Daniel James played 20 fewer games for Manchester United in 2020/21 than he did in 2019/20. But the Wales winger can use Euro 2020 as a springboard to prove to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer that he can still play an important role at Old Trafford after shining in his country’s opener against Switzerland.
James was practically unheard of prior to completing a surprise £15m transfer to United from Swansea in 2019. He was already 21 going on 22, yet had played just 39 senior career games and had failed to get a game on loan at Shrewsbury only two years before moving to Manchester.
In one season at United, James played in more games (46) than he had in his entire career up to that point. Having been considerably overplayed because of a lack of other options when he first arrived and later suffering with fatigue, that number dramatically fell to 26 in his second year.
The true number of games he ought to be playing for United each season probably lies somewhere in the middle. He will likely never be a regular starter at the level the club wants to be at, but his contributions as a reliable squad player with a specific set of skills remain invaluable.
Solskjaer himself knows the value of squad depth, having been that player himself, the one who doesn’t start very often but usually has an impact when he finally gets on the pitch.
Solskjaer famously did it in the most spectacular way possible when he came off the bench in the 1999 Champions League final to score the winner. James doesn’t have to do that, but his pace for a team that loves to counter attack, particularly against tiring opponents, has tremendous benefit.
Energy and pressing from the front are also important attributes for a team with United’s philosophy and James showed he can do that in games when he first arrived. Fatigue and burnout in that first season chipped away at him and performances dropped as a result – it was little coincidence that he looked fresher and rejuvenated for the brief few weeks of ‘Project Restart’ after a lengthy rest.
Solskjaer could probably be forgiven for looking elsewhere over the last 10 months, with Paul Pogba increasingly used wide and other attacking places being fought for by Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Anthony Martial and Edinson Cavani. That competition will only get stiffer if Jadon Sancho finally completes his long awaited transfer, but using James as a relief option is vital, especially because Rashford ended up running himself into the ground.
The biggest criticism previously levelled at James is that his speed and acceleration isn’t matched by his technical ability. He may be far from the most technically gifted player at United, but everything you see in his performances for Wales suggest that overlooking him completely is a mistake.
There was a long-range goal against Finland last November and more than one good cross in his country’s Euro 2020 opener against Switzerland that suggest it is something he has worked on. One such instance, on his weaker left foot, created a great chance for Kieffer Moore, who was denied by a top save. It could just as easily be Edinson Cavani in a United shirt when the club season returns.
Club football at the highest level is a squad game more than ever – Manchester City showed that in 2020/21 by using rotation to keep their players fresher than anyone else. Not absolutely everyone has to be a star and United haven’t had a deep enough squad to properly compete for years, but relying on players like James to do a job here and there is what future success has to be built on.
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