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Spotlight: Daniel James

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Daniel James has come screaming out of the gates for Manchester United this season. Join us as we drill down on one of the Premier League’s hottest young talents.

Daniel James - Manchester United - Premier League
Daniel James applauded supporters after scoring his third goal of the campaign over the weekend. Has he now become an essential fantasy asset?
Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer launched his managerial career at Manchester United to record-setting success last winter. But the moment he won a permanent contract, his magic seemed to disappear overnight, and the Red Devils skidded to a 6th-place finish. United fans hoped the club would regroup over the summer and start the 2019-20 season in style, but instead United currently sit 8th, having taken just one win and five points from four games.

So dark clouds are again gathering over Old Trafford, but there are a few rays of sunshine peeking through. Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, and Daniel James have all been standouts so far, and probably constitute the shortlist for United’s August player of the month honors. It is interesting (troubling?) that two of these players are just 21 years old, and that all of them are new summer transfers rather than senior members of the club.

Among these three, perhaps the brightest star has been Daniel James. The 21 year-old Welsh international has exploded onto the Premier League scene, thrilling United fans and seizing the attention of fantasy football managers around the world. Let’s take a closer look at this young phenom, and consider whether he deserves a place in our fantasy sides.

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Who is Daniel James?

James was born on Nov. 10, 1997 in Kingston Upon Hull, England but is eligible to play for Wales due to his father’s birthplace (Aberdare, Wales). He began training at the Hull City academy at age 9 before eventually moving to Swansea in 2014. He was loaned to League One club Shrewsbury Town in the summer of 2017, having made no appearances for Swansea’s first team. However, he wasn’t able to break into the match-day squad for the Shrews either, and the loan was terminated by mutual consent after just two months. Leeds United then came in for him on loan in the January 2018 window, but the deal was killed by Swansea in the final hours of deadline day.

He was finally handed his first-team debut with Swansea in February of 2018, but it would be the 2018-19 campaign before James really broke out and established himself as a fixture in the starting 11. He made 28 Championship starts and 5 sub appearances last season, notching 4 goals and 9 assists. His influence steadily grew as the campaign progressed, and by springtime he was turning the heads of some very high-profile admirers. After an April 9th game against Stoke, Potters player and Wales teammate Joe Allen said James “was electric. He scored and got two men sent off and caused carnage all game. That was the day that probably sealed the potential Man United move.”(espn.com)

That move came to fruition on June 12, when Manchester United announced the £15M acquisition and a five-year contract. The purchase was the first of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era.

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How Does Daniel James Play?

James is a right-footer who prefers to cut in from the left wing, but he can play anywhere across the front three, or as a No. 10. He is a skillful dribbler with a high work rate who relishes taking on defenders. But his most unique attribute is his sheer speed: He was supposedly clocked at 36 km/hr, just a hair shy of Arjen Robben’s footballing world-record of 37 km/hr (espn.com). Marco Rossi, whose Hungary side faced Wales in June as James’ United transfer was underway, said “James’ speed reminds me of Usain Bolt — to be so fast like him is really incredible. In the last years I don’t remember one player that gave me this sensation.”(www.thesun.co.uk)

To get a feel for his skill-set and pace, cue up the following video. You’ll notice that one of his trademark one-on-one moves is to simply push the ball into space behind a defender and then win the foot race to the ball: He’s essentially passing the ball to himself! But my favorite testament to his speed begins at about 2:42, when he single-handedly launches a 70-yard counterattack by out-sprinting — while dribbling — three defenders before slotting past the goalkeeper.

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What Are Daniel James’ Prospects?

It’s all champagne and roses right now for the young winger; he scored on his Manchester United debut and added two more goals over the next three games. But we must remember that this is a 21 year-old with no prior experience playing in England’s top tier. And with Lukaku and Alexis Sánchez gone, the stable of seasoned forwards that OGS can turn to to ease James into the Prem is relatively thin. The responsibility of starting — and producing — on a regular basis for the largest football club in the world is a heavy load to bear for a 21 year-old who is new to the league, especially when the club is struggling for results.

It’s a cliché, but James has been thrown into the deep end without much swim practice. Is that the way to blood a young player? As former Manchester City star Danny Mills said, “If Rashford’s not scoring you can’t be relying on Daniel James, the new kid on the block, to bail Manchester United out of trouble all the time. [He] should have been maybe that player to be on the bench, he comes on and might be able to do a bit in the last 25-30 minutes. But they’re relying on him.” (www.thesun.uk.co)

James has also been criticized for the immaturity he showed after scoring in the 89th minute to pull United level with Crystal Palace. A more experienced player might have recognized that tying the Eagles at Old Trafford is simply not good enough, and would have snatched the ball from the back of the net and run it back to the center circle for a quick restart that might have gained United enough time to nick a winner. Instead James sprinted to the corner flag and puffed out his chest in front of the Stretford End, forcing Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford to literally drag him back to reality. (As it turned out, it was the Eagles who then went on to win in injury time.)

Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford drag Daniel James away from his time-wasting celebration - Manchester United v Crystal Palace - Premier League Photo by Jan Kruger/Getty Images

It’s possible that James’ rawness could persuade OGS to manage his minutes or rotate his starts in order to nurture his development more carefully, especially once Anthony Martial returns to fitness. But in truth it’s not hard to understand how a young player enjoying his first taste of the Premier League might react with over-exuberance after scoring an important goal on such a big stage. And with the team struggling and OGS under pressure to produce results, can the manager really afford to leave his hottest player on the bench? As Juan Mata says, “Football is easier, right, if you are that quick? (James) takes advantage of that. He goes one on one and it’s very difficult for a defender to take the ball off him. We need to use him even more.” (www.thesun.uk.co)

So personally, I’m more worried about James’ ability to continue scoring than I am about his security of starts. In just one month, James has already equaled the number of league goals that Alexis Sanchez — on wages of £400K/week — scored over the span of a year and a half. That may not mean much given the Chilean’s cold-as-a-mackerel form since moving to Old Trafford, but how about this: At the moment there are only five men in the Prem who have scored more goals this season than James, and he is level with players such as Mo Salah, Harry Kane, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and Jamie Vardy. If that seems improbable, perhaps that’s because it is.

Obviously James has been scoring for fun lately, but the player we are witnessing is not the player he has been. Based on his strike rate from last year’s breakthrough season, it should now be another 24 games before he ripples the net again for United. That’s right, in his best season ever, he averaged a goal only once every 627 minutes. And that was in the Championship.

For perspective, in last season’s Premier League, his Red Devil teammate Marcus Rashford averaged 234 minutes/goal, and Anthony Martial 162. Superstar wingers such as Raheem Sterling, Mo Salah, and Sadio Mané averaged 163, 140, and 148, respectively. Second and third tier players like Wilfried Zaha, Heung-Min Son, and Gerard Deulofeu came in at 304, 171, and 208. In fact, you have to drop down to the level of players like Dwight McNeil (533) and Miguel Almirón (763) before you enter James’ minutes/goal neighborhood (all minutes/goal data sourced from transfermrkt.com). I’m not saying that McNeil and Almirón aren’t talented players; I’m only saying that they aren’t deployed as consistent goal-scoring threats.

And his first few games with Manchester United notwithstanding, Daniel James never has been either. In fantasy formats like FPL, where attackers earn points pretty much only through goals and assists, that fact should give managers pause. Take the example of Felipe Anderson. In the first half of last season, the Brazilian middie who had never scored more than ten goals in any campaign suddenly exploded for 8 in a span of just 13 games (mostly while Marko Arnautović was injured). Early-adopters definitely benefited from his purple patch, but after Arni returned, Anderson reverted to his statistical mean, scoring just one more time in the remaining 16 games to finish the season with a total of nine goals. Has James found a new normal in OGS’s setup at Old Trafford, or will he revert to his mean, as Felipe Anderson did?

The story is a little bit different in Fantrax. FT managers who have transferred James into their squads run less risk of disappointment than their FPL counterparts, especially if they bought James before price adjustments multiplied up his cost. Fantrax awards points for statistics other than just goals and assists, so James’ downside should be cushioned even if his goal-scoring streak tapers off. For instance, James has been shooting on sight, and already tallying 6 shots on target and 8 corners forced. He is also fouled frequently as he rounds exhausted defenders who are helpless to do much more than hack at him in desperation, or stop him with a professional foul. These phantom points add up: Even after subtracting out points for his three goals, he’d still be averaging almost 7 points/game despite only playing for 16 minutes in Game 1.

Watching a 21 year-old home-grown player take the Premier League by storm has been fun, and I’ll continue to enjoy the ride for as long as it lasts. So should you if James is already in your squad. If he’s not and you’re thinking about adding him, I like James in Fantrax a lot more than I like him in FPL, where I think managers should approach him with caution given his lack of track record as a consistent goal-scorer.

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Has Daniel James found a spot in any of your fantasy squads? Do you think he can continue to be an important goal-scorer for Manchester United? Which of the Prem’s other emerging young talents are you monitoring? Please tell us in the Comments below.

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