The 21-year-old started alongside Gareth Bale and Harry Wilson on the left side of a front three for Ryan Giggs’ team and showed one or two flashes of the brilliant promise that have regularly been on display throughout an impressive season in the Championship at Swansea.
It’s fair to say that a lot of non-Welsh United fans would have been tuning into this game a day after the club confirmed that their first signing of the summer – and the Ole Gunnar Solksjaer era – was going to be the young Yorkshireman.
James enjoyed a breakout year with the Swans – scoring five times across 38 games in all competitions as well as posting the most league assists for the Liberty Stadium side (7).
It prompted the Red Devils to strike an £18million with the club from south Wales, with many probably not knowing an awful lot about the Hull City academy graduate.
Wales have undergone a massive transformation in the last decade. Gary Speed undertook a major revamp after years spent in mediocrity, his excellent work was carried on by Chris Coleman and Ryan Giggs now has the blueprint – as well as an exciting cast of bright young talent with which – to launch a new era. Flailing at 112th in FIFA’s rankings when Speed took over, Wales are now 19th.
But their second game in Group E of Euro 2020 qualifying was away at Croatia – World Cup finalists a year ago and a formidable opponent for any team.
Zlatko Dalic’s side dominated from the opening whistle with Ivan Perisic giving Wales right-back Conor Roberts a torrid time. And it was from an electric counter-attack that they took the lead. Perisic was in acres of space down the left and intelligently squared for Andrej Kramaric, though James Lawrence intervened and could only stick into his own goal.
The Inter Milan forward scored the second when he fired beyond Wayne Hennessey early in the second half, though the Welsh defence will not want to see their woeful attempts at clearing again.
The Dragons did threaten the goal a lot more after the break and had their chances to equalise after substitute David Brooks fired in via a deflection 13 minutes from time, but the side ranked fifth in the world were well worthy of victory.
We kept an eye on the new United man.
Frightening talent – The thing is with good players is that, even when they’re not in the game, they can affect it in an instance.
James had hardly done a thing as the hosts strangled the life out of their opponents in the opening half, but in the 42nd minute he and Wales finally sparked into life. A perfectly weighted ball over the top from midfielder Matthew Smith found James in stride and he whipped in a delicious cross that Harry Wilson cut back and Will Vaulks fired in a shot that almost led to a goal after it was spilled by Dominik Livakovic.
Wales belatedly burst into life with James the fulcrum of their attacks. Gareth Bale really should have put a chance on a plate for him near the hour mark after expertly taking down Ben Davies’ long ball, but greedily took on the shot, striking poorly at Livakovic.
James then displayed his breathtaking pace when racing onto Bale’s pass and nudging the ball past the exasperated Domagoj Vida whose rash lunge on the latest Red Devil resulted in a yellow card.
Taking control – The gap between the Championship and Premier League is gargantuan, which is not to say it’s unbridgeable, but it takes a special type of player to do so.
Though he showed glimpses when Wales did flow forward, James often looked for the pass rather than testing Croatia’s static back four with his searing speed. Wales’ timid tactics and Croatia’s utter dominance hardly played to James’ strengths, but he’s now a Man United player, which means big things are expected, whatever your age or background.
The 21-year-old is of course still raw and needs time to mature and develop. But at a club like United he also needs to perform. From now on he’ll find himself under an intense spotlight and will need to impose himself on games instead of being a passenger.
7th min: James gets the ball on the left side of the box. He cuts it back for team-mate Smith but Croatia snatch possession.
26th min: Neat flick to Vaulks sets up promising Wales attack, Bale is offside when running on to Vaulks’ pass.
42nd min: Unreal ball from Smith is perfectly weighted for James. He whips in a cross that is cut back by Wilson for Vaulks whose shot is spilled by Livakovic.
43rd min: Wales suddenly spark into life and James is in the thick of the action. His looping cross is poor though and cleared for a throw-in.
45th min: Action again comes down Wales’ left, James plays a poor pass but gets it back and plays in a team-mate, who wins a corner.
64th min: Bale sells a lovely dummy to bypass Croatia’s midfield and start a Welsh attack, he feeds James but the pass is lacking just a little pace and James is shut down by a defender.
68th min: Croatia break and James is seen sprinting to cover the central attacker as Ben Davies drifts out to cover the attacking winger.
69th min: Bale releases James down the left and he knocks the ball away from Vida but can’t escape his crude lunge.
Wales’ failure to assert themselves or stifle Croatia’s flowing attacking game meant James was always destined to be a peripheral figure. But when they did have their moments, it was the new United man, rather than his more illustrious compatriot at Real Madrid, Bale, who looked like he would fire the Dragons into life.
Even though he was unable to impose himself fully, he looked a threat when he did get the ball at his feet or when Wales launched balls in behind the Croatian defence. His frightening pace and tireless work ethic is exactly what the Red Devils require.
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