Manchester United pretty much announced their first signing of the summer on Friday, welcoming Swansea City winger Daniel James to the club. The 21-year-old earned plaudits for his performances in the second half of the season in the Championship, particularly drawing attention after his FA Cup display against eventual winners Manchester City.
Now moving up to the first division, he fits the profile of a seemingly new vision of young, untapped potential that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wants to bring to Manchester United. While that makes for exciting news when considered alongside the traditions of England’s largest club, it differs with recent signings in the sense that James is unlikely to immediately be a key player for United, but instead offer a tactical threat and more options.
Arguably joining the club as the only proper winger in the squad, James boasts all the qualities of an excellent modern winger, with blistering pace, two-footedness, and the ability to move wide and cross or cut inside and involve himself in plays. This combination of traits could make him difficult for any opposing fullback. Combined with his penchant for heavy work rate and defensive contribution, will alleviate some of the woeful fitness and distance records recorded by United last season.
In terms of expectations, the Welshman can be expected to feature more than recent young signings Diogo Dalot and Victor Lindelof in their respective debut seasons, but he would not slot into the side as the likes of Paul Pogba and Eric Bailly did when they joined with Jose Mourinho. Most importantly, he can offer a tactical threat and give United more options in many of the configurations Solskjaer may want to deploy next season, including some of the following.
4-3-3: James slots in on either wing
Part of the problem United faces in attack is the lack of options Paul Pogba often has when he picks up the ball in creative areas; instead of stretching the opposing defence, United’s static forwards clutter into similar areas and become very easy to defend against. James, from either wing, would solve this problem.
The most likely combination would be that he slots in on the right side of United’s attack alongside Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial, allowing Martial to play on the inside instead of being forced out too wide to make an impact. Having Martial closer to the centre allows Rashford to move as freely as he often wishes without leaving gaping holes in the middle.
While James’ two-footedness would be an enabler to play on either side, his tends to prefer playing from the left wing, which means he can also provide competition for the often frustrating Martial and force the Frenchman into form. The fact United have not signed a proper right-winger in years is a source of undisputed frustration for fans who would like to have a James-esque signing to cover that flank.
4-4-2 Diamond: James up top?
In the bigger, more difficult fixtures, Solskjaer tends to deploy a 4-4-2 diamond formation and allow United to function on the counter, with the player on the upper tip of the diamond functioning as the focal point of the side in defence and the two strikers converging from out wide in attack.
The most effective duo to play up top was, once again, Rashford and Martial. Paired with the former, the winger could offer positional versatility to accompany Rashford’s tendency to roam into different areas on the pitch. With Martial, James could emulate Rashford, being much more effective in wide areas and away from the box.
Should the rumours of Antoine Griezmann’s arrival bear fruit, the entire attack would revolve around the mercurial World Cup winner, whose touch of class and work rate would compensate for the lack thereof from Rashford and Martial, respectively.
4-4-2: Natural wingers
Finally, James opens the possibility of finally playing a 4-4-2 with natural wingers. This system, which would work better with a type of target man up top alongside a more mobile second striker in the mould of the aforementioned Griezmann, would involve James and Diogo Dalot receiving the ball in advanced areas on the wing and crossing for the two strikers and a third runner from central midfield.
Advanced wingers with a knack for crossing were a staple in many of Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest sides, and could be once again with James and Dalot, who would provide a level of defensive stability that would pressure other sides into mistakes and offer quick transitioning through midfield. On the other hand, it may leave United somewhat vulnerable in midfield and over-reliant on the likes of James.
It is important to remember that the player is not only new to United, but also top-flight football, and will need time to fulfil the potential for which he was signed. For now, he can only be expected to give everything for the club and help raise the dismal distance records recorded by United players under Jose Mourinho.