How Will Dan James Fit In At Leeds United?
This article from Ryan Quinn discusses the attributes of Leeds’ record signing, and poses the question of how he fits in with Bielsaball…
More than two years on from the well-documented fiasco, Leeds United finally have their man. Signed from Manchester United for a fee worth £24m — after being made possible by the return of Cristiano Ronaldo to Old Trafford — Daniel James has been admired by Marcelo Bielsa for some time. In James, there is a player with specific qualities, that could not only benefit this Leeds side in its current state, but could be enhanced by Bielsa himself to make the 23-year-old even more effective.
James is a winger by trade, capable of playing on either flank. It could be argued that his game is that bit more expansive when playing on the left, as he is able to take on the full-back by dribbling infield, and from there can shoot from outside the box on his preferred right foot. But perhaps the more straightforward role he’s had when playing on the right suits James’ game better, as made notable in some so-called ‘bigger’ matches during his time in Manchester.
James was a valuable asset for Man United in these games, helping Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side carry out tactical game-plans, earning results against Chelsea, Manchester City, Tottenham Hotspur, and Leeds across two seasons.
‘That’ Game At Old Trafford
The high-octane match-up with Leeds, where Man United won 6–2, saw James offer pace on the counter-attack, and provide movement which toyed with Leeds’ defence, stretching it and creating space in the final third.
The below is an excerpt from my piece reviewing that game, describing James’ role on the right wing, as well as his goal in the second half:
With the space offered by Leeds during the home side’s switches from defence to attack, both in midfield and in behind their high defensive line, James could utilise his speed when making off-ball runs and carrying the ball forward.
One particular move had James booked for diving, arguably a poor decision, but his goal was a well-worked three step move.
– Fred regained the ball on the edge of the box.
– McTominay carried the ball forward with lots of room to move and pass the ball into, and passed into a dangerous position. But was the pass meant for James?
– James controlled the pass first-time brilliantly, and darted in behind the defence into the box, with his left-foot drive nutmegging goalkeeper Illan Meslier.
That goal was an insight into James’ core strengths when a side is attacking: transitions and movement. James is very quick, and over long distances he typically has the beating of a marker, as well as being able to break through the defensive line with pace.
This is notable during both counter-attacks and in the advanced stages of build-up. James can provide lateral runs in either situation, and in doing so can evade the focus of the opposing defence, moving into the final-third unmarked. From here, he can either provide a layoff or go for goal himself.
In Attack: Off The Ball
An example of James’ pace and movement off the ball can be found against Real Sociedad in the last 16 of the Europa League, where he provided an assist for Bruno Fernandes on the counter-attack.
The ball began with Fred, whose pass found Rashford on the left, with both the opposing right-back and right-winger caught high up the field. This meant that centre back Zubeldia (#5) had to move out of position to push wide and cover against Rashford.
Rashford dribbled forward and played a ball across the final third from left to right, with James making a diagonal run infield.
James got to the ball first, and his touch laid the ball off for Fernandes to shoot first time into the bottom right corner.
This was a well worked goal, and provides an example of James using a burst of speed to progress during a brisk counter-attack, something which is a frequent occurrence for Leeds United.
In Attack: On The Ball
In similar situations, but when James himself is in possession, he is a good ball-carrier. One example that highlighted this came from his assist for Marcus Rashford, during a 1–1 draw between Man United and Liverpool.
First, James received the ball from Scott McTominay on the blind side of Georginio Wijnaldum.
James progressed with a quick burst down the right-wing, making good use of vacated space — due to Liverpool’s defensive transition — whilst Rashford made a similar run on the opposing side.
James then played a low driven ball into the box to meet Rashford’s run, who converted the cross nicely to give Man United the lead.
Funnily enough, in this game, James started as one of two split centre-forwards as Man United fielded a 3–4–1–2. This makes James an interesting profile as a result; he is a versatile attacker who could give Leeds options. Whilst Patrick Bamford and Rodrigo have both shown they are well equipped to play as a lone striker, perhaps James could provide a ‘Plan B’ if Leeds wanted to play two forwards in certain scenarios.
We have not yet touched on James’ defensive attributes, which make him stand out from other wingers in the top flight. James’ work rate off the ball is admirable, and he played his part in Man United being able to press high up the pitch well last season. He presses intelligently, curving his runs to block passing lanes when moving inside from the flank. He is also not afraid to track back, supporting the full-back when defending against an opposing winger.
As shown above, James is in at least the 80th percentile for attempted pressures in all areas of the pitch, and is in the 94th percentile for pressures in the attacking third, illustrating his willingness to close down the opposition — something that Bielsa will value highly.
Where Could James Improve?
James may be an adept ball carrier over long distances, but he is less consistent in 1v1 duels with opposing defenders, and occasionally comes short physically. The winger can be obstructed by bodies when attempting to play ‘one-two’ passes around defenders, despite his agility.
Perhaps most significantly, James is not the most creative player. He is not a ball player, and is arguably not the most adventurous with his passes. With the departure of midfielder Pablo Hernandez in the summer, Leeds are short a spontaneous playmaker, so although James provides useful qualities, if he was ever used as a deputy for Raphinha (which we may even see this weekend given the Brazilian team’s player ban), Leeds could fall flat creatively.
The Elland Road faithful will hope that James improves in these areas if he is to make an impact. In the most recent game against Burnley, it took until the 86th minute before Leeds scored their only goal of the match, which ultimately stemmed from Raphinha using his skill to win a 1v1 against Charlie Taylor. If Dan James can bring this attribute to his game, it will no doubt improve Leeds’ attack, whilst simultaneously taking some weight off Raphinha’s shoulders as The Whites’ only creative outlet.
Where Does He Fit In At Leeds?
Despite his creative short-comings, James could play anywhere across the front line, which would perhaps allow for rotation, and may even enable Raphinha to be deployed further infield — though this of course begs the question of whether it is even worth moving Raphinha away from a position where he’s played so well.
However, as mentioned previously, the right wing isn’t James’ only position. He can be used inverted on the left flank, or up front (though likely as a second striker). These positions are illustrated below:
Interestingly enough, James scored more goals in the 20/21 season (5) than he did in his debut campaign (4) for Man United, despite featuring in 20 fewer games, due to Solskjaer deploying him on very specific occasions which required James’ skillset.
This could certainly be something that may be replicated at Elland Road due to both Raphinha and Harrison being regular starters on each wing. Leeds fans may find that James has his best games coming off the bench, using his raw pace to provide an alternative once the opposition are starting to tire in the second half.
Will James Suit Bielsa-Ball?
You could argue that Leeds needed to prioritise singing a creative midfielder during the summer window, but the signing of Dan James is a transfer which benefits both the seller and the buyer. Leeds have another attacking option that seems to suit them well, and Man United made a fairly large profit, potentially rising to £12m.
The tactical style of Marcelo Bielsa’s team should mean that James will be a good fit, as he brings intensity and a high work rate off the ball to complement Leeds’ unique man-to-man-marking approach. James will also provide defensive support for the full-back, which could be necessary given the quality of some Premier League wingers that will be playing against Leeds.
Being the attacker blessed with pace that he is, James will also provide a threat on the break —something that Leeds may look to utilise in the games against some more possession-dominant Premier League teams.
What will excite Leeds fans is knowing that under the meticulous and methodical eye of Marcelo Bielsa, Daniel James may well be a very exciting player to watch.
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