At the end of August 2019, Manchester United fans believed that they were watching a legend in the making. With three goals in his first four games for the club and displaying an electrifying pace that was putting the fear of God into opposition defences, Daniel James, player of the month, was on top of the world.
At one stage comparisons were even being drawn – by Ryan Giggs among others – to the world’s greatest player, Cristiano Ronaldo.
Fast forward to January and the situation does not look so rosy. James has not added a single goal to his tally in the 28 games he has played for the Red Devils since that auspicious start and has not provided a single assist in the last five.
A quick comparison with the right wingers at other Premier League clubs shows how far the Welshman is lagging behind:
Mo Salah (Liverpool): 33 games, 18 goals, 9 assists.
Riyad Mahrez (Man City): 33 games, 9 goals, 13 assists
Christian Pulisic (Chelsea): 23 games, 6 goals, 6 assists
Lucas Moura (Spurs): 31 games, 6 goals, 3 assists
Willian (Chelsea): 31 games, 5 goals, 5 assists
Adama Traore (Wolves): 36 games, 5 goals, 10 assists.
Nicholas Pepe (Arsenal): 27 games, 5 goals, 4 assists.
Daniel James 32 games, 3 goals, 7 assists.
So what has gone wrong for the 22-year-old? Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has claimed his players are tired, but most of the players listed above have played a similar number of games. Yes, James is new to the Premier league but he is hardly a teenager.
Some will argue that it is because he is playing in a struggling side, but Nicholas Pepe has managed two more goals than James for a mid-table Arsenal side in five fewer appearances and Traore has scored two more for a side level on points with the Red Devils.
The simple fact of the matter is that when James first burst onto the scene, his blistering pace caught everyone by surprise. But teams in the Premier League adapt quickly. To a great extent, James’ pace can be nullified by holding a deeper line against United and most teams cottoned on to this very quickly after that first exceptional month.
The question is whether there is a plan B to come from the Welshman, whether there is more to his game than simply being fast. So far, we have not seen much development in terms of technique, guile or intelligent positioning that could unlock the low block that has so easily been able to thwart his advances.
As things stand, James would make the perfect impact substitute, coming on against tired legs with 20 minutes to go to terrorise defences. But Solskjaer persists in starting the 22-year-old, despite the fact that his presence in the side practically guarantees that United’s opponents will play that low block that tactically the Norwegian has thus far utterly failed to solve.
It is a problem that could have been solved had United bought a winger in the January transfer window, but that now will require a reshuffle or tactical switch. In the meantime, James will continue to struggle in the Premier League and his low rate of return is likely to continue.