For some time now Manchester United fans have been waiting for their club to announce the signing of a Welsh winger who plays on the left. It seems that their club has heard them and obliged, well sort of. United have indeed signed a Welsh left-winger. But he is not the one that United fans have been waiting for with bated breath. The first signing of the Ole Gunnar Solskjaer era is not that of the eagerly awaited Gareth Bale from Real Madrid, but that of a lesser known Daniel James from Swansea.
Now while this may seem a bit underwhelming, it is not all doom and gloom for Manchester United and their fans. After all, players from lower divisions or from relegated teams have regularly done well in the top tier in the recent past. Examples include Jamie Vardy who became a Premier League winner and Liverpool’s Andrew Robertson, who signed from Hull City and appeared in two Champions League finals, winning one. So just because United have signed Daniel James and not Gareth Bale, it is neither a signal of doom for the supporters, nor a matter of amusement for United’s rivals.
To make this point a bit clearer, let us look at some stats for James, first individually and then in comparison with Gareth Bale.
Daniel James in 2018-19
Whoscored.com describes James as a player who is good at holding on to the ball and at dribbling. His strengths also include passing, through balls, and key passes. He likes to cut inside and likes to play short passes.
Detailed stats from Wyscout provide a more elaborate picture of James’ capabilities. In the 2018-19 season for the Swans, James scored 5 goals and provided 6 assists in all competitions. In the last ten games, he scored twice and assisted three goals. But more than the direct goal contribution, James’ value seems to be associated with his general attacking play.
According to Wyscout, James managed 4.14 touches per game in the opponents’ box, managing 2.91 shots in each game, with 35.1% of his shots on target. An xG per game of 0.27 indicates a lack of a finishing edge but clearly, the Welshman possesses an attacking mindset. He also likes to create goal-scoring opportunities for others. For Swansea, in all competitions, he averaged 1.23 key passes per game and 4.29 crosses per game (39.9% accuracy). His 3.63 progressive runs per game reflect the ability to make dangerous runs and his 6.81 attempted dribbles per game (74.4% successful) indicate the tendency to take on opponents and an ability to go past them.
Clearly United have signed an attack-minded and a capable youngster but how does he compare to the proven veteran Bale?
Daniel James Vs Gareth Bale
If Ole was given the choice between James and Bale on a Football Manager save, he would have used the game’s extensive database to compare the two players. With FM DB’s help, we can do that in real life as well. FM rates Gareth Bale’s current ability at 91 and in comparison, James at merely 60. But the 21-year old James is eight years younger and can improve that FM rating by a lot.
In footballing abilities, FM expectedly rates Bale better. The Real Madrid player is a better crosser, dribbler and technician with a better first touch. But in certain mental and physical attributes, the youngster is rated better. James’ concentration, teamwork and work rate are all rated better than Bale’s, albeit slightly. His decision-making is similar to Bale’s. On the physical front, James’ acceleration is rated better than Bale’s and the two are rated equally in terms of balance and pace.
Clearly, Bale is a better player. But, there are some attributes, which make James an attractive signing too. His age and the reported price (£18 million) are both in his favour as well, compared to Bale, who is approaching the final lap of his prime and who would cost a fortune in fees and wages.
One for the Future
However, James’ signing does not necessarily preclude United from signing Bale. It is possible that Solskjaer will sign both Welshmen this summer and use James as a cover for Bale. Or, use James in the no. 10 role (his other position for Swansea). Whatever United do or don’t do about a disgruntled Welsh left-winger in Spain, the first signing of Solskjaer’s reign – a young Welsh left-winger from Swansea – seems to be a smart signing.