Twenty-year old Reece James caught the eyes of millions of United fans on July 23 with two well-taken goals in the 7-0 victory over the LA Galaxy. Brought on in the second half, he side-footed Ashley Young’s pinpoint cross for his first and United’s fourth and next capitalized on a rebound off the goalkeeper from Young’s shot to lock up his brace. The thought must inevitably bubble up for United fans: can he cover for Luke Shaw? Do we even need to go out and buy the likes of Daley Blind?
Let’s be frank though. The answers to these questions lie not in his goals so much as his abilities to defend and offer width up the pitch. If van Gaal is going to continue with 3-5-2 or 3-4-3 formations, we’re going to need wing-backs with discipline as well as endeavor going forward. They will need to be able to cross. They will have to have exceptional fitness levels. They will likely be the most important players on the pitch that no one ever talks about. (All credit due to Patrice Evra, but he was caught out of position so many times last season. No one ever talked about this in the post-match reports) We’ll need better left-backs this season and I’ll pick out the key skills Reece James will have to have to nail down a place in the first team squad.
1. Can he defend?
Obviously it’s difficult to completely assess his skills against top opposition based on a preseason friendly but it’s clear the boy has talent. He was nominated for last year’s Reserve Player of the Year award. Warren Joyce, United’s Reserve Coach, clearly had faith in James as he registered more appearances for the U21 side than any other player.
2. Does he offer width?
While James played left back for the LA Galaxy match, Joyce did play him from time to time as a midfielder last season for the Reserves. This likely means his passing is strong but could mean that he has a tendency to drift into the middle of the park. If last year’s run of terrible results tells us anything, we need quality from wide positions, and it remains unclear whether James can provide that.
3. Can he cross the ball?
Similar to the width issue, James’s crossing ability is very difficult to predict. He barely has any professional experience but we must again rely on Warren Joyce’s faith in James as being a quality player for the future.
4. Fitness issues
James did have some fitness issues at Carlisle United, where he spent part of last season on loan. He only played in two matches against Leyton Orient and Blackburn Rovers before succumbing to a thigh injury. When he is fit though, he possesses the pace and endurance needed to succeed at left back.
Louis van Gaal has a track record of trusting in youth. Moreover, he wouldn’t want to shell out the big bucks to get a player just to play understudy to Luke Shaw. But we need defensive reinforcements so we’ll have to either buy defenders or have youngsters step up. Reece could be that youngster. We’ll just have to see whether van Gaal gives him more chances over the preseason.
This article was written by Kush Govani, who is part of our Academy writing team. Please make your comment on this article if you agree or disagree with the comments raised in this article.