Daniel James was one of the breakout stars
of this Championship season. Gradually establishing himself as a regular starter for Swansea City,
he ended up with four goals and seven assists in 33 league outings. While the Welsh club
came nowhere near promotion, the 21-year-old showed he has what it takes to play at a higher
level. James operated primarily on the left wing
of Graham Potter’s preferred 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 systems, though he was also frequently
deployed on the right-hand side. At times, he was even tasked with leading the line,
displaying a promising level of tactical versatility within the English second tier’s most possession-based
side. He was one of Swansea’s more productive attacking players, averaging 1.3 dribbles
and 1.2 key passes per game. His quality is perhaps highlighted by another, less exciting
statistic – in the Championship, only Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish was fouled more often.
Pace is the young Welshman’s most obvious asset, and he uses it effectively in a number
of ways. A natural winger, James likes to receive the ball on or near the touchline,
where he has a better chance of getting isolated up against a full-back. Once in possession,
he prefers to attack space rather than his opposite man.
Many modern wide players are 1v1 specialists who get close to their marker before deceiving
them with nimble footwork, trickery or a quick turn. James, however, targets the space on
either side of, or behind, his marker. Direct and aggressive when facing goal, he
drives at defenders and is excellent at attacking the last line. In these situations, he will
knock the ball beyond his man before running around to collect, essentially playing himself
in. The more time he gets on the ball, the more momentum he can generate. And the more
space between a defensive line and their goal, the likelier it is that he will penetrate
the opposition single-handedly. James doesn’t just look for the space behind
or around the outside, however. He also dribbles laterally across the pitch, targeting the
area between an opponent’s midfield and defensive lines. While these movements may
initially look less threatening, they actually give him and his team a wider variety of options.
By driving inside he gets more access to the central channels, from where he has an improved
angle for shots or combinations with teammates in dangerous areas. Against a man-oriented
defence, he drags his man inside with him, freeing up space down the flanks for his team’s
full-backs to attack. James’ inward dribbles can also collapse
and distract a defence, enabling movement on the blind side by his teammates. And even
against organised back lines, his dribbling through different vertical channels can confuse
defenders, causing uncertainty as to who is responsible for closing him down.
His speed may be key, but James has also developed alternative ways to enhance his team’s attacking
play that do not involve simply running directly into space. One-twos with nearby teammates
are a good way for him to get beyond his marker – here he can use his foreknowledge of where
he is going to get ahead of his opposite man and receive the return pass. He also moves
well off the ball, making forward runs to open up passing lanes between other teammates.
At times, Championship teams have doubled up on him when he receives out wide. While
this is a fairly effective way for opponents to reduce his threat, it means they have less
players to cover in other areas of the pitch. Swansea’s attack was undoubtedly better
for the presence of James. However, his influence didn’t stop once the ball was lost.
Defensively, his pace comes in handy when pressing, as he can step up quickly to close
down. Should the ball-player play a slack pass, or the receiver be in a bad position,
he is able to fluster them into mistakes, back passes, or hurried long balls.
One example of this came against Norwich, a team that like to build from the back via
short passes, James was utilised as a striker. In this role, he was tasked with closing down
sideways play between the centre-backs, rushing the opponent’s build-up by reducing their
time on the ball with the aim of forcing turnovers high up the pitch.
Once possession is turned over, he is a genuine threat in attacking transition. He instantly
looks to get in behind back lines with runs between defenders, with his pace making him
a genuine outlet for direct counter-attacks over the top or in behind.
Manchester United are looking to rebuild after a disappointing end to the campaign, and James
is one of their main summer transfer targets. Since taking his place in the Old Trafford
dugout, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has tended to line United up in a 4-3-3 formation, although
he has used a 4-2-3-1 at times. Experiments with a diamond midfield and a back three aside,
it’s clear that he wants a system incorporating wingers. However, he lacks genuine candidates
for these positions. Unlike his predecessor Jose Mourinho, Solskjaer
has preferred to use Marcus Rashford as a striker. Meanwhile, Juan Mata and Jesse Lingard
have both been deployed out wide, though both seem to thrive more consistently in central
roles between the midfielders and forwards. As for Anthony Martial and Alexis Sanchez,
both have generally underwhelmed of late. As a natural winger who can play on either
flank, James would solve this problem. He may also help Solskajer tactically in other
ways. He could form a productive left-sided partnership
with the team’s most creative player, Paul Pogba. With his threat in behind, James could
drag opposition defences back and create extra space between the lines for Pogba to exploit.
Alternately, the pair could combine with each other with one-twos or through balls.
As well as helping to maximise the abilities of Manchester United’s most talented individual,
James might help in reducing the attacking responsibility placed on an ageing set of
full-backs, by being the sole provider of attacking width on one side. On top of all
that, Solskjaer, who seems to want his side to defend more aggressively and higher up
the pitch, would be bolstered by the 21-year-old’s pace in pressing.
James isn’t the finished article yet. He’s raw in terms of his decision-making and execution
of the final ball, and is at times over-eager to dribble past his man. However, he does
possess a lot of the qualities Manchester United are looking for to strengthen their
attack. And, as shown when terrorising Manchester City’s defence in FA Cup action in March,
he has what it takes to succeed against top-class opposition.