Manchester United sprung a surprise when they signed Swansea winger Daniel James in June 2019.
As a club accustomed to making big name, big money signings, the young Welshman represented a fresh start.
“Daniel is an exciting young winger with lots of skills, vision, exceptional pace and a good work ethic,” Ole Gunnar Solskjaer declared. “He had a great season with Swansea City and has all the attributes needed to become a Manchester United player.”
James symbolised a different approach to recruitment, a change from the failing model of splashing the cash on names rather than players.
When he arrived, it was reportedly he instantly blew his new team-mates away on their pre-season tour of Australia.
He topped the initial fitness tests and showcased the physical attributes and additional work ethic which convinced Solskjaer to bring him to the club.
“Daniel has already set the marker and the standard on work-rate and attitude in training,” Solskjaer said. “Whoever you’re going to speak to later on, if you ask about him, it’s been a delight to see.”
The winger was always expected to be a work in progress – and it was always apparent that Solskjaer recognised that.
But even the Norwegian could have been forgiven for believing he had stumbled across the finished article when he struck three goals in the first four games of his first Premier League season.
Despite the initial flash in the pan, it soon became apparent that was not the case.
After his flurry of early goals, James did not find the net again until March against LASK in the Europa League.
At the height of his goal drought, criticism began to build. Even after a win over Chelsea, Paul Merson said: “You feel sorry for the lad, now. He looks a bit lost if I’m honest – he needs a break.”
Finally, James got his goal and looked to kick-on and put his struggles behind him.
“It always does (affect you when you don’t score), but you have got to be head on,” James told MUTV after netting in the Europa League against LASK in March. “The games come thick and fast. Just every game you’ve got to improve and look back and what you can do more.
“I think as a player I give a lot more than goals, try to create, work hard for the team. Today it was about getting off the mark, and can I capitalise and get more now. Maybe I haven’t scored as much as I wanted to recently.
“Got off to a good start, but maybe not been at standards I wanted to be. Thanks to all the coaches and the manager trusting in me and for working with me everyday.”
A few weeks later, just when he did not want a break, lockdown hit.
Yet a further example of his dedication came when he returned from the enforced break and once again topped the club’s fitness tests.
James retained the backing of team-mates, with Marcus Rashford holding him up as an example after an assist against Burnley when football returned.
“We speak about character. That’s character for me,” Rashford said. “He’s getting knocked down every time he’s getting the ball for 95 minutes, but he’s still getting up and running with the ball and making passes.
“He’s been a threat for us every time he’s been on the pitch. It takes a lot of character to do what he does on a regular basis and he’s been class for us.”
Despite his efforts, James has found opportunities hard to come by at United this season and has not started a Premier League game since Boxing Day.
With demands sky high, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer turned to a short-term solution in the form of Edinson Cavani, who provided another attacking option and shifted the likes of Rashford out wide.
The arrivals of young wingers Amad and Facundo Pellistri – the later since heading out on loan – have added to the growing threat to James’ place in the squad leading to question marks over his long-term future.
After whisperings of interest from other Premier League clubs and frustration from James, Solskjaer insisted on keeping him around.
After he impressed on a rare start against Real Sociedad in the Europa League last night, Solskjaer was keen to indicate he still has a place in his long-term plans.
“Dan has always been in my mind. He’s always in contention,” said Solskjaer.
“You can see his X-factor tonight with his work-rate, his pace and running in behind teams. I think he’s scored in his last four or five appearances now.”
It is clear James is willing to put in the work to make his United career a success.
Now it is time for Solskjaer and his fellow coaches to prove their worth and stick by the policy the club adopted in their first summer in the job.
For Solskjaer in particular, a man dismissed as nothing more than a “PE teacher” by some critics, it is a perfect chance to show just how he well he can identify and develop individual talent.
The 23-year-old was right at home against a Real Sociedad team with a high back-line, allowing him to stretch the defence with his pace and find openings.
Likewise, he was at his best early last season when United were happy to sit back and play on the counter-attack.
His stunning performance in a 4-0 win over Chelsea on the opening day was the prime example.
But United’s evolution, particularly since the arrival of Bruno Fernandes, has seen the Red Devils take on a much more calculated approach focused on dominating possession.
Now, James is finding space much harder to find, and his performances have generally suffered as a result.
Solskjaer knew that, in a player with just 33 league appearances to his name, all in the Championship, he was signing a work in progress.
Whilst time to develop is at a premium when expectations are as high as they are at Manchester United, James has shown he has the raw materials needed to perform at a high level.
Now it’s down to Solskjaer, as well as first-team coaches such as Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna, Darren Fletcher and Mike Phelan, to hone James’ skillset and mould him into a regular contributor in different tactical scenarios.
Solskjaer has always had a soft spot for James – and it could well be that he recognises that he provides a chance to show his own coaching credentials by carefully managing his development.
“He’s working every single day on improving his game so I’m delighted for him,” Solskjaer said last night. “He knows how much we value him.”
Can Solskjaer turn James into an invaluable asset in his Manchester United side? Both men will hope that can be the case.