Unexpected Leeds United revival sees doubted figure emerge as reliable source of goals for Daniel Farke

Dan James.
Leeds United v Watford FC.  SkyBet Championship.  Elland Road Stadium
Picture Bruce Rollinson
23 Septemer 2023.
Dan James. Leeds United v Watford FC. SkyBet Championship. Elland Road Stadium Picture Bruce Rollinson 23 Septemer 2023.

The Welsh international has re-emerged as a genuine first XI option at Leeds 12 months on from his loan exit to Fulham last season. While United are now competing in a lower division, the 25-year-old has produced some of his most consistent, and potent, displays in recent weeks, which could hardly have come at a better time considering the loss of Luis Sinisterra to AFC Bournemouth and Willy Gnonto to injury.

James’ Elland Road exit last summer saw an option to buy included in his loan deal at Craven Cottage, which Fulham ultimately chose not to exercise, but had the Cottagers decided the juice worth the squeeze, Leeds were satisfied losing him. Following relegation from the Premier League, James could feasibly have joined a top flight rival and ended what had been a difficult stint in West Yorkshire, owing to his experience at international level and with three separate Premier League sides.

Instead, James remained, and in his opening six league appearances this season has recorded four assists. In his previous 40 outings for the club, James had provided five assists, admittedly against a higher calibre of opponent, leaving many supporters doubting his ability.

While assists alone are not a fool-proof measure of improved form or performance due to a range of factors, routinely creating high quality chances is more of a reliable indicator.

This season, only Leicester City’s Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall has recorded a greater Expected Assisted Goals (xAG) total than James, according to football data experts Opta.

For this particular metric, the Expected Goals value (0.00-1.00) from an attempt on goal is attributed to the player who set up the shot, in the form of xAG. Each time a player makes a pass which then leads to a shot, the corresponding xG value accumulates over the course of a season as xAG.

So far, James’ 3.2 xAG ranks him as a more potent creator than each of his positional rivals at Elland Road and, despite appearing in only 60 per cent of Leeds’ available league minutes this season, ahead of his divisional rivals at other clubs as well.

The difference between James’ xAG total and the actual number of assists he has provided suggests this could be a sustainable level of production, rather than an early season hot streak, too.

James’ revival under Daniel Farke has the potential to redefine his spell at Leeds, which to this point had been one characterised by missed opportunities and a perceived wastefulness in the final third.

As his stumbling attempt for Leeds’ second goal at Millwall showed, which ultimately set up Joel Piroe but did not count as an assist for the Welshman, that profligacy has not disappeared entirely, but what cannot be argued is James’ ability in transition. His assist for Georginio Rutter at The Den was emblematic of a player who will continue to cause high lines and opposition defences problems all year, while James’ assist for Piroe’s first Elland Road strike last weekend, picking the Dutchman out at the back post, mirrored the setup for Luke Ayling’s equaliser against West Bromwich Albion earlier this season.

James has created four goals from 13 chances during 2023/24, second only to Rutter amongst his Leeds teammates, with the Frenchman having also played a greater proportion of minutes. Should he continue in the same vein over an extended period, the argument can be made that United’s most effective wideman is not the up-and-coming Dutchman Crysencio Summerville, Italy international Gnonto or Bournemouth loanee Jaidon Anthony, but the Welsh speedster instead.