Deadline Day: Analysing Leeds' £25m Dan James deal
Leeds secured the £25m Deadline Day signing of Daniel James at the second time of asking
Two-and-a-half years (943 days) after coming agonisingly close to sealing a transfer on January 2019 Deadline Day, Leeds have completed the signing of Daniel James from Manchester United for an initial fee of £25m plus add-ons.
It's a substantial fee for the Wales international and one that will raise plenty of questions and eyebrows in West Yorkshire. Is he really worth that much? What happened to that central midfield addition? Do we need another winger? Will he start for Leeds?
Firstly, it appears a very 'un-Leeds' piece of business by the current board to pay £15m+ more than the £10m fee they had agreed with Swansea back in 2019, but one in which Victor Orta and Marcelo Bielsa simply couldn't let bypass them again. What we do know is that Leeds and Bielsa clearly believe that James' ceiling is much higher than what we've seen from him so far. Chief Executive Angus Kinnear has repeatedly insisted that Leeds will only sign players that improve the team. He'll certainly do that. We're also very much aware by now that Bielsa likes to work with a plethora of options in wide areas, despite preferring to operate with a relatively small squad of players.
Victor Orta on signing Dan James: “It is no secret that Daniel is a player we’ve been keen to acquire for a number of years & today we achieved our goal. Daniel is an excellent fit for a Marcelo Bielsa team, he is quick, direct & works hard. We look forward to him joining up with the squad, finally!"
Manchester United paid Swansea City £15m for James in 2019 a few months after the much publicised proposed loan dramatically collapsed at the final hour. The 23-year-old made a total of 74 appearances and scored 9 goals for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's side and had fallen down the pecking order at Old Trafford with the recent mega-money arrivals of Jadon Sancho and Cristiano Ronaldo.
Leeds are acquiring a Wales international who has scored four goals in 24 international caps, including netting against the Czech Republic in their World Cup Qualifier in March. This season, James has started two of Manchester United's three Premier League games, including the 5-1 thumping over his new employers earlier this month. Having played just 128 minutes, it's too small a sample size worth comparing, but for bitesize clarity he's completed 20 passes, created 1 big chance, made 31 pressures and won 4 tackles.
James has predominantly operated as a right winger under Solskjaer but he has also been frequently deployed on the left flank, similar to his role for the Wales national team. Bielsa has regularly switched wingers in-game at Leeds and James will be a perfect fit to slot into either channel. He can also play through the middle, but Bielsa is incredibly picky with his 8's and 10's. James previously stated his preference for playing on the left flank when he joined Manchester United: "I played more on the left at Swansea, but up front and on the right too. I do enjoy coming inside from the left. I can go down the line and cross with my left, or go inside. For now, I think about sometimes scoring a few by coming inside."
James is predominantly right-footed and has scored 5 of his six Premier League goals with his strongest foot. He generates immense power in his shots from range, and has a tendency to cut inside from the left flank onto his right foot. His work rate, intensity and pressing off the ball along with his blistering pace are among his strongest attributes.
The Wales winger remained a long-term target of Victor Orta and Marcelo Biela and it's clear they still regard him as a young player with bags of potential and a big future to justify such a big move. Arguably James' best attribute is his explosiveness and speed, having clocked up a top speed of 36.9 km/h which ranks him among the fastest players in the Premier League.
His electric pace will be an ideal asset for Bielsa's Leeds who will look to capitalise on his speed in transitions and trademark rapid counter-attacks. James will typically run at an opponent with the ball and then touch the ball past him before beating his man for pace and retrieving possession. He can also take numerous little touches before pushing the ball beyond his marker and accelerating away. James is a smart athlete who can interchange and make intelligent runs which helps creates space for teammates to exploit by dragging opposition defenders out of position - a key component of Bielsa's style of play.
His quick feet and fast turn of pace also regularly draws in fouls having been on the receiving end of 69 of them in the top flight.. Despite his slight stature (171cm), James has good upper body strength and can shrug off opponents. His low centre of gravity allows him to twist markers in close proximity before accelerating away with the ball in tight areas.
His pressing is another firm reason why Leeds have sustained their level of interest in him. Out of possession, James made 221 pressures (46 successful) in the top flight in 2020/21 and ranked fourth for most pressures (31) for Manchester United this season. He also won 12 tackles and made 32 ball recoveries in 11 Premier League starts last season. In the Premier League, James has made 821 pressures in 50 top flight appearances, 282 of which were made in the attacking third of the pitch.
One of the biggest weaknesses in the Wales winger's game has to be his end product. It's slightly concerning for such a substantial sum of money, but you'd only need to look at the rapid rise of Jack Harrison under Bielsa to believe the club will be able to nurture him in a similar fashion. It's impossible not to compare James' underwhelming goals and assists tally in three Premier League seasons (6G, 7A) compared with Raphinha (7G, 9A) who cost the club just £17m plus add-ons from Rennes last summer, but it's clear a deal of this kind is extremely hard to come by in the current market. James will undoubtedly need to improve on his tally of 9 big chances created in 50 Premier League appearances.
Victor Orta on signing Dan James: "I feel Daniel can add more numbers to his goals and assists. Obviously there are a lot of players there (at Manchester United) and a different style which is more static in terms of building the action. We are more dynamic and that I feel can benefit his characteristics."
I've mentioned we'll need to see a sharp rise in attacking output from the young winger, and in terms of expected goals and expected assists, he's in line with his xG (6.1) with 6 goals, and outperforming his xA (5.2) with 7 assists. Last season saw James score 3 goals and register 1 assist from 11 Premier League starts. His crossing, final ball and frequent ball losses that have been a source of frustration for fans at Old Trafford.
In 2020/21, James completed just 2 of his 19 crosses (10.5%), though his final third pass accuracy was 85% having executed 114 successful attacking third passes. James ranked 17th for successful final third passes per 90 for Manchester United (10.89), 11th for the club for accurate crosses per 90 (0.2) and 10th for chances created per 90 (0.98). James created just 0.2 big chances per 90 last season compared with 0.46 for Raphinha and 0.32 for Jack Harrison. A relatively disappointing set of numbers, but Leeds will firmly believe they will be able to unlock far more than his output last season.
In terms of ball losses, James ranked 14th-highest for Manchester United per 90 (11.97) and ranked 13th-highest for possession loss per 90 (0.88), but his quick feet and rapid movement helped win 1.37 fouls per 90 (14). The former Swansea winger completed 12 of his 23 take-ons, which were predominantly down the right side of the pitch or more central in the opposition half. He completed 1.08 successful take-ons per 90, much lower than Raphinha (2.13), Helder Costa (1.47) or Harrison (1.32).
Ole Gunnar Solskjær on Dan James in November 2019: "The attributes are what you see first. His speed, his one-against-one skills. He is probably the best defensive winger in the world with his honesty, commitment and the way he does his recovery runs and doing his back tackles."
The Welsh winger became the first player signed by Solskjaer in June 2019. James made an impressive start to life at Old Trafford after scoring three goals in his opening four games against Chelsea, Crystal Palace, and Southampton which earned him both Manchester United’s Player of the Month and Goal of the Month awards for August 2019. He actually managed to score all three goals from his first three shots on-target in the Premier League which was some introduction to top flight football.
James scored his first league goal of the 2020/21 season in a 6–2 win over Leeds in December 2020. In February 2021, Dan James equalled his Premier League goals tally from the 2019/20 season (3) after just eight games, but he's struggled to live up to his high-flying start and has found it difficult being drafted in and out of the side.
James certainly has an eye for the big game. He scored his first Premier League goal against Chelsea and registered his first Premier League assist against Liverpool. At Euro 2020, the 23-year-old registered the second-highest speed at the tournament recording a top of of 33.5 km/h against Turkey, bettered only by Italian full-back Leonardo Spinazzola (33.8 km/h).
James enjoyed a very impressive tournament and created 10 chances (joint-7th) and completed six successful take-ons (joint-30th) for Wales this summer. We also saw how effective James can be as a ball carrier. His averaged ball progressing distance when moving the ball vertically was 12 metres (ranked 16th in the tournament) and he was also involved in 13 shot-ending sequences for Wales.
Across the Pennines, James will now compete with Raphinha and Jack Harrison for a first team place but will soon become a regular fixture once he has acclimatised to Bielsaball. He'll also soon be aware that 19-year-old Dutch winger Crysencio Summerville is tearing things up in the PL2 and is firmly knocking on the door for a first team debut appearance. The signing of James wouldn't likely see a positional change for Raphinha, but it does give Bielsa food for thought. Could we eventually see Raphinha or Harrison move centrally? Most importantly, it gives Leeds additional options when we've struggled for creativity in the opening three games of the new campaign.
So back to those questions at the start - Is he really worth that much? No. Well, not yet at least - but Leeds clearly believe he'll develop under Bielsa like Project Jack Harrison. It's also in the same financial ball park that Newcastle paid for Joe Willock from Arsenal (£25m). What happened to that central midfield addition? Leeds really need a central addition and will look incredibly light in that department with a couple of injuries, but it's unlikely to happen now. Anyway, we've got a brand new and shiny Adam Forshaw. Do we need another winger? Yes. With Helder Costa's recent loan departure, Dan James will now be an essential part of the plan and it means Leeds now have a very good alternative option should Raphinha or Jack Harrison become unavailable or need reshuffling. We've been yearning for some midfield squad depth for quite some time now. I'd argue he'll offer far more than Helder Costa would at present. Will he start for Leeds? He certainly will, but not for a while yet I'd imagine.
Victor Orta finally has his man and Bielsa has a new winger at his disposal. There is no greater coach in the game at nurturing players and maximising their output, but for such a substantial fee, Leeds should be acquiring the near-finished product. James will be given the perfect platform and environment to thrive at Elland Road. He will have to work hard to justify his price tag, but his playing style, fitness, work rate and attitude should see him fit in very well in West Yorkshire. Leeds fans will love his energy, tracking back and commitment, but he'll need to improve his end product to ultimately win them over. He'll excite the masses and thrive at fast counter attacks. He'll get plenty of game time at Leeds. Just don't expect him to start anytime soon under Marcelo.