Daniel Farke lays out expectation for Leeds United winger after different story emerges
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James famously completed a medical and media duties before it became clear there had been a change of heart at the other end of the transfer and he left Elland Road to travel back to Wales.
If the bizarre saga took a toll on James it wasn't seen in his output because two of his four league goals and five of his nine league assists arrived in the second half of the season. That flurry helped convince Manchester United that James was worth a £15m outlay, with possible add-ons of around £3m, and the Welsh international left the second tier in his wake.
Four years on James finds himself back in the Championship, older, presumably wiser and once again considered part of the furniture at Leeds United, after a season out on loan with Fulham.
A deadline day signing in August 2021, James is yet to live up to a £25m price tag that has to be seen in its context. He didn't set the price, he joined a team that required much more strengthening than it got that summer and the club's succession planning for the post-Bielsa era was found to be lacking. Once Jesse Marsch determined that James was not in his plans and the Fulham loan was given the green light, a permanent exit was far from inconceivable.
Yet here he is, currently holding down the left wing spot while other wide men are held down by injury or complicated wrangles with the club. With no genuine prospect of recouping that sum still being paid to Manchester United in chunks and given Leeds' new Championship status, James was perhaps always likely to be a player they turned to once again.
Past frustrations with the winger have never once centred around his work rate or dedication, aspects of his game that could not be questioned, but what comes at the end of his scampering runs down the flank. End product is what attackers are judged on and Leeds haven't seen enough of that from him, so far anyway.
Against Birmingham it was a story supporters have seen before. James got into good positions, he threatened with his pace and yet his deliveries, accuracy and decision-making in the final third were problematic.
Against West Brom it was a totally different story. This was James at or close to his Leeds United best. At St Andrew's he produced one shot-creating action. At Elland Road against the Baggies he produced seven. The same 1:7 ratio was seen in his progressive passing for those two games. His passing accuracy shot up from 46.3 per cent against the Blues to 81.4 per cent against West Brom. And crucially, although he should have hit the net himself and did not, he put a beautiful cross on a plate for Luke Ayling to head in an equaliser.
"I think he was excellent," said his manager after the 1-1 draw.
"He created so many good situations for us and brought his pace into the game. He brought himself in many, many good situations, certainly sometimes the goalkeeper was there with outstanding saves. I think the situation the second time he should have scored from two yards, he was perhaps even a bit too surprised, but I liked that he was there not just waiting a bit reluctant on the wing."
The numbers that denote James' attacking play, albeit from a tiny sample size so far this season, look better than they did previously for Leeds. Factors like a drop back into the Championship and the amount of possession Leeds will enjoy there under Farke compared with Premier League life under Jesse Marsch, are to be considered. A better benchmark than his previous outings as a Leeds player might be his previous outings in the second tier and it will be a while before a fair comparison can be made.
It would not be unreasonable to expect an uplift even on his output as a Swansea winger, however, because he should now be a better player thanks to experience. Farke certainly expects to get a lot more out of James and has pinpointed areas to work on.
"I think first of all he needs a bit of rhythm because he had a difficult season, he needs a bit of confidence," said the German.
"But not just confidence, also to work on his game because there are a few topics in his game where he can improve - his positioning, his options, we work a lot on him to give him options how he can create chances, how he can assist, how he can score goals."
Ole Gunnar Solskjær described the pace that James possesses as 'exceptional,' Jesse Lingard called him 'the Flash,' Luke Ayling nicknamed him 'Dash' and Marcus Rashford was in no doubt that the Welshman would beat him in a race. James once clocked a top speed of 35.1km/h in the Premier League and in the second tier he will have the beating of the vast majority of defenders in a footrace. Speed alone causes problems, but Farke wants to ensure James leaves any 'speed boat with no driver' criticism in the dust.
"I also want him to be greedy to go into the box and into the danger area and I think he's improving at the moment from game to game," said the Leeds manager.
"If he right now also adds even a few more end products to his game then he can be outstanding for this level. It was a great, great assist [for Ayling] and I'm happy with this and I'm pretty sure if he keeps going like this and works like this he will be also off the mark in terms of goals quite soon and he's on a really good path."