Arguably the two biggest stars of the restart for Manchester United have been Mason Greenwood and Bruno Fernandes. They have combined to score 9 goals in just 6 games since returning to action, and have firmly established themselves as part of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first choice XI. Their stellar performances have temporarily solved two major pain-points for the Reds, but have also further exposed another — namely, a lack of competition for their places.
On the right, Greenwood’s only challenger is Dan James, whose natural position is on the left, while Bruno Fernandes’ current deputies are Jesse Lingard, Andreas Pereira, and Juan Mata — all of whom are expected to leave the club or accept a severely reduced role in 2020/21. If Manchester United hopes to make a serious title charge next season, two players in two crucial positions is not enough. Mason Greenwood’s emergence does not change United’s need for Jadon Sancho on the right of the attack, and nor does Bruno’s revelation mean United’s midfield is complete. Another quality number 10 is essential.
Reports indicate that United are most closely monitoring Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish. The 24-year-old British playmaker has scored an impressive seven goals and dished out six assists so far this season, and keeps getting better. He has a well-documented admiration for Manchester United, and was appointed Villa captain at just 23. Considering Manchester United have recently implemented a transfer policy which vets players for talent and personality, Grealish is the quintessential character for Solskjaer’s rebuild. The issue arises when factoring in his price tag, which appears to be close to £80 million.
While Grealish’s fee may fall if Villa are relegated, news that Real Madrid is ready to sell James Rodriguez for £22 million means that the Colombian may be back on United’s radar. Although Grealish should remain the priority, James is an incredibly talented player and has been prolific in La Liga and the Bundesliga. Having proven himself at the highest level and on the sport’s biggest stages, his talent is there for anyone to see. Yet, United fans have heard this story before in Ángel Di María — another talented attacking midfielder that found himself as the odd man out in Madrid — and supporters are well within their rights to remain skeptical.
When put under the microscope, though, James’ current situation at Madrid is significantly different from that of Di María, and at a fraction of the cost likely demanded for Grealish, the Colombian presents a low risk, high reward alternative. If Villa don’t budge, saving upwards of £50 million in a market marred by COVID-19 could mean the difference between a successful summer or another window closed with pieces still missing.
On the Field
James Rodriguez has had a highly decorated career. After bursting onto the scene at Porto and taking a detour through big-spenders Monaco, Rodriguez has spent the past six seasons between Real Madrid and Bayern Munich. During his time in La Liga and the Bundesliga, James won three league titles, two Champions Leagues, two domestic and four international club cups. He is a true number 10 who is a creative and goal-scoring threat, having made 79 direct goal contributions in 125 matches for Madrid and 35 in 67 for Bayern. He thrived in a Bayern midfield alongside defensively-sound Javi Martinez and deep-lying playmaker Thiago Alcantara, and would find a similar environment at Old Trafford playing ahead of Nemanja Matić and Paul Pogba, indicating that the personnel at Old Trafford should allow him to be at his best on the field.
Statistically, James is a very similar player to Grealish. Both typically float in and around the box and are comfortable both centrally and operating as inverted wingers or inside forwards. Their technical abilities are their greatest strengths, and their movement and vision open up space for their teammates. Comparing James’ six seasons in Spain and Germany to Grealish’s current Premier League campaign gives an idea of the two players’ peak impact per game. When analyzed side-by-side, their shots, key passes, pass percentage, long balls and through balls per game are almost all identical. James has higher goal and assist rates, although playing for more lethal teams likely confounds the data.
James Rodriguez vs. Jack Grealish
|Stats per game||James (La Liga + Bundesliga)||Grealish (Premier League 19/20)|
|Stats per game||James (La Liga + Bundesliga)||Grealish (Premier League 19/20)|
|Pass Completion %||87%||85%|
What differentiates James is that his playing style is defined by quick passes, rather than dribbles like Grealish. As noted in the chart, Grealish takes three times as many dribbles per game as James, and draws nearly five times the fouls, implying that he tends to start from a deeper position and carry the ball forward himself. James is also left footed, and is equally dangerous creating from the left and the right, whereas Grealish predominantly creates by coming inside from the left.
James, therefore, is more versatile and seemingly would be less likely to crowd Rashford’s space. He would provide more variety to United’s attacking threat and could be yet another option on the right wing as well in the event of injuries or match congestion.
Off the Field
In the wake of a host of underwhelming big-name signings, Ed Woodward revealed in October 2019 that United now do “a huge amount of due diligence around the character of the player” to ensure fit off the pitch. Emphasizing this point, Solskjaer recently made headlines saying, “I’d rather have a hole in the squad than an arsehole...You need a strong mentality and a big personality if you are to survive at Old Trafford.” Solsjkaer’s cultural reboot at United requires bold and headstrong players, but also takes into account age and perceived ability to adapt to England and the rigors of the Premier League.
James is 28, and turns 29 next week. He does not speak English, and was not shy about his struggles settling in Munich after living in Madrid. In his early days in Bavaria, James lamented,
“Life here is something completely new to me and I also have to get used to Bayern’s playing style. That’s not something that happens overnight. And that’s before we talk about how cold it is! But at the end of the day the only thing that matters here is the football, a game that’s the same wherever in the world you play it.”
When asked just this month by Rio Ferdinand on the former Red’s “The Locker Room” webinar about his ambitions of playing in the Premier League, James cast further doubt about his mentality by hesitating and replying only that he does not know because football changes daily. James somewhat made amends by noting that, “Manchester is a club I have always admired since I was a boy. I saw the teams with Rio and Scholes and Giggs, many prodigious players, and I wanted to get there that year [in 2014] but it didn’t happen.”
Those reasons for reservation are certainly worth serious consideration, however age is not an end-all be-all. Robin van Persie was signed at 29, and Nemanja Matić recently inked a new deal at 31. At 28, James is still in his prime and should still have at least three years at the top. His comments on the climate in Munich must also be put into context. At the time, James had wanted to stay at Madrid. He did not want to be in Germany, and disproportionately focusing on the negatives came naturally as a result. Similarly, after Carlo Ancelotti’s sacking at Madrid, the wounds of a managerial change that proved extremely detrimental to his standing in the team were still fresh. James is a player who needs to feel the support of his manager, telling Rio Ferdinand, “When you have people who care about you, it’s a lot easier for you to play on the field and do things right.” He did not have that with Rafael Benitez at Madrid before leaving for Bayern, and he does not have that now with Zinedine Zidane. Solskjaer has worked wonders restoring chemistry in a squad eviscerated by José Mourinho, and the Norwegian could be the right man to get the most out of James.
James is also a player who took on the number 10 for Colombia at the World Cup and followed up a fantastic tournament by wearing that same number 10 for Real Madrid, welcoming the pressure and responsibility of upholding the legacy of two historic shirts. When he feels the belief of his manager, James does have the personality to step up and survive in the most intense environments, and unlike his first move from Madrid, this time he wants to leave. Zidane confirmed that James asked to be left out of the Real Madrid squad for the July 5 match against Athletic Club, and the player himself admitted that he’s only at Madrid because they denied him a move last summer, not because he wants to be. Despite his initial struggles in Munich, James’ stint at Bayern was quite successful, and considering the current circumstances, James may be even more motivated to hit the ground running in Manchester.
From a purely performance perspective, James has the edge on Grealish. At his best, James is more versatile, more experienced, and contributes to more goals than the young Englishman. Grealish, though, is not far off and is only getting started. He is Premier-League-proven, and has time well on his side to exceed James’ potential. Considering the questions over James’ character fit and age, Manchester United should sign Jack Grealish if money is not an issue. However, if Villa refuse to lower their valuation, signing nobody is not an option. Bruno cannot be expected to play 60 games, nor can United rely on their current reserves for another season if they’re serious about competing for titles. James Rodriguez would be a risk, but a £22 million price tag significantly reduces that worry. His quality cannot be questioned, and if he clicks with Solskjaer he could make an immediate impact and turn out to be a sound investment to fill a priority “squad player” position.