When Manchester United were threatening to get a positive result in the Women’s Super League top of the table clash with Chelsea on Sunday it was because 19-year-old Lauren James gave Casey Stoney’s side fresh impetus and attacking quality in the second half.
James replaced USWNT superstar Christen Press 10 minutes after the break and her arrival into the game coincided with United, who were trailing at that time, gaining the upper hand.
That it was James who made that difference, where Press had been unable to, and not Leah Galton, Kirsty Hanson, Ella Toone or Jackie Groenen, is indicative of her importance to the team.
The teenager started the move out by the touchline that got United back on level terms at 1-1, engineering space to pass inside and moving for the one-two, before beating a defender with Chelsea control and using another as a screen to bend the ball into the far corner.
From start to finish, it was a goal that epitomised everything that is good about her – close control, dribbling, flawless technique and effortlessly cool.
James is by no means a new name, but her 2020 was impacted by injuries either side of the coronavirus lockdown and abandonment of last season and Sunday’s strike was her first of the season after only a handful of appearances.
As a member of the original United squad that was assembled in 2018, she was 16 when she first joined the club from Arsenal and scored 17 times in all competition that season en-route to winning the Women’s Championship and gaining promotion to the WSL.
Early last season, James was the difference as United beat Liverpool to secure a first ever WSL win and was in fine form until fitness issues curtailed an impressive top flight breakout.
Despite her age, James is United’s all-time leading goalscorer. She had been caught by Ella Toone, herself only 21, but Sunday’s Chelsea strike was her 27th for the club and put her back out in front.
United manager Casey Stoney lavished incredible praise on James in late 2019, insisting she has the talent to eventually become the best player in the world. Stoney has worked with countless incredible players during the course of her own career in the game, but James is another level.
“She has a talent that I haven’t seen in the women’s game before,” the United boss remarked.
That hasn’t changed, but consistency is still the key for James if she is to make good on that enormous potential. She has all the tools and attributes at her disposal and needs to learn how to make the best use of them in a more efficient way to become more effective even more often.
The improvement over the last 18 months alone is already there to see and continuing to work under Stoney’s watchful eye, while also now counting two-time World Cup winners Tobin Heath and Christen Press among teammates she trains with every day, will only help even more.
As United get better, James gets better. But as James gets better, United get even better.