Money doesn’t guarantee success in football but when a club spends in excess of £140million on three players, they better be near certainties.
This summer Manchester United parted with a world-record fee for a defender to land Harry Maguire and added Aaron Wan-Bissaka for around the £50million mark. Yet the two defenders are being upstaged by Daniel James.
The 21-year-old moved to Old Trafford for around £15million having impressed for Swansea City. He arrived as the only uncertainty from United’s summer of spending.
Maguire was signed to shore up the centre of defence having impressed for Leicester City and England. Wan-Bissaka was an immediate upgrade on Ashley Young and set United up for the next decade down the right flank.
James, however, had no Premier League experience and had made fewer than 40 appearances for Swansea.
The potential was there but he was very raw. A traditional winger, the sort that is almost extinct in the modern game, James wanted to pick the ball up and run at speed at the opposition. But 21-year-old appeared to lack that instinct which would see him eventually converted into a goalscorer.
His touch was at times sloppy and his finishing was erratic. He netted just four times in the Championship last season and often his shot selection was questionable.
James was averaging 3.2 shots per 90 during the 2018/19 campaign but a remarkable 40 per cent of his efforts came from outside the penalty area. His Modus Operandi was to pick the ball up on the left, cut inside onto his right foot and attempt to curl an effort goalwards.
He landed 34 per cent of shots on target but the Wales international wasn’t, by any stretch of the imagination, a genuine goal threat.
But as the new season edges into October, James looks like United’s most potent force in the final third. In open play, no player can better his three goals for the Red Devils and he looks a completely different player.
There’s an assurance to his game that he lacked at the Liberty Stadium. He has a purpose and he goes about executing it. At first, the £15million fee looked to be a gamble. It’s quickly turned into a bargain.
James has adapted quickly to life at Old Trafford. There’s an intelligence to his game that was rarely seen while playing for Swansea. Perhaps it’s because he’s working with Ole Gunnar Solskjær, a clinical marksman during his playing days, but the United No.21 is now taking fewer low-value efforts.
In open play, he’s taking just 28 per cent of his shots from distance. A significant drop from the 40 per cent he averaged last term. He’s taking fewer shots in general, too, just 2.7 down from 3.2, but he’s hitting the target more often.
In the space of a few months, James went from wasteful and frustrating to a consistent, reliable goal threat.
His expected goals average is currently 0.26. There’s still plenty of room for him to improve, with the elite average wide forwards all averaging north of 0.5 expected goals per 90.
However, there’s something there for James to build on. And with the winger getting into better areas before unleashing shots goalwards, United can start to rely on him, just as Manchester City players know Raheem Sterling will 99.9 per cent of the time be at the back post when they’re attacking down the left.
The shot map above highlights that James is still taking efforts from slightly wider areas in the penalty box and that can be improved upon. If he moved more centrally then his chance of scoring increases. But all the signs are encouraging.
United’s recruitment is often queried but they’ve played a blinder with James. He could possibly turn out to be one of the club’s shrewdest ever signings if he continues to develop.