In the days after Danny Welbeck’s move to Arsenal was confirmed, reports began to emerge stating that Welbeck chose to leave after being told he would be the fifth-choice striker at Manchester United, behind Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie, Radamel Falcao, and James Wilson. On that list, one name stands out; or maybe more accurately, fails to stand out. While the first three are world-class strikers and recognizable household names, James Wilson is a relative unknown to the vast majority of football fans around the world. However, Louis van Gaal, known for his faith in youth, has clearly seen something in the teenage striker and has trusted him enough to allow Danny Welbeck, an England international, to leave Old Trafford.
WHO IS JAMES WILSON?
After joining the Manchester United youth academy, Wilson made his competitive debut for the U-18s at the age of fifteen against West Bromwich Albion, a full three years younger than most in the squad. He quickly settled down but a broken ankle halted his progress, as Wilson missed five months, but he returned the next season to finish as the U18s top scorer with 14 goals in only 18 league appearances. Wilson started the 13/14 season as the captain of the U18s; an impressive tally of 9 goals in 10 games as well as 5 goals in 6 appearances in the UEFA Youth League earned him a spot on the Reserve team (U21), bringing him closer to his dream of playing for Manchester United.
Any doubts to whether Wilson, still eighteen at this point, would be able to make the step up to the U21s were quashed as he led the line admirably for Warren Joyce’s Reserves in their quest to retain the U21 Premier League. Wilson scored 8 in 12 appearances for the Reserves, including a sensational hat trick against Wolves in March of 2014. The variety in the goals highlighted his quality: the first showed his ability to create a chance out of nothing, as he turned excellently in front of the centerbacks and finished with a powerful drive from outside the box. His second was closer to goal, as he created an inch of space with a perfect first touch and slotted past the keeper with his right foot. The hat trick was perhaps the simplest of the three goals, as he showed the instinct of a predator to pounce on the loose ball in the box and finish first time.
Unfortunately, the U21s fell one step short of retaining their crown, losing to Chelsea’s U21s in the final, but the defeat did not affect Wilson’s meteoric rise, as he made his Manchester United first team debut against Hull in the penultimate game of the season. After being named on the bench under David Moyes, interim manager Ryan Giggs, perhaps the most famous Manchester United youth product of all time, gave Wilson his debut; the youngster took his chance to perfection with a brace against Hull City at Old Trafford.
After finishing the season claiming Manchester United’s Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year Award, it came as a surprise James Wilson wasn’t included in the pre-season squad to tour the United States. Closer to home, however, Wilson scored all four of Manchester United’s goals in the Manchester Senior Cup Final against Manchester City’s U21s, including a slaloming run and finish for his first. Wilson came on as a substitute in the League Cup defeat to MK Dons and will certainly play a part in Louis van Gaal’s first season at Manchester United.
STYLE, STRENGTHS & WEAKNESSES
James Wilson has shown the potential to become one of the most complete forwards in the game: the eighteen year old is an exceptional finisher, with the ability to score with both his left and his weaker right as well as in the air. He is devastatingly clinical in the box, thanks to his anticipation, instinct, and knack of being at the right place at the right time. However, Wilson is more than a simple poacher: he has begun to add goals from outside of the box to his repertoire. More impressive is his ability on the ball: Wilson has quick feet and great balance that allows him to dance away from challenges. While he might not have the pace of a Walcott or Sterling, Wilson has impressive acceleration and can break away from defenders with ease.
At the same time, Wilson is extremely strong and powerful on the ball despite his slight frame. This allows him to do more than just evade challenges: he can hold off and brush away defenders. As he grows and matures, he will naturally bulk up in a similar way to Adnan Januzaj, who transformed from a wispy teenager to a well-built Premier League player over the course of his first season. Wilson enjoys running with the ball; as a result, it is rare for him to play off the shoulder of the last defender. Instead, Wilson prefers to drop deeper or to drift slightly to the right to pick up the ball or to provide an outlet for his midfielders.
A factor of his game that adds to the danger he brings is his ability to create chances out of nothing. With a body feint or a clever touch Wilson can open up an inch of space for himself; this in an extremely dangerous skill when used in tandem with his finishing as he has the ability to turn harmless passes into goalscoring chances. Most admirable perhaps is his composure; James Wilson is always cool and calm and never shies away from an extra touch if it will bring him into a better position. Whereas many youngsters and even professionals rush and lose the chance, Wilson almost always makes the right decision and as a result seems to always have time on the ball, even in the opposition’s box. He has the infectious confidence of youth and will take the shot or round the keeper if the opportunity presents itself; even if he misses a chance, you can be sure that he will take the next one.
Similar to Welbeck, Wilson epitomizes the mantra of defending from the front as he will close down and harass defenders from the first whistle to the last. While he might not have the same raw pace as the now Arsenal man, James Wilson’s work ethic sets him apart from other attackers his age.
A confident teenager, Wilson is prone to the odd wrong decision, such as beating a man or taking a shot when a better option is open. This is certainly a trait that will be worked out of his system as he matures as a player. His first touch is also slightly erratic and heavy; while at the Reserve level Wilson is usually agile enough to retrieve the ball, his touch does need some work if he wants to lead the line for Manchester United. Lastly, Wilson will need to fine tune his passing if he is to become a truly complete attacker.
While the report that Welbeck was fifth choice at Manchester United will possibly never be confirmed, it speaks of van Gaal’s faith in James Wilson that he allowed Chicharito and Welbeck to leave given van Persie’s injury history and the fact that Falcao is just returning from a long term injury himself. As a result, even with a reduced number of games this season for Manchester United, James Wilson will certainly get his chances. Even as fans bemoan the exit of Welbeck, there is a sense of anticipation and excitement for the emergence of James Wilson.
Written by Rahul Natarajan