Early on Sunday morning I was walking through my local park in south London, where around eight guys were playing football on the grass. At one stage, one of them ran clean through: round the keeper, goal at his mercy, only to roll the ball wide. “Daniel James!” he exclaimed to himself as he went to fetch it. “Daniel James,” he muttered again, shamefaced and still furious. And before long, all his mates were calling him “Daniel James” as well.
About eight hours later, the real Daniel James was charging towards goal at Stamford Bridge in that rapid but largely innocuous style of his. Has there ever been an attacking player who ran so fast while carrying so little perceived threat? When we think of the game’s great speed merchants – Kylian Mbappé, Gareth Bale, the original Ronaldo – their pace was inextricably bound up in menace. With James, by contrast, it feels entirely peripheral to his quality as a footballer. A curiosity, a party trick, perhaps even a stick to beat him with: the pace of an elastic band, and roughly the same potential for damage.
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Naturally, this is a touch unfair on James: a young player still learning his trade in a harsh spotlight, a player who by his own admission “lost his way” at times last season, and yet who at the age of 23 seems to have been written off as essentially deficient at this level. Even the approval that comes his way seems to be of the damningly faint variety: commentating on Sky Sports, Gary Neville suggested James would make an ideal “fifth-or-sixth-choice forward” for Ole Gunnar Solskjær. “I think they’d do well to find better,” Neville insisted. Steady on there, Gary: don’t want to let all that praise go to his head.
Nevermind the fact that he has been deemed worthy of 60 appearances in two seasons despite never having played a Premier League game on his arrival. Nevermind the fact that Manchester United have been dysfunctional for a large part of his time there. From the pundits to the park footballers, James has become a sort of byword for inadequacy: the unwitting emblem of a large, failing institution.
And yet, there were times during this largely forgettable goalless draw when you realised what James offers in games like this. Why United have thus far resisted the temptation to cut their losses and cut him loose. For as Thomas Tuchel’s Chelsea struggled to play through the lines and connect the dots, James – playing a containing role in Solskjaer’s counter-attacking 4-2-3-1 system – was a large part of the reason why.
Certainly you would struggle to argue that James had much of an impact with the ball. He had fewer touches than any other outfield player on the pitch: even Callum Hudson-Odoi, who was substituted at half-time. His only shot was blocked. His one real run of substance, a genuinely thrilling burst of speed that left N’Golo Kanté in his dust, ended with a meek sideways pass straight to a blue shirt. And for his many detractors (the polite and the not so polite) this was essentially James in microcosm: the speed of a Lamborghini Huracan, and a similarly heavy first touch.
But James’s principal job here was not to create. That was the job of Luke Shaw, Marcus Rashford and Bruno Fernandes (who was arguably one of United’s biggest disappointments here). James was in there to disrupt, to use his sharp pace and inexhaustible engine and developing positional sense to throttle Chelsea’s attacks at source.
In a way, his selection on the right wing telegraphed Solskjær’s intent, his anxiety to thwart the attacking runs of Ben Chilwell on the Chelsea left. With Aaron Wan-Bissaka pushing higher to engage Chilwell, James either tracked him in support, pressed Antonio Rudiger on the ball or dropped onto Mateo Kovacic in an attempt to prevent him getting involved.
And so while United’s lack of ambition prevented them from offering much going forward, James’s zealousness off the ball was a major factor why Chelsea were unable to offer much either. It was a bruising, frustrating existence for long periods. Twice in the first half Rudiger simply barged him into touch. When he did get on the ball, he looked little better than ordinary, apart from an excellent cross on 75 minutes that Edouard Mendy spilled. But the fact that Chelsea departed in frustration after an ugly goalless draw suggests he probably did his job.
Perhaps in the long run James’s days are numbered. United are replete with attacking options, and the signing of Amad Diallo in his position probably suggests James will be forced to make way before long. But until then, he remains a counter-intuitive option in games like this: a bespoke spoiler, a tireless runner, a reliable system player in a squad not exactly bursting with them.