Why Daniel James is the unfair scapegoat for Manchester United's problems | Premier League 2019-20
The final moments of Liverpool’s 2-0 victory at Anfield on Sunday defined the relationship that has developed between Daniel James and the Manchester United fans. Within minutes of the final whistle, criticism of the Welsh winger was trending virally on social media as James again emerged as the scapegoat for their frustration.
Mohamed Salah completed the scoring for Liverpool, but it was James who had the energy and pace to track back and pressure him as he headed towards goal. With the rest of the visiting defence sauntering over the halfway line, James took responsibility. However, Salah proved too strong in his determination, and completed the scoring with a composed finish past David de Gea in front of an ecstatic Kop.
Playing in his usual attacking role, there was no expectancy on James to be the last man at that late stage of the game, but his desire to make it back has made him the subject of blame as he failed to complete his voluntary defensive task. Despite the euphoria that followed the goal, the result already appeared safe, and the celebrations marked a wider poignancy as Jurgen Klopp’s side put one hand on the Premier League trophy.
Quite rightly, the post-match talk was of Liverpool. However, while James was not at the level he set for himself at the start of the campaign, the criticism he has again faced from his own fans is simply unjust. Sadly, he has already and unfairly inherited a stigma at Old Trafford that will now be difficult for him to shake off. The problems at Manchester United are well-documented, but James is not one of them.
Belief of Bielsa
This time last year, Leeds United turned transfer speculation into reality with a £10m bid to take James to Elland Road. Despite having only made a handful of appearances for Swansea City at the time, the potential in his ability was more than evident. Even though he had failed to make an impression during a previous and very brief loan-spell at Shrewsbury Town, James had shown enough to suggest he was now ready to make the grade.
While his minutes on the field were limited, James was already labelled as an exciting prospect for both club and his country. The opinion of Leeds United boss Marcelo Bielsa is well-respected in the world game, and his targeting of James was one of the biggest signs of his potential. With a taste of international football with Wales to compliment his appearances for the Swans, there was little doubt that 2019 would be important year in his career.
However, few could have predicted just how defining a year it would be for James, and how it would shape his character both personally and professionally. James has evolved from a boy to a man over the course of the last calendar year, and the criticism he is currently suffering is testament to the standard he set against all odds upon his arrival at Old Trafford.
The proposed move to Leeds United collapsed at the eleventh hour. James reported back to the Liberty Stadium, and it is a credit to former manager Graham Potter that he was able to reintegrate himself back into the squad so quickly. The fans forgave him for having his head turned, and his form impressed Wales manager Ryan Giggs enough to include him in the starting line-up for the opening EURO 2020 qualifier against Slovakia in March.
The Cardiff City Stadium was packed on a sunny Sunday afternoon to witness James score his first international goal on his competitive debut. Wales won the match 1-0, and there was a poignancy attached to celebrations as Gareth Bale became the first to congratulate him. The image represented a sign of the old guard heralding the arrival of a new generation.
“Dan has brought his club form to the national team,” explained Giggs after the victory. “He's intelligent, he works hard, and it was brilliant for him to get the winning goal. He's got that raw pace, and he would be a threat at any level. As a winger, you have to develop the other parts of your game. He's played up front which gives him an appreciation of what service he needs to provide, he just needs to carry on doing what he's doing at Swansea.”
Recovering mentally from the setback of his failed transfer to Leeds United, James regrouped and continued his progress with Swansea City for the remainder of the season. His attacking pace added another dimension to the Championship side, and he quickly became an established part of Potter’s team in the second half of the campaign, rather than an alternative option from the bench. There was no doubt he would attract more interest when the transfer window opened.
However, it would be a summer that James and his family will never forget. His father Kevan, who had accompanied to his medical at Leeds United just a few months before, suddenly passed away in May. Less than a month later, James completed his £15m move to Manchester United. Still just 21, James' personal and professional life would never be the same again. Impressing on the pre-season tour of Australia, James made a spectacular start to life in the Premier League, scoring against Chelsea, Crystal Palace and Southampton in the opening weeks of the season.
Upon his arrival at Old Trafford, many considered James one for the future, and that manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær would loan him back to the Championship to continue his development. However, in the same way, that Giggs had embraced his talent with Wales, Solskjær identified qualities in James that persuaded him he was also ready for the demands of the Premier League.
Inevitably, his form has dipped with the same inconsistency as his Manchester United team during the course of the campaign. Setting a high standard for himself on his introduction to the Premier League, James has been expected to produce to a level that few expected him to reach this early stage of his career. Opponents were initially caught out by his pace, but his importance to the team highlighted him to opposition managers as a key player in this Manchester United side.
Despite their struggles in recent years, Manchester United do not compromise when it comes to setting the highest standards. James has suffered unfair criticism for failing to carry the weight of players with more experience and more expectation in the side, but his success with Wales in qualifying for EURO 2020 will ensure a determination to rediscover his early form. Caught in a period of endless transition, this is not an easy time to represent Manchester United.
As a result, James will find solace in the international game with Wales, and he is not the first to do so. Aaron Ramsey and Gareth Bale have suffered high-profile criticism in a similar way at Arsenal and Real Madrid respectively, and will understand the demands that have been placed on James at one of the biggest clubs in the world. His unmistakable smile offered hope of a new era at Old Trafford upon his arrival, but even that has been missing in recent weeks.
However, James has played over 30 competitive games for club and country since completing his move to Manchester United last summer, and has contributed more assists than any other United player to complement his three Premier League goals. As United struggle for consistency, he remains a key part of the team, and there is a danger that the demands placed upon him are as much as a physical test as a mental one.
The human element
It is easy to criticise from the sidelines, but James is an undeserving scapegoat for the current frustration that exists within Old Trafford. His life was turned upside down with personal tragedy in 2019, while his professional career went through an intensive roller-coaster of highs and lows. Few would have managed the psychological aspect of it all in the same way that James has taken it all in his stride, and he deserves much more respect.
The importance of mental health has never been highlighted more than it is today, and as players at the top of their profession appear isolated from the real world, it is easy to forget that they are young and impressionable figures suffering the same emotions as the fans that pay to watch them. The talent that James has at his disposal is clear to see, and only support will bring the best out of him again.Published 21 Jan 2020, 00:20 IST