After a decade cooking in the Manchester United academy oven, James Garner looks just about done. While his first-team chances have been few and far between up to this point, that should all change next season. Let’s meet United’s 19-year-old midfield maestro.
James Garner, who normally plays as a holding midfielder, often draws comparisons to an Old Trafford favorite (and one of his coaches): Michael Carrick. Much like that United legend, Garner is as cool as a cucumber out on the pitch, using his game intelligence to dictate tempo and deliver defense-splitting passes.
That’s where Garner really leaves his mark. Whether keeping the ball moving with simple passes or booming long, pinpoint diagonals, he's one of Manchester United’s better passers — at any level. And, while Garner must improve his physicality and confidence, he’s shown pretty good aptitude for cutting out opposition passes, using his lanky frame to disrupt passing angles.
“In the position I play, [Michael Carrick] is the best at what he does, in my opinion,” says Garner. “I look up to him and I’m just trying to do what he does.”
Garner has captained both Manchester United’s U18s (en route to the 2017/18 U18 Premier League North title) and England U17s during their run in the 2018 Euros. And, this season, he’s been even better. Not known as a goalscorer, Garner has already scored nine times for the U23s.
In February, Garner traveled with a United U19 squad to Belgium for a friendly against Club Brugge. The young Reds won 2-0 and this strong performance was capped by Garner’s powerful run from midfield, blowing past two defenders, that ended with the teenager slipping the ball into the net. That’s just the latest example of how Garner has added an attacking element to his holding game.
A Long Time Coming
James Garner joined Manchester United at the age of 8, methodically moving up through the age groups until signing his first professional contract in May 2018. That summer, José Mourinho rewarded the youngster with a coveted spot on the club’s preseason tour of the United States. Later that season, Garner made his first team debut against Crystal Palace — albeit for only one minute.
He again went on tour with the first team last summer (this time under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer) and even scored in the preseason opener at Perth Glory. It was a strike that seemed to hint at a larger role for the then-18-year-old in the season ahead. Unfortunately, he’s still waiting for his chance to break through.
Garner has been limited to just six senior appearances in 2019/20, even though Manchester United spent large stretches of the season crying out for midfield help. For a player championed by Kieran McKenna at youth level (he nominated Garner for the Young Player of the Year award) and so often compared to Carrick, it’s surprising that he didn’t get much playing time this season.
To Loan or Not To Loan?
James Garner seems stuck in the footballer version of limbo — far too advanced for the U23s, but not quite ready (at least in Solskjaer’s mind) for the first team. Because of this dilemma, many were surprised when he didn’t go out on loan in January, especially with rumored interest from Sunderland in League One. It can’t have been an easy decision for the club, balancing the need for extra midfield depth against accelerating Garner’s timetable with senior football experience.
In the end, though, it didn't much matter. The Football League’s coronavirus-related shutdown would have cut short any loan spell at the Stadium of Light, so Garner didn’t really miss out on any crucial development. Next season, though, Manchester United must show Garner that there’s still a path forward for him at the club — either by integrating him into the first team setup or securing a good long-term loan for him.
In His Own Words
After the win over Club Brugge in February, Garner opened up about waiting on a first-team chance:
“I am not really too fussed which team I play for as long as I am getting the minutes in. I am just going to keep ticking along, stay fit, and when the chance does come, hopefully I can take it and I can show everyone what I can do.”
And a quick word on his positional versatility:
“I enjoy playing in different positions. As long as I am on the pitch, I don’t really care whether I play at center back, in midfield, at right back, or wherever. I am not really bothered as long as I am playing.
“As you come from center back into midfield, or from midfield into center back, you appreciate the positions of your fellow teammates that they’re playing in. It helps you more if you can play at center back and center mid, I think.”