Marcelo Bielsa has long coveted Welsh winger, Daniel James.
Ever since Victor Orta first presented James as an option for Leeds to sign in the January transfer widow of Bielsa’s first season at the club, the Argentine has been sure that he would be the ideal improvement to his wide options.
The deal famously fell through – as detailed on the club’s Take Us Home Amazon documentary – but Leeds have enquired about the possibility of signing the player ever since. With the arrival of Cristiano Ronaldo at Old Trafford, James’ potential to play regularly has been slashed and the time might finally be right for Leeds to secure their long-term target.
Looking at some data and video, LeedsLive has the low down on why El Loco is so determined that Victor Orta brings the winger to the club.
Pace on the counter
During their time under the management of Bielsa, Leeds have become known for their lightning fast counters.
Often these have involved lots of one and two-touch passes as Leeds break pressure from opponents and move the ball quickly from one side of the pitch to another.
With James in the side they would have additional electrifying pace. Raphinha, Jack Harrison, Helder Costa and Patrick Bamford are all quick but none are quite at the level of James when it comes to acceleration.
This goal from his final season at Swansea is the perfect example of this as James picked up the ball on the edge of his own penalty area and opened up his legs to sprint.
Seconds later, he had left a trail of Brentford defenders behind him and found himself inside the opposition area and finished in a composed manner, despite covering almost the full-length of the field at high speed.
When it comes to facing more set defences, James struggles a little as although he’s extremely quick he isn’t such a skilful dribbler and thus is ranked in only the 15th percentile for dribbles completed according to fbref.com. However, it should be noted that he is much stronger in this regard when played on the left hand side, as he is for Wales and was for Swansea. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has tended to play him on the right hand side but the winger prefers to burst from a standing start on the opposite wing, where he can shift the ball across his body and power away.
His pace would also be helpful running in behind to chase raking passes from the likes of Raphinha or Diego Llorente.
As we well know by this stage, pressing is vital to Leeds’ system working well under Bielsa. When the pressing isn’t working, the system isn’t working and Leeds are likely to lose.
James isn’t particularly outstanding in on-the-ball metrics but one area in which he is very impressive is his pressing as fbref ranks him in the 94th percentile for the metric. Considering Leeds press far more as a team than Manchester United, it’s likely that James would be even more impressive as a presser Bielsa’s team.
In the image above – taken from Manchester United’s 1-0 victory at Molinuex at the weekend – observe how James leads the press.
Due to his pace and work-rate, James is often the first person to get out towards any potential danger and, as he closes down space so quickly, he can cause his opponents to act hastily. In this case, he forced Marcal to turn backwards and Manchester United were able to clear the penalty area.
It’s easy to see how his off the ball intensity would fit perfectly into Bielsa’s system.
Where would he play?
As it stands, Leeds have two clear first-choice wingers in Raphinha and Jack Harrison. James would be unlikely to arrive and force one of them out of the side.
However, although Harrison had a superb season in 20/21, he did go off the boil for a while, which saw Helder Costa start ahead of him on a few occasions and it’s easy to see James being given similar opportunities. Should he impress, he could seriously challenge Harrison for the position on the left.
He also provides a very different option to Harrison as the ex-Manchester City loanee is a danger from crosses and with the ball to his feet, whilst James could chase through balls and go to the byline more often.
It’s also true that if Leeds suffered injuries to either first-choice winger they look a little under strength with their backups. Costa has struggled badly for form and Crysencio Summerville is extremely exciting but will need bringing in slowly to ensure he can cope with the jump in quality from PL2.
In James, Leeds would have an option that Bielsa trusts to play more consistently and Leeds could find themselves in a situation where there are three wingers pushing each other for two spots. Each player would know that if they weren’t performing, one would be waiting ready for their opportunity. This is the kind of healthy competition missing currently and it should only be a good thing if the arrival of James provides it.
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