Why £25m Daniel James' variety performance felt like a Leeds United arrival that left Watford resorting to foul means

Daniel James’ dancing feet have scarcely touched the ground in a whirlwind first five weeks since swapping Manchester United for Leeds United.

Tuesday, 5th October 2021, 4:45 am
PERSISTENT PEST - Daniel James gave his best Leeds United performance against a poor Watford side at Elland Road. Pic: Getty

This week the winger is back on international duty, alongside Whites team-mate Tyler Roberts, having spent recent weeks and days welcoming a son into the world and playing a surprising amount of football for a new signing under Marcelo Bielsa.

He joined up with Wales on Monday with the resounding praise of his club head coach ringing in his ears, following what was undoubtedly his best display as a Leeds player in Saturday’s win over Watford.

“Every time he plays he plays better than the previous game,” said Bielsa.

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“He shows resources and qualities we know he has. He is going to become a special contributor to our team.”

Prior to the Watford game he had been learning the life of a Leeds winger, playing 22 minutes against Liverpool, an hour against Newcastle United, all 120 of the Carabao Cup win over Fulham and the first half against West Ham United.

It was fair to say that, until Saturday’s game, he was yet to make what you would call a proper introduction, showing glimpses here and there or what Whites fans can expect from him.

And with Jack Harrison picking up a minor abdominal injury and Crysencio Summerville picking up an illness, James was able to enjoy a first full 90 minutes of Premier League football as a Leeds player.

While a caveat is needed – Watford were desperately poor, offering very little going forward and struggling badly in both midfield and defence – James was impressive from the first few seconds to the last.

It took him seven seconds to go at Watford, with an incomplete attempt at a dribble, and 10 seconds later he was haring towards the area to take Junior Firpo’s throw and tempt a defender into a risky challenge.

His most significant contribution in the early minutes was using defence to put Leeds on the attack. When he spotted that William Troost-Ekong was isolated as the ball came towards the centre-half, he left his flank to charge towards the middle and force an error.

It was likely part of the Leeds plan to target Troost-Ekong with James’ pace and two minutes later the winger very nearly stripped the Nigerian international of possession.

Watford’s defender was uncomfortable, to put it kindly, and desperately put an arm out before landing on James in the area with Leeds, already a goal up, feeling they should have had a penalty. Replays did neither Troost-Ekong nor referee Simon Hooper any favours.

There were some nice ideas at the end of James’ work, too, that helped Leeds finish attacks in the area and keep Watford pinned during the hosts’ first half dominance.

Fed by Stuart Dallas he sent a low ball across the area for Rodrigo, which Francisco Sierralta desperately cut out at full stretch. When James’ speed allowed him to escape from a trio of green shirts, he sent in a cross from the byline that Sierralta could only half clear.

There was no escape for Troost-Ekong. Leeds and James were relentless. The winger appeared suddenly in the beleaguered defender’s peripheral vision and the result was a wayward back pass Ben Foster had to prevent from going out for a corner, at the expense of a throw.

What stood out was the variety in James’ game, which kept the visitors guessing. He shaped to run down the left as he intercepted a pass, but with space ahead of him narrowing, sent an unexpected pass into Dallas who had acres in which to attack. James stayed alive to the possibility of that move, presenting a good option for Raphinha as he ghosted in at the back post for a cross that never came.

The second half bore more promise and variety, but a little more frustration too – he was free and in on goal a minute in, but Dallas opted for a shot instead of a pass.

His quick feet drew a free-kick from Troost-Ekong, then he threatened to go inside before straightening his run to zip between three defenders and produce another dangerous low cross that Foster did well to gather.

An intelligent switch of play, with his back to goal, showed he could prioritise the simple option, allowing Jamie Shackleton to receive the ball with plenty of room ahead of him.

Watford’s defence had suffered enough to resort to foul means when fair failed them, Kiko Femenia and Ismaïla Sarr earning bookings for a rugby tackle and a clumsy, late challenge respectively, James too nippy and determined. They could kick him, but they didn't stop him.

Bielsa’s tactical change that saw Raphinha swap flanks with the Welshman meant more defensive work – he was keeping an eye on former United defender Danny Rose who had attempted to bomb forward – but he still impacted the game.

Tracking back to beat Rose to the ball in the 81st minute allowed Kalvin Phillips to take advantage of the full-back being out of position to send Tyler Roberts away down the flank.

If James lost the ball, he scurried to regain it. He was a persistent pest, his pace posing problems even in the final period, even in the 89th minute when a pirouette took two defenders out of the equation.

He’s a different player to Raphinha but they both have acceleration, pace, a hunger for hard work and a gas tank that goes beyond 90 minutes.

Regular starting wideman Harrison has long been a favourite of Bielsa’s but there always seems to be room in the Argentine’s affections for another winger.

James joined the club on August 31 for £25m amid huge fanfare but this felt like his Elland Road arrival. Watford will be glad to have seen the back of the player hitting their back four like a whirlwind, his feet not seeming to touch the ground. Leeds fans cannot wait to see more of him.