James Garner spent the past year and a half on loan at Nottingham Forest, helping the tricky trees climb back into the Premier League for the first time in 20 years. Now Manchester United fans are wondering whether he’s ready to contribute to the first team this season or if he needs another season on loan, this time to gain experience in the Premier League.
For two years Manchester United fans watched Garner tear it up in the championship while the midfield at Old Trafford was nothing short of shambolic. That combination has indirectly lead to some unrealistic expectations on Garner and even slightly overrating him in certain areas so let’s set the record straight on a few of those things.
James Garner is not a number 6. He’s not the missing piece in United’s midfield that will suddenly solve their problems. He’s a box to box midfielder with good football IQ and technical skills. He’s shown some good forward passing ability from deep, but hasn’t used it as often as you would like to see. He’s shown very promising abilities in the Championship but how will that translate to the Premier League?
We won’t know the answer to that question until we actually see him in the Premier League. Despite this unknown Manchester United should find out the answer with Garner in a United shirt, not on loan at another Premier League club, and there are several reasons why.
Simply put, United need bodies in midfield. Over the past three seasons United had four senior players who can be recognized as “central midfielders” rather than attacking midfielders: Nemanja Matic, Paul Pogba, Scott McTominay, and Fred.
Four is simply not enough and we’ve seen that time and time again. In 2019-20 United had to start multiple matches with a midfield pair of Fred and Andreas Pereira, simply because they didn’t have any other midfielders. This season injuries meant that Paul Pogba had to start the home match against Norwich as the lone natural midfielder. Over the past two seasons when United have done wholesale rotations to rest first team players they’ve had to use Donny van de Beek so the few times the Dutchman even got opportunities they weren’t coming in his natural position.
We don’t yet know Erik Ten Hag is going to play but based on his history (and the possibility of signing Frenkie de Jong) a double pivot is a very strong possibility. Right now the list of players United have who “can” play in those two deeper positions is Fred and McTominay. Even if you sign two more players that just brings you up to four, a number we already know isn’t enough.
Don’t forget to also factor in the ridiculous schedule the Premier League is going to have this year. Five matches in August and 16 matchdays before breaking for the World Cup in November. Two international breaks where Fred will likely be flying halfway across the world. These players are going to wear down very quickly. Depth will be paramount.
There’s nothing left to gain
This is the important one. There’s nothing more for James Garner to gain by playing another season at Nottingham Forest.
Garner spent the 2019-20 season around the first team while still playing academy football. He was far too good for that level and ultimately made five appearances (two starts) for the first team. It’s a small sample size but one thing that stood out whenever Garner got on the pitch was that he already had the technical skills to play at this level. Garner’s issue was physical. At 18 years old he still lacked the physicality aspect of his game. He needed to go on loan to get experience playing against men.
Two years later, Garner’s done that. He’s logged over six thousand minutes in the Championship. His body has gotten used to the rigors of playing first team senior football as well as the durability required to play twice a week for 10 months a year. Not only is Garner now two years old (with all the natural body development that happens between 18 and 21) but he knows what to expect when he’s playing against people bigger than him.
In other words, Garner doesn’t need to develop the match fitness side of his game. The most important thing for him to do now is develop into a Manchester United player.
At 21 years old, Garner’s overall skills aren’t going to get much better from just playing more games in the Premier League. What United need him to do is develop the specific skills that they need their midfielders to do. The only place he can do that is at Manchester United.
Returning to Nottingham Forest would allow Garner to log more minutes but if Forest play a different style, or put him in a different role to how United would use him, then Garner would spend a year developing the wrong skills. How does that help United? Not to mention this season Forest will find themselves in a much different scenario than they were in last year and could end up playing a much more reactive brand of football, that’s not an environment for Garner to develop the skills needed to play in a more possession based system.
Garner is now at the point where playing 12-18 games in all competitions while training with Erik Ten Hag and learning exactly what he wants from his midfielders would be more beneficial to his development than playing 35 Premier League matches elsewhere.
We spent years laughing as Pep Guardiola told us this kid Phil Foden was one of his best players even though he never left the bench. In 2018-19 Foden started just 12 matches in all competitions. In 2019-20 he started 18 games in all comps. If he was that good why was he wasting away on City’s bench?
A year later, when Foden started 17 games in the Premier League alone and became a first choice player for England, it became obvious why. Guardiola has very specific roles for his players and wants them to play a very specific way. You won’t learn those things anywhere else, thus it was decided Foden would be better off staying at City and developing exactly the things they needed him to develop than going off elsewhere to get more minutes but play entirely differently.
When you look around the top clubs in England the loan system is much more a precursor to selling a player than a method of player development these days. For the most part the homegrown players still at their clubs didn’t spend years going out on loan.
Two examples come to mind. Mason Mount went on loan for two seasons as a teenager before coming back and starting at Chelsea as a 20 year old. The other obvious one is Harry Kane who spent time at Millwall, Leyton Orient, Norwich, and Leicester over three season. All that happened before Kane’s 20th birthday.
When Kane turned 20 he spent a year sitting on Tottenham’s bench playing almost exclusively in the Europa League until he logged 499 minutes in April and May. He was still Spurs’ rotation striker to start the following season - not starting his a Premier League match until November - yet still ended the season with 21 goals. That year of hardly playing didn’t seem to hurt his development.
That’s where United are now with Garner. He doesn’t need the physical development that a loan provides anymore. He’s still going to need to adapt to the speed and physicality of the league but with experience in the Championship that’ll merely take a few weeks, not a whole year. If at 21 Garner isn’t ready for the Manchester United after two years of first team loans, he probably never will be. Rather the next step in his improvement is learning Ten Hag’s system and molding himself into being a perfect fit.
James Garner may not be ready for the Premier League today, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be ready for it in December or January. It won’t do United any good if he’s playing for another club when that happens.
With two years of first team football under his belt, the long term benefits of Garner sticking around to learn the system far outweighs the short benefit of simply getting more minutes. And who knows, by February he just may overtake some more senior midfielders in the pecking order.