Four goals and seven assists. On paper, Daniel James looks to have had a very productive debut season at Manchester United. Why though, have so many fans been critical of the 22-year-old?
When the Red Devils signed the Welshman for £15million last summer (fee per BBC Sport), there was optimism surrounding their new recruit. A young, pacy winger that was expected to provide a bit of energy to United’s rather depleted looking flanks. Making the step up from the Championship though, optimism was not being confused with expectation, but this all soon changed.
In his first four Premier League games, James impressively registered three goals, establishing himself as a dangerous, direct threat down both wings. When his powerful effort hit the top right hand corner at St Mary’s Stadium, United fans thought they had found the signing of the season. Anything the Welshman touched turned to gold, and not many would have believed that this would be the last PL goal he would score this season (so far).
Following on from that goal, James embarked upon a goal draught of over six months, leading onto many labelling him as a ‘flop’ or simply not being good enough. Such criticism is rather unfair, as these expectations were not laid out by the club at the start of the season. He arrived on the back of just one full season in the Championship, and as we have seen through much senior names, adapting to the Premier League can often take up to eighteen months.
His quick start led onto the Welshman being United’s first choice right-winger, due to both his form but also a lack of depth in that position. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer demands a free-flowing and attacking shape from his front-men, with James’ profile being much more suited to this system, in comparison to the makeshift options of Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard.
Against a deep block however, the winger’s influence on games has been very limited. Without the space to exploit in-behind, it’s been a big learning curve for James this season, coming up against strictly robust and experienced PL sides.
Games where we have, however, seen the pacy winger flourish is in the open fixtures against teams that aren’t afraid to open up. He was a key figure in the league double over Manchester City, where the Red Devils deployed him alongside Anthony Martial up-top, with the aim of splitting Pep Guardiola’s centre backs. It was a role that played to James’ key strength with his acceleration on the break, to which the Sky Blues found out to full extent.
It is moments like these as to why the 22-year-old was brought into the squad, to inject new attacking ideas into the team, in specific games. Instead, he has suffered a burnout due to the amount of football being heaped onto his shoulders, taking on a big role in a team that stills finds itself in a transitional stage.
United have experienced a successful end to the season though, with James playing a key role in these recent run of results. The winger does have strong qualities that are useful to the squad, but he would likely benefit from the arrival of a more established wide-man, come next season.