The last time Daniel James started back-to-back games for Manchester United he could have been forgiven for not even realising.
James was in the side that thrashed LASK Linz 5-0 in the Europa League last March and then again in the team that drew at Tottenham in June 100 days later.
A lot changed in that time but the doubts over the £15million winger have been a constant presence for a while. After a bright start to his United career his output had shrunk and his impact diminished.
He soon lost his place to Mason Greenwood and United thrilled after lockdown with a front three that were hungry for goals.
But quietly James has regrouped. There was speculation over his future in the summer and in January but now he might well be emerging as a short-term answer to United’s problem position.
James was signed as a left-winger but the failure to strengthen on the right last summer has left United exposed in that area. Greenwood’s form hasn’t scaled the same heights as the summer, despite an improvement in recent weeks, and Marcus Rashford looks lost in the graveyard shift.
It’s never really suited James but against Real Sociedad and Newcastle he’s performed admirably in two contrasting rules on the right. In Europe he used his pace to get in behind Sociedad’s high line and against the Magpies he stayed as wide as he could, stretching the play horizontally if not vertically.
On both occasions he got on the scoresheet and having scored four times in 46 appearances last season he has five in 13 this term. His goals are coming at a rate of one every 140 minutes this term, which is more than respectable.
When handed starts against Leeds United and Real Sociedad James was a tactical ploy, his searing pace and direct running used to exploit defences that played into United’s hands, but this was different. This was a show of faith in his ability to thrive under a different game plan and he didn’t disappoint.
From United’s first attack his feet were glued to the touchline and he only drifted infield when the play was built down the left, looking to find space at the back post. He had a couple of sighters from that area in the first half before scoring the crucial goal. He’d crept into space silently and when Bruno Fernandes just about diverted Nemanja Matic’s pass to him, the finish was emphatic and the celebration enthusiastic. Solskjaer had said pre-match that James had “deserved” back-to-back starts and he repaid that faith.
The performance wasn’t perfect, although he grew in confidence again and wasn’t afraid to take Jamal Lewis on down the outside. One enterprising burst into the area should have produced a cut-back to Fernandes instead of a cross-shot which was blocked anyway.
But considering the difficulty United have had on the right this was the emergence of another significant option.
It should certainly be good news for Rashford, who has looked much better on the left this week. Wayne Rooney once said he felt like the pitch closed in on him when he played on the right and Rashford might suffer from a similar affliction. He’s a player who looks for open spaces to play in and the left-hand side of United’s attack offers him that and the option to go either side of his opposing full-back.
United should make amends on the right-wing this summer. It needs a long-term solution in that area, but for now James is showing he can be an option on that flank along with Greenwood.
He made way with three minutes to go on Sunday night, having helped United to a much-needed three points, and he still hasn’t completed successive 90 minutes for the club since December 2019, but his status is on the rise once again.