Manchester United’s Daniel James dilemma and how they can solve it
It’s fair enough that Manchester United fans want to cling onto every positive they can at the moment.
There isn’t much in the way of optimism swirling about in the United conversation right now, whether that be on social media, in the stands or in the pub.
Daniel James is one of those few shining lights in an otherwise miserable United picture this season so far. The young Welshman, signed from Championship side Swansea in the summer, has taken to life in the Premier League like a duck to water, rather than a former Swan.
So to complicate matters further and turn a positive into a negative, is unwise. But James’ predicament is an intriguing one and the 21-year-old, enjoying a purple patch with United and Wales — after notching a fine assist for his country against Slovakia on Thursday night — must be treated with kid gloves.
As is often the case, Gary Neville hit the nail on the head on this issue of managing United’s youngsters.
Because, promising they may be, they cannot be run into the ground. Just look at Marcus Rashford, not yet 22 but burdened with a workload that looks too heavy for him, who is struggling without senior figures to look up to.
James is already the bride rather than the bridesmaid at United and could face a similar issue in the future.
It wasn’t the same for Neville and the Class of 92 when they came into the United team.
“An experienced player can make a changing room or destroy on,” said Neville. “The influence they have over the young players… in life, young people will follow what the older ones are doing. In terms of the older players in the dressing room, if they’re setting the standards it leaves the younger players with nowhere to go.
“Steve Bruce and Bryan Robson played 600 matches for Man United. How can Gary Neville, Nicky Butt and Paul Scholes do anything other than give their all every day because you’ve got these legends setting the standards every day?”
Listen to any member of that famed cluster of homegrown United stars and they will make reference to Bruce, Robson, Paul Ince, Gary Pallister, Mark Hughes and Eric Cantona — the wise older heads who ‘ran’ the dressing room and set examples for younger stars to learn from.
Who does James have to look up to?
Which is why United must be careful. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is fond of the old adage “if you’re good enough, you’re old enough”, but it doesn’t necessarily ring true.
James may not have a senior figure to emulate at Old Trafford, but the return of Anthony Martial from injury might give Solskjaer the chance to rotate and rest his Welsh wizard every now and then. Like Sir Alex Ferguson did with Ryan Giggs.
It’s concerning that James has played the full 90 minutes in six of seven key Premier League games for United this season since coming off the bench to score against Chelsea on the opening day and 89 minutes in the other one. Against Crystal Palace, Southampton, Leicester, West Ham, Arsenal and Newcastle he played the whole match. Against Wolves he was replaced a minute before the end.
And in between he’s started every game for his country and featured in League Cup and Europa League games. It’s an unprecedented workload for a player was barely a Swansea regular this time last year.
There is, of course, the problem that United have hardly any other options. James must play, many will argue. And they’re right.
But he must also rest and Martial coming back into the side may allow James and Rashford to job share on the left-wing. Others like Jesse Lingard and Tahith Chong could fill in there, if they can show an improvement in form.
United cannot afford to burn out their most exciting player, but they need him badly as well.
It’s yet another quandary to which Solskjaer must conjure an answer.
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