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Loan Watch: Is James Garner good enough to break through at Manchester United?

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We analyze the play of the next great midfield hope of the United academy

Nottingham Forest v Blackburn Rovers - Sky Bet Championship Photo by Mick Walker - CameraSport via Getty Images

At first glance, James Garner looks like someone who has teleported through time from the The Haçienda nightclub or Piccadilly record shop that had become the cultural pillars of the heady Madchester era in the ‘80s and early ‘90s. So it’s a bit of a surprise to find out that he’s actually from Birkenhead in Merseyside and grew up idolizing Steven Gerrard. He even wears Predators to this day. Anyhow, we’ll learn if he can play the guitar later. For now, let’s find out he can play football and, more importantly, if he can play for Manchester United.

The youth graduate only turned 20 years old on Saturday, and United fans already have an impression of him. He made his debut aged 17 against Crystal Palace during Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s caretaker stint. In his post-match press conference, the manager had this to say:

“I believe he’s got the chance to have a great future. He knows we believe in him, we’ve got great faith in him as the next Michael Carrick. I know he’s young and I know it’s not fair on kids to compare to great players like Michael was, but he’s the same mould, he plays simple passes, plays through the lines.”

That’s a big call from the manager. Based on the footage, it can be categorically stated that he isn’t like Michael Carrick but Solskjaer was right about the simple passes and playing the ball through the lines.

Last season, he made four Europa League appearances and had a little kickabout against Norwich City in the league for a solid eight minutes. With minutes hard to come by, he was sent on loan to Watford. He was recalled in January following the sacking of Vladimir Ivic as game-time became scant and was then sent on loan to Nottingham Forest. Like The Haçienda, both clubs had seen better days in the ‘80s.

Playing as an advanced midfielder at Watford

Garner’s had very different roles in both sides and that’ll be taken into account when analyzing him. At Watford, he played as one of the advanced midfielders in a 3-5-2 system. He was mostly deployed on the right of a three-man-midfield.

Here’s a map of Watford’s average positions in most games in the Championship.

Garner is number 16 here.

Watford’s two wide midfielders, Garner and Cleverley, had instructions to leave their midfield line and press the opposition if the ball was on their side of the field.

Here, you can see how advanced he is during an opposition throw-in.

Those who’ve watched his youth games, or even the Europa League game against AZ Alkmaar last year, will be aware that he can be really aggressive. Against AZ Alkmaar, his aggression led to a goal for Mason Greenwood, but it was clear from the replay that he probably should’ve been booked for a foul.

In this phase of play, he gave away a needless foul. You can see that there’s space behind him and he just had to hold his position.

This was a feature of his game at Watford as well. This aggression is ideal for his role but he does need to tone it down by decelerating his run, jockeying for a second, and winning the ball cleanly. Pressing is mostly about setting traps as a side to win the ball back so it isn’t imperative that he win it back as long as the team does. On the bright side, he has improved on this since moving to Forest — but more on that later.

On the ball, Watford did most of their progression with the three centre backs in the first phase and progressed to the final third with their wing backs.

This meant that Garner was hardly used in build-up, averaging only 26.2 passes per game during his time at Watford. For comparison, he made 82/84 passes against Astana in the Europa League last season.

He’s not much of a dribbler either, completing 0.5 per game during his time at Watford. Under pressure, he’d often look for the safe pass back to the centre-backs but he does have a good first touch when he’s asked to control the ball on the half turn or back to goal.

Here’s he receives a zipped pass from the Watford centre-back and does a good job of holding the ball, but gives it straight back to another centre-back. It’s unlikely that he’ll ever be the type of player to break a press on his own by gliding past players.

Last season, he was around 176 cm and has grown quite big since. He’s now 182 cm tall and weighs around 176 lbs (80 kilos). He might need to use his strength for progressive carries but the signs suggest he’ll mostly be hoping that his passing does the job of progressing the ball up the field.

He’s at his best when he’s allowed to look up. He has the passing repertoire; he can play diagonal balls with both feet, zip balls through the lines, and make through passes to one of the onrushing wide players.

Here’s an eye of the needle ball to Andre Gray:

Here’s one defense-splitting pass for the onrushing wide player to play a tap-in:

Garner was also allowed to get into the box during his time at Watford. He’d often make darting runs into the box when the wing-backs were pushing up.

He early scores, showing great anticipation in the box.

Here he is two minutes later with another run into the box:

Garner often found himself at the end of a move in the box. He never really converted his chances, but the intention was good.

He’s also quite good on set pieces. Finding his man here with what looks like a nice training ground move:

It’s been clear since his days in the academy that he can pass and score goals from a distance. He can definitely strike a ball cleanly, but he doesn’t do enough to get into positions to receive the ball in good areas. This was the case for United’s senior side last season as well, where he was in a highly dominant side.

When you think of the greatest passers in the last 15-20 years: Scholes, Carrick, Pirlo, Xavi, Kroos, Modric, and others; they were all great passers but also some of the best at receiving the ball. That’s the key to being a good midfield player — always being a passing option. Garner has admitted that it’s something he needs to work.

Playing deeper for Nottingham Forest

Getting playing time in a competitive league is far more important at this stage for Garner’s development than finding a role. United were wise to send him on loan for more game-time at Forest.

The challenges of playing for Nottingham Forest were different since the club was battling to get away from the drop zone. Watford, on the other hand, are currently sitting in second place in the Championship.

Forest are currently managed by Chris Hughton, who most United fans will be familiar with. United struggled against Hughton during José Mourinho’s time at the club and it’s the same with his current Forest side.

Forest play a standard 4-4-2, dropping till the halfway line before engaging off the ball. They’re compact and they even have former Brighton stars Anthony Knockaert and Glenn Murray.

Here’s a map of the average positions in most games:

Garner is number 37.

This is a massive change since Garner can’t be as aggressive anymore. In the Watford touch map, he was beyond the halfway line in most games. Here he’s spending most of the time in his own half.

Here, you can see him waiting to get the loose ball by staying a little further and not really contending for the ball. At Watford, he’d be one of the players jostling for it, and that’s been the big difference in his play.

He does sometimes get a rush of blood to the head and commit far too early, leaving lots of space in midfield. It’s hard to pin it entirely on him since the defensive line should move with him but Hughton’s side never really press very high so he should probably just temper that impulse for his new side.

Here’s an instance where he leaves acres of space in midfield by pressing on his own. It looks like it’ll take a while for some of the old habits to be exorcised from him. His athleticism couldn’t really help him get back in time either.

However, more recently, in a game against Watford, it looked like he’d stopped lunging as often. It seems that the aggression is more frequent in games where Forest enjoy more possession (not very often) and less so in games where they’re conservative.

Here, he blocks a passing lane and forces the player on the ball to recycle it backwards:

Even though he’s playing a lot deeper at Forest, his passing numbers are still quite low at 30.8 per game. His dribble numbers are also at 0.6 per game.

Word to the wise: try not to fall for 90% pass completion numbers that make the rounds on Twitter. They’re unreliable. In his last game against a very good Brentford side, he was handed the MOTM award. Stats like 100% dribble completion were flying around when he only completed two dribbles. This can be misleading and will create unrealistic expectations.

Unlike most teams today, Hughton’s side don’t really have midfielders dropping back to form a three in the build-up. The goalkeeper just punts it to the centre-forward or the wide players and the game starts from there — Forest are happy to cede possession and territory. Even Garner’s partner in midfield, the more experienced Cafu, has numbers similar to Garner.

Garner’s passing range isn’t in question. One diagonal ball led to a goal against Wycombe. And here’s a neat little switch of play while being surrounded by opposition players:

His runs to the box aren’t as frequent as they were at Watford. Like in most 4-4-2 sides, he has to make them intermittently since there isn’t a lot of space for the opposition to counter in midfield. He’s done all right. Most English managers that use a 4-4-2 aren’t very bothered by what happens in most areas of the field. It’s the two boxes that really matter to them.

Here you can see him in his box, defending a potential cross or second ball.

Here you can see him trying to get into the opposition’s box, Thomas Soucek style.

When facing Wayne Rooney’s Derby County, he got his first goal at professional level doing just that. The goalkeeper could’ve done better but Garner won’t care.

Here’s the link on YouTube.

Can Garner eventually make the cut?

With young players, there are usually two types – there’s the one who’s maybe too excited and trying hard to impress, and then there’s the shy type who wants to keep it safe and not really commit any mistakes.

In his appearances for United last season and his loan stints, Garner has definitely been the latter. He’ll definitely not be ready for the first-team next season but that shouldn’t be an issue. There are many examples like Adnan Januzaj and Federico Macheda who didn’t really kick on despite promising starts. Others got into the side much later in their career and went on to prosper like Jesse Lingard and Scott McTominay.

Timothy Fosu-Mensah and Andreas Pereira didn’t quite make it, but United were patient enough to give them multiple opportunities before deciding to cut ties. Garner’s jingle-jangle style seems ideal for the hurly-burly Madchester era, but what this United side currently needs is something closer to an Oasis ballad. Something more calm and controlled with just a tinge of angst.

Based on these latest two stints, Garner is ideally suited to playing as one of the advanced midfielders in a three-man midfield or alongside a traditional holding midfielder in a two, so that he gets license to go forward sporadically. It’ll also depend on the jobs his future teammates do. If United eventually sign a holding midfielder and partner him with someone who has got the ability to take the ball from deeper areas and take care of the playmaking (Hannibal Mejbri?), he’d fit in nicely.

In an ideal scenario, United should probably send Garner on loan again next season to a side that has a lot more possession and clear ideas of what it wants to do on the ball. For now, game time is the most important and another loan will do him good.

Is he ultimately going to be good enough for Manchester United? Definitely maybe.

  • Source for all in-game footage: Wyscout
  • Source for all stats: WhoScored
  • Source for average positions map: SofaScore