Daniel James grabs early Man Utd chance to offer Solskjaer a fascinating decision

James Robson
Evening Standard

The sight of Victor Orta rubbing tears from his eyes as January turned to February takes on greater significance with each passing week.

At the time, the Leeds United director of football could be forgiven his emotion – working into the early hours of the morning in a desperate bid to conclude a transfer he and manager Marcelo Bielsa considered the final piece of the jigsaw.

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Daniel James, Swansea City’s flying winger, would add another dimension to the promotion-chasing side.

In remarkable footage captured in the Amazon Prime documentary ‘Take us home: Leeds,’ details of an agonising transfer deadline day from January this year are laid bare.

James has completed his medical, chosen his shirt number, posed for official photographs and even signed paperwork on a £7million deal.

(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

There’s one problem: Swansea, having given permission for the Wales international to travel to Leeds, are not picking up the phone.

An extension is granted by the Premier League, but still no deal is done.

Orta’s drawn-out embrace of James as the player departs Elland Road’s offices is a measure of his anguish and realisation of the special talent he has missed out on. It’s as if he literally can’t bear to let him go.

And it is a measure of James’ level-headedness that he takes the disappointment in his stride.

There are no histrionics on his part – no tears.

“We will see you soon,” says Orta – more in hope than genuine belief.

Then Swansea chairman Huw Jenkins had misgivings about such a small fee for a player of James’ potential.

He was right, with Manchester United eventually agreeing a deal that could rise to £21m just months later.

(Man Utd via Getty Images)
(Man Utd via Getty Images)

Leeds fans can only speculate about the difference James would have made to the second half of their campaign that so dramatically ran out of steam and eventually saw Bielsa’s one-time leaders crash out in the playoffs.

But the manner in which he has lit up an albeit underwhelming start to United’s season offers a tantalising glimpse of the quality they missed out on.

Their loss has been Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s gain – even if the United manager, himself, never expected such a spectacular impact from his very first signing at the club.

It’s no secret that Jadon Sancho was Solskjaer leading attacking target this summer.

Paulo Dybala emerged as a late alternative – and even veteran forward Mario Mandzukic was approached as United attempted to bolster an attack that has been left short on numbers following the departures of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez.

James was considered one for the future and one who would have to patiently wait for his chance.


The decision to name him on the bench for the opening game of the season against Chelsea underlined his status in Solskjaer’s squad.

But in the space of a month of the season, he has made himself virtually undroppable – and left his manager with something of a dilemma over the make-up of his attack.

While James has impressed on the right, he is clearly more comfortable coming in off the left, as he proved so emphatically with wonderful goals against Crystal Palace and Southampton before the international break.

Belarus got the same treatment on Monday night and as United prepare to face high-flying Leicester on Saturday, it would be a brave call for Solskjaer to disrupt his most in-form player’s flow.

Should Anthony Martial fail to recover from the muscle strain that saw him miss the 1-1 draw with Southampton, the decision is simple, with Marcus Rashford continuing at the point of attack.

But should Solskjaer have his full quota of forwards available, it will be fascinating to see how he calls it.

With three goals in four games for his new club, there is a strong argument to say James is the player others have to fit around.

(Manchester United via Getty Imag)
(Manchester United via Getty Imag)

The problem for United is the 21-year-old is yet another right-footed attacker, who feels more comfortable on the left.

The decision to play Martial through the middle has finally given Rashford the opportunity to make the left his own, leaving the long-standing problem position on the right up for grabs.

Long-term, Solskjaer wants Sancho to fill that role, while Mason Greenwood is seen as another candidate.

James can also do the job – and it seems likely that, for now, most of his opportunities will come down that side, given Rashford’s failure to impress when deployed there by Jose Mourinho.

Yet James’ versatility should not be allowed to work against him.

On current form, he is United’s best player – their most dangerous attacking asset.

As his Wales manager Ryan Giggs says: “He is one of those players, you know what he's going to do, but you can't stop it.

"There are so many goals (he's scored) like that. He can go either way.”

He can – but in United’s time of need, it would be very brave, maybe foolish, to shift him from where he causing most damage.

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