There were glimpses of the Daniel James of old on show for Wales against Finland in midweek.
The fearless Daniel James who burst into the spotlight with his searing pace and devilish ability on the ball returned. The formidable Daniel James who has experienced harrowing off-field turmoil and defied his doubters sparked back into life. The Daniel James who earned himself a move to Manchester United and flattered with his early promise may yet re-ignite himself.
Unfortunately for the young winger, his fortunes have tailed off since then, leading to speculation over his Old Trafford future already. It appeared as though James was down and out, another United player destined for the scrapheap, but his scintillating international displays have reminded everyone that he is still here and determined to make it to the top.
Daniel James (right) showed a glimpse of his talent in Wales’ Nations League win vs Finland
The Manchester United star has endured a frustrating start to the season with little game time
The fresh-faced 23-year-old was just minutes away from sealing a move to one of United’s arch rivals, Leeds, before the deal collapsed in its final stages in January 2019. Fast forward just a matter of months, and James was instead holding aloft the hallowed red jersey as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s first addition.
‘This is one of the best days of my life,’ an ecstatic James admitted, having progressed through Swansea’s academy and scored five goals in 38 appearances during his breakthrough season.
It was clear why United decided to spend the £15million. His wonderful solo effort against Brentford highlighted every one of his strengths.
A willingness to track back resulted in the ball running loose to him inside his own half, before his motion-blurring speed allowed him to sprint clear of the defenders across the whole length of the pitch. A cool finish followed, a trait rarely seen now at United but one undoubtably present during his early days.
The 23-year-old had netted on his debut against Chelsea at Old Trafford and celebrated wildly
United supporters were left salivating at the prospect of the winger leading forward his team-mates in a similar fashion in the top flight. For the first couple of months, at least, they weren’t disappointed.
James made his debut against Chelsea after being introduced as a 75th minute substitute. But with time slowly ticking down, and United leading three-nil, it looked as though the speed demon would be unable to cap off the memorable result with his own piece of brilliance.
Paul Pogba’s breathtaking pass freed up James in the area, however, and the Welshman’s strike whistled into the net after deflecting off Emerson. The Stretford End erupted, and the youngster raced to the corner flag in wild celebration before being mobbed by his team-mates. The emotion that came flooding out from James soon after the death of his father was raw, palpable and touching.
The disappointing early season form from his side somewhat overshadowed his electric start, though. James netted in the 89th minute in the home defeat to Crystal Palace and was also on target a week later in the draw at Southampton.
James was also on target in United’s home defeat by Crystal Palace with a late consolation
His third goal in four games came at Southampton after a thunderbolt from the edge of the box
IS THERE HOPE YET FOR DANIEL JAMES?
His strike at St Mary’s was a brilliant, arching effort from the edge of the box. A decisiveness, bred from his confidence, quick feet and lightning-fast decision making created and emphatically dispatched the strike.
James had ascended into the stratosphere. The sky was truly the limit. Or so everyone thought.
In the weeks that followed, the Welshman’s promise gave away to frustration. All the attributes which endeared him to the United fanbase disappeared and led to rash choices and a poor end product.
Very slowly, the public perception began to turn.
Solskjaer, in typical form, decided to stick by James, but his 29 other league appearances last season failed to result in another goal.
His six assists showed fleeting signs of the signing which had taken the next chapter of his career by storm, but at the end of the year fans were left to reflect back on his first campaign in mixed spirits.
James’ superb form tailed off after a bright start and the winger then struggled to impress
Boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer initially kept his faith in James but has called upon him less and less
Of course, there were plenty of factors at play. James, at the top of his game, is a terrifying prospect to face up against. With his confidence ebbing away, however, his skillset often petered out into woeful crosses and there was growing frustration at his choices to pull the trigger from tight angles.
His self-belief in the early weeks of the season was well founded and matched by his performances, but understandably James appeared overawed and crestfallen when the going got tough.
This season has followed a similar story. He has made just five appearances in all competitions for United, often finding himself left out of squads entirely or as an unused substitute.
Mason Greenwood’s spectacular emergence has also dented his team-mate playing time. The 19-year-old striker has blossomed into one of world football’s hottest prospects and possesses a jaw-dropping ability to at least hit the target with seemingly every one of his shots. James does not come close in this area.
James’ stronger position is widely understood to be on the left flank. The winger looks a different player when fielded on his stronger side, but United’s lack of options on the right meant that the player was shoehorned in and expected to maintain his top-tier showings.
This season has also been frustrating for James with the winger afforded little to no game time
Marcus Rashford, and Anthony Martial to a lesser extent, are first-choice options in that area and will take some dislodging. Add in the mercurial Juan Mata, and James’ task takes another unfortunate twist.
His prominence for Wales has certainly provided him some welcome solace. James has featured in seven of his nation’s eight fixtures since September, and delivered a timely reminder of his talent on Wednesday.
The 25-yard thunderbolt sparked another memorable celebration from the winger, who punched the air and screamed into the chilly Cardiff air.
And when his jubilation subsided, and Wales secured passage to the Nations League top tier, James underlined his intentions to breathe new life into his United career.
‘Man United is my club and I love it there – whether I’m playing or not,’ he said.
His heroics on international duty had provided James with some welcome solace in midweek
‘There were times I played a lot last season and I may not have played as much this time.
‘But I’m sticking in there and I’ll always be in and around it. I’ll never think differently to that.’
There can be no denying that James holds qualities that will help improve a stuttering United team over the coming months, and perhaps even years.
His lightning fast pace has been highlighted multiple times, but there are various other elements in his arsenal beyond that.
The early weeks after his big move saw a player capable of using quick footwork to take on full-backs, and an unerring accuracy around the box saw him test, or beat, multiple goalkeepers.
There can be no denying James holds the qualities to help a stuttering United team improve
James has insisted that his desire is to stay at United and fight to reclaim his first-team place
His deliveries from the flanks will need sharpening now, especially considering new signing Edinson Cavani thrives on winning duels in the air, and his desire to find the back of the net once again after a barren club spell will need to be set to one side.
This selflessness may well be the catalyst to more confidence, and the world has already been warned about just how good a player James is when his mind is perfectly tuned.
The bottom line is that James will have to improve in multiple areas to thrive at United, but there is still time for him to salvage his hopes of becoming yet another Old Trafford star.