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The current Manchester United squad can not boast an abundance of wing talent. Even at full strength, the amount of wide options Ole Gunnar Solskjaer has at his disposal is limited. But with that said, the future along the touchlines certainly looks a lot brighter now than it did just six months ago.
United seem to be in active pursuit of a right winger (you know who). Marcus Rashford has just had his best season yet playing out wide (only played until January). And the acquisition of Daniel James along with the emergence of super starlet Mason Greenwood has helped a lot in that department too.
And the last two names are why we’re here. There have been questions asked regarding the best ways to utilize James. His blistering pace is not always the answer, particularly against low blocks. With Greenwood, he is inevitably a future frontman for United. But for right now, as his skillset and body continue to develop, he may very well be used out wide for the foreseeable future. So, how do United get the best out of both of these young talents in the present? Let’s take a look:
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The 22-year-old Welshman got off to a flying start for United. He hit the ground running, bagging three Premier League goals within his first few weeks at the club. At the time, the £18 million price tag looked an absolute bargain. Fast forward a few months, it still does, but the praise laid onto United’s No. 21 has cooled off ever so slightly. But that should be to no surprise.
James was brought to Old Trafford from Swansea as an investment. His talent is inevitable. His pace is frightening. And he’s technically very sound too. But every talent needs time to develop. Unfortunately, with United’s squad depth and injury problems, James was never granted his settling in period. He was expected to contribute heavily from the get go.
All things considered, James has enjoyed a very good first season at the club. He’s chipped in with four goals and six assists in all competitions having played 35 times. That’s certainly a lot more games than what Solskjaer and even James himself could have hoped for in his inaugural season, but the Welshman hasn’t let anybody down by any means.
James has been more than useful, particularly in the big games with a lot of space to run into, but eventually – and inevitably – the workload asked of him became a little too much. He began to look jaded. The spring in his step went missing. He clearly needed a break. That came in early February (PL’s newly introduced winter break) and since then, James has looked rejuvenated.
His efforts may not always show up on the scoresheet or in the statistics, but he is United’s Energizer bunny. He’s been terrorising defences that have opened up against United in recent weeks, particularly in the derby against Manchester City, proving that he will be an asset for this team for years to come.
We’ve also seen glimpses of James’ technical ability this season. He’s no slouch on the ball. He can beat a man in tight spaces or play quick passes with his teammates, but he just doesn’t do that regularly enough yet. That will come along with time. As will his decision making.
His final ball is probably the biggest critique you could give James. He’s gotten into promising positions often this season. He could have finished City off by himself had he just gotten his head up on a couple of occasions but the final decision has let him down a little too often. James either overplays a ball or doesn’t play it at all. But his age and inexperience is a good enough excuse for that. He needs time to get to the highest level as is required at United. But he’s shown enough thus far.
In the foreseeable future, James will continue to be the most dangerous against teams that United can hit on the break. His pace is frightening for opposition defenders. If you watch James even remotely closely during a game, every defender steps off him to give themselves a chance in a foot race and more often than not, to no success.
He also never stops working. His defensive work rate is phenomenal. James is a great help to whichever full back plays alongside him out wide and that’s priceless in the big games, especially in high-pressure scenarios.
James will come good at United. He looks the part. He has all the qualities to become a very good footballer in a successful side and hopefully with some business done in the summer, he will be used more wisely next season and given more time to hone his skills and become even more of an asset for the club.
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Wonderboy. Inevitably a future superstar. Many doubted Solskjaer when he opted to get rid of the likes of Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez in the summer without replacing them. It was certainly a bold strategy. But you cannot sit here now and say it didn’t pay off.
Solskjaer was ever so reassuring with his faith in the 18-year-old forward. And with Greenwood’s astronomical numbers in the academy to back that faith up, the fans believed him. But how he would perform in senior football in his first season was very much an unknown.
But the manager’s belief in him paid off. The fans belief in him paid off. 12 goals in 33 games (15 starts) in all competitions is a very good output. Especially considering that Greenwood has been mostly deployed out wide, coming in off the right hand side and not in his favored centre forward position.
He has become an instant fan favorite. Who doesn’t love an academy success story? But it still feels he doesn’t get the credit he deserves for his production in an often struggling United side. It’s difficult to develop in a team that isn’t a serial winner, but Greenwood hasn’t shown signs of slowing down. He seems destined for the top having chipped in with some big goals already.
And right now the biggest questions are, what does the near future hold for the England youth international positionally? And how will United’s summer recruitment affect him?
To answer the second question quickly, competition for places doesn’t affect generational talents. Greenwood will be fine and he will get his games, especially with the experience of a full season of first team football under his belt.
For the former, it feels like for right now, the inside forward position coming in off the right will be where we’ll see Greenwood line up for the next couple of years at least. He’s just not physically developed enough to be a No. 9 in the Premier League yet. It’s an experiment worth trying in cup competitions to see how he is progressing over time, but it’s certainly not yet time for him to be a regular starter up front in England’s top division.
But that’s not a bad thing by any means. If anything, it’s good for his development to get used to another position, to add some new tools to his already impressive arsenal. Greenwood will certainly benefit from his duels against some of the world’s toughest full backs in the future. It’s all valuable practice.
And already, Greenwood has shown his worth in the games in which United have struggled the most in recent years – where teams sit back and let United attempt to break them down. Those are the games in which he has looked his best. He has that X-factor. His left foot is a wand and a rocket at the same time. He doesn’t need a ton of space to squeeze the ball past a defender. He’s also so both footed that defenders can’t really anticipate where he’s going. He can go either side and finish just as clinically.
United’s game against Everton was a great example of what Greenwood can bring to this side. Solskjaer’s team were struggling to break the Toffees down and found themselves behind in the second half. Greenwood then came off the bench and brought the hosts level within minutes after a beautifully taken effort from outside the box lasered into the bottom corner.
Even though Greenwood is only 18, he has that coolness and quality about him that makes him one of those players that can win you a game out of nothing. He can produce that one moment of quality that will decide the game already — and it’s scary to think how good he can be once he reaches his 20’s.
James and Greenwood are two totally different players who offer totally different things to United in different types of games. It’s difficult to see how they could be utilized in matches starting together right now, unless they are rotated cup competition sides in the earlier rounds.
Greenwood is the more dangerous of the two and a player that can be an asset in games against teams that sit deep and those that are there to be countered. He has the skillset to tilt both types of games in United’s favor. As for James, the Welshman seems a little more one dimensional right now. He’s as dangerous of a weapon as one can be in games against teams who press United high and have more of the ball, but not quite good enough yet to be a consistent contributor in games against teams who let United attack them.
James’ bread and butter are the acres of space that he can run into. Greenwood thrives in situations where he has to make quick decisions in tight spaces and use his precision to affect games.
But the moral of the story is certainly that United have two very talented players on their hands and it’s going to be interesting to see how their careers at Old Trafford unfold in the next few seasons and beyond.