Malcom Eisenhardt looks at the pros and cons of securing our on-loan winger this summer.
Until our glorious win in the sunshine at Goodison Park, I had not thought much of Dan James this season, and I certainly didn’t think we should entertain making his loan permanent in the summer. To me, the fact that he featured in as many as 17 games for the Whites was surprising.
However, the speedy Welshman made a serious statement up in Merseyside and it inspired me to do some research. The 25-year-old forward, on loan from Leeds United, has more than 100 Premier League appearances and experience playing in the Champions League, the Euros, and the World Cup. With 74 appearances for Manchester United, there’s no doubt big figures in football see his potential, but is he worth a punt this summer? Let’s take a look.
Why buy him?
Throughout the 2022/23 campaign Marco Silva has been spoiled for choice for wingers, with seven different players featuring: Bobby De Cordova-Reid, Dan James, Neeskens Kebano, Manor Solomon, Jay Stansfield, Willian, and Harry Wilson. However, the position is a point of concern for next season as the contracts of James, Willian, Kebano, and Solomon are all coming to an end. Very tough decisions must be made.
Age Annual Salary (£ millions) Contract Expiry
James 24 2.60 2023
Willian 34 2.08 2023
Reid 30 1.95 2024
Wilson 26 1.71 2026
Solomon 23 1.04 2023
Kebano 31 0.70 2023
Stansfield 20 0.10 2024
Willian has been superb for the Cottagers this season, adding vital goals and assists. Nevertheless, he turns 35 in August and can’t be expected to perform at such a high level for too much longer.
In February, Manor scored five goals in five games and was nominated for PL player of the month, despite not starting a single game. However, with six months left on the 23-year-old Israeli’s contract at Shakhtar Donetsk and interest from Arsenal and Barcelona, signing him come June will be far from a formality.
Neeskens is much-loved in Fulham-world and was a key to the club’s dominance last year. However, the 31-year-old is returning from a serious achilles injury and – while he is not expensive – may seem like a risk to those in charge.
If Leeds go down, DJ will not want to play Championship football and his wages may be too much in the club’s rebuilding phase.
Along with his ability to play on either flank, DJ also has the potential to play striker. In fact, I would argue that he is more useful as a replacement striker than a winger. He offers a very different threat to that of Aleksander Mitrović and Carlos Vinícius.
Fulham’s forward strategy aims to get the ball into wide areas using the pace of our full-backs and wingers. The idea is we get the ball wide as soon as possible to create space for a ball to be played into the box, where Mitro can bully his opponents and employ his deadly finishing. This works either through the centre-backs beating the press and passing to the full-backs, centre-backs hitting diagonal passes directly to wingers, or the creation of triangles between the back four, Mitro/Andreas Pereira/Harrison Reed, and the wingers.
However, as the season has progressed, we have learned that this does not always work. When opponents play five at the back, or with two very physical centre-backs, Mitrović is less able to consistently find the same joy from crosses into the box. In my opinion, we have often failed to successfully turn to a plan B when we need to. With James’s blistering pace, we can opt for balls over the top to relieve pressure, gain territory, and be more clinical on the counter. He is also more disruptive when pressing in comparison to our other striker options.
Against Everton, DJ was crucial to the first goal in beating everyone to Wilson’s strike against the post, setting up BDR. He then scored one of his own after a clever run from a Kenny Tete free-kick, before beating both Everton centre-backs and slotting it past Jordan Pickford.
DJ is a now an established footballer with a wealth of experience. But the Welshman has only started in five of his 17 appearances, averaging a little more than 30 minutes. He has played more than 45 minutes only four times and only once for an entire game under Marco.
However – despite limited playing time – I believe Silva can turn James into a useful plan B player. DJ has almost 0.35 goals per ninety minutes this campaign, which is more than Bobby De Cordova-Reid, Willian, and Welsh teammate Harry Wilson.
Why let him go?
To be clear: on the whole, I’ve been very unimpressed by James this season. He has featured in 10 of Fulham’s 12 losses, and has often looked out of place on a Premier League football pitch. He never clicked at Manchester United or Leeds. If we do manage to keep Kebano, Solomon, and Willian, I would not use him as a winger.
DJ’s best chance of salvaging a place in this Fulham side is as a striker, but even then, can we find a better and cheaper back-up for Mitro? He was uninspiring versus Villa on Tuesday night.
If Leeds are relegated, DJ will not want to play Championship football and his wages may prove too high during the club’s rebuilding phase. Could he come on the cheap? While Leeds paid £25m, I believe his current value is more like £7-8m, or less given his performances this season.
DJ’s current Fulham salary is £2.6m, £500,000 more than Bobby, Neeskens, Solomon, Willian and Wilson. His impact is not close to warranting this salary. If we do sign him, he should expect a major pay-cut.
What I would do
Ultimately, James’s future is dependent on several things: the future of other Fulham wingers, Leeds relegation, Fulham’s FFP compliance, and his performances for the rest of the season. For now, it is a waiting game.
Personally, I hope Marco starts him up top for the remainder of Mitrović’s suspension so he can build on his brilliant Everton performance. Just as Vinícius had his chance, James deserves his.
It’s time to turn all that promise seen in him by so many – with added the benefit of experience – into results. I hope he can build on his Everton performance to reignite his club career.