tottenham. Against teams that like to sit back more, Greenwood is definitely the better option.
Nevertheless, both players — and Juan Mata who will be rotated in too — will see plenty of action down the stretch, as the games come thick and fast and Solskjaer tries to keep them all as fresh as possible.