Football Features

What Dan James’ playing style means for Solskjaer’s Man Utd side

By Ben Green

Published: 17:14, 22 May 2019 | Updated: 15:48, 14 September 2021

As Ole Gunnar Solskjaer begins his much-anticipated summer surgery, Manchester United look set to land Swansea City forward Daniel James.

The 21-year-old has reportedly agreed personal terms with the Red Devils after the club negotiated a £15m fee for his services with the Swans.

Should the Wales international put pen-to-paper on a deal at Old Trafford then he will become not only Solskjaer’s first ever United signing but also the first of what is set to be a busy summer of repair in the North West.

James enjoyed a blistering campaign in 2018/19 as Graham Potter’s side finished 10th in the Championship, though he could have been donning the famous strip of Leeds United had a January move not collapsed in the Eleventh Hour.

Well, to rub salt in the wounds of Marcelo Bielsa’s side, James now looks destined for their Roses rivals. But what threat could the two-time Wales international bring to Solskjaer’s beleaguered United?

Counter-attack devastation: The Welsh Mbappe

United already have the fastest player in the Premier League on their books, but James will certainly be giving the top-flight’s speed-merchants a run for their money next term – he’s even clocked a top speed of 36 km/hr, just one kph shy of Arjen Robben’s world record (37 km/hr).

Blessed with close control and breakneck pace, James epitomises the archetypal counter-attack player, making him the ideal forward for Solskjaer’s system.

Since the Norwegian took the helm in December, no team has produced more fast breaks (18) than Man Utd in the league; in fact, prior to Solskjaer’s arrival, United were bottom of that statistic under Jose Mourinho (3).

Indeed, Solskjaer has reinstalled that United high-tempo attack of former glory years, something Gary Neville alluded to before the wheels came off: “Manchester United look like the Manchester United of five to 10 years ago. They have got the counter-attack back.”

Those comments were made in January, and of course we now know how the season eventually unravelled, but Solskjaer will be desperate to reinvigorate his counter-attacking philosophy – and James could prove essential to those plans.

A quick look at his exceptional solo goal against Brentford tells you all you need to know about his sonic speed – even drawing direct parallels with a certain Paris Saint-Germain speedster…

The United ethos

Mourinho lamented a lack of “mad dogs” and “heart” in his side, Solskjaer has complained of no “desire”, and many ex-players have also hit out at United’s current incarnation – with Neville urging his former teammate to “cleanse” the squad.

Since Sir Alex Ferguson stepped down, the makers and shakers at United have seemingly tried their best to rip up the Theatre of Dreams blueprint, tearing down the foundations of a club that once looked from within rather than finding solutions elsewhere.

Truthfully, United have signed precipitously – and recklessly – in the market in recent times, often recruiting has-beens with global branding pedigree rather than a sentimental desire to create a legacy and work hard at Old Trafford.

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The likes of Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao have come and gone, while players like Alexis Sanchez continue to haunt the club’s once proud ethos.

The signing of James, therefore, will come as a breath of fresh air to United fans: a player who is young, hungry and of course, comes at a modest price – it almost seems too shrewd for United’s current hierarchy.

“I want to learn every day. I am always hungry for more. A lot of people say I’ve come a long way but it doesn’t matter whether it’s been six months or two years – I always want to be better.”

– James on his desire to improve

Wales manager Ryan Giggs has even lauded the desire and heart of James, calling him “intelligent” and a “hard worker” after he opened his account against Slovakia in March.

An analysis of his first international goal tells you everything you need to know about James. First he chases the ball down – something United fans have complained their players have failed to do on more than one occasion this season – before nicking it and firing a bullet shot to break the deadlock – certainly no sign of  “jogging” there Mr. Neville.

A Prem player

James really announced himself after his devastating exploits during Swansea City’s FA Cup quarter-final clash against treble-winning Manchester City in March.

He attempted the second-most dribbles of any player on the pitch at the Liberty Stadium with a 100% success rate as City edged their Welsh counterparts 3-2.

After the close encounter, manager Potter explained how James’ performance proved he is ready to make the step up and compete with the very best the game has to offer.

He told BBC Sport: “Against Manchester City (in the FA Cup in March) he matches the physicality of Kyle Walker, for example, and runs away from players at that level.

“That’s a direct comparison against Premier League players at the very top and you can see his quality.

“He plays alongside Gareth Bale (for Wales) and doesn’t look out of place.

“You look at his attributes and how he influences games at Championship level. He causes teams real, real problems.”

This season at Swansea, James has netted four goals and carved out seven assists, as well as registering the best shots per 90 minutes of any of his teammates to play over 10 matches (3.1).

He has also completed the second-most successful dribbles (44) and registered the most assists from crossing (3) which could certainly play off Romelu Lukaku’s aerial prowess.

Where could James play?

Nominally a left winger, James’ versatility could see him play anywhere across the frontline, though he will likely stick to his natural position.

With question marks over the futures of both Anthony Martial and Sanchez, James could provide some much-needed zest and inspiration on the flanks.

His work rate makes him the perfect player for a four-man defence as he will be able to aid Luke Shaw defensively when the left-back bombs forward.

United lined up with a 4-3-1-2 towards the end of the season, but Solskjaer will likely revert to a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 to accommodate his new forward.