A 4-0 thrashing at the hands of rivals Liverpool, Matic announcing his departure, Pogba getting injured and out for the reason, the sacking of 2 leaders in the scouting system, Erik Ten Hag’s announcement as new manager, Maguire’s family getting a bomb threat – just another week for everyone’s favourite club in red, Manchester United.
Amidst all the chaos, sticking to matters on the pitch, it wasn’t hard to notice that the absence of Fred and McTominay (a pair often slandered on social media for not being good enough) has led United to field midfield combinations that have featured Pogba, Matic, Lingard, Bruno and even Mata, in a midfield 3 in the last 3 games. 4 of those players could be leaving in a month and Bruno is hardly a midfielder strictly speaking. Such is the dire need for midfielders in this United squad.
But where there is management chaos and squad planning failure, there is opportunity. The monumental midfield gap, coupled with requirements in other positions, means that transfers won’t be enough to plug all the holes. How fortunate it is then that United have a 21-year-old midfielder on loan, who has been developing consistently and is now ready to play a part in the senior team.
James Garner has been impressive for Nottingham Forest this season and there are many rumors flying around about Nottingham wanting to keep him and Leeds United wanting to buy him. In this article, I explain why the Red Devils should integrate Garner into Erik Ten Hag’s plans this summer. I analyze Garner’s movement, passing, defending and his fitment into Ten Hag’s system.
Garner’s movement: An engine-like B2B
There has been some debate about Garner’s best role in recent years. He played for a few years at the U23 level for Manchester United as the deepest player in midfield – a classic deep-lying playmaker who dictates the game and shields the defence. This prompted many Manchester United fans to hail him as the second coming of Michael Carrick.
While he was okay in that role for a while, it was the shift to a more aggressive box-to-box role in 2019 that really saw him come to life. He combined with Greenwood, Elanga and Shoretire to devastating effect for the U23s that season and proved that he had more to offer in an attacking midfield role.
Since then, on his loan spells at Watford and Nottingham Forest, he has retained a similar role often playing as a linker midfield player or a box-to-box locomotive with license to run, roam, create and press, instead of playing a holding role in midfield. His 21/22 season with Forest has confirmed the same movement. Here’s a viz of this season.
Forest have lined up in a 5-2-3 for most part this season with Garner and Yates forming the midfield pivot when fit. Garner usually takes the left-sided CM role with more license to move up and connect with the front 3, while Yates takes up the more defensive RCM role often holding to provide cover when Garner and the wingbacks are caught up.
Garner’s all actions heat map confirms how active he is all over the pitch. He barely has a red hot zone on the pitch but a lot of blue all over it, showcasing the freedom he gets to roam around the pitch, whether it’s to create in the final 3rd, put pressure in the middle 3rd or defend in his own 3rd. This is a midfielder who isn’t bound to any zones on the pitch and loves to constantly run up and down and also go wide for support.
His pass reception map gives us a stronger clue to the areas he likes to get into when he has to receive the ball from his teammates. There is a clearer insight of his left-leaning role with almost an even split of the red hot zone between receptions in his half during the build up phase and receptions in the opponent half when the team is attacking. The latter zone especially being spread out and including wide areas on the left shows how ready Garner is to go to the wings to provide support during the attack. During attack, he loves drifting into the left half-space area and receiving from his wingback or winger to then turn his body towards goal and obtain the angle to pass or shoot almost like a creative no.10 player.
In summary, Garner’s movement indicates how he doesn’t sit or hold in midfield, but loves to run all over the pitch. This includes build up receptions in his half and almost AM-style wide and high receptions during attack. If we had to assign a name to this role, it would be: box-to-box midfielder.
Garner’s passing: A set-piece demon
Even if his role did change, the fact that Garner is inherently creative hasn’t. What has caught the eye of social media followers are Garner’s videos of an assist or goal which often includes a set piece. It’s unsurprising that both his assists and 3 of his goals this season have all come from set pieces. He is a real threat when it comes to dead-ball situations.
Let’s take a look at his pass maps.
Other than the 2 assists, Garner has created many chances, most of them coming from set pieces. The dozen corners are visible in the viz while some of the balls into the box are also from free kicks.
Other than dead-ball situations, his chances created from open play often originate from the left side of the pitch where he angles in a diagonal ball into the box or towards the right wing, once again confirming his preference to create from the left or central zones like a left-leaning AM during attack.
Moving to the map of his progressive passes, it’s clear to see the variation Garner has. His passing range is good. He is able to provide switches to the opposite wing, through balls to the wide players and long balls to the attackers, when he has time and space. Garner’s progression isn’t the metronome deep-playmaking kind containing short passing and central penetration, but is more like the spreading-the-play kind, where a team moves forward or gets into empty spaces thanks to his game-progressing balls into good advanced areas.
This once again ties in well with our theme of Garner being a box-to-box midfielder who prefers to open up the game and help his team advance, rather than progress from deep and help build up. His set piece threat and creativity in the final third from a left-leaning angle are his main chance creation weapons.
Garner’s defending: Intense and willing participant
From his movement and passing if you expected Garner to be defensively shy, you couldn’t have been more wrong.
The best word to describe Garner’s defending is intense. His constant running isn’t limited to when his team has the ball. He puts in a hard shift when his team doesn’t. What’s particularly impressive is the number of recoveries and the spread of them. Garner is constantly picking up second balls across the pitch. He has a host of clearances in his box and many aerial wins outside the box as well showing one area of his game that has improved massively – his physicality. He’s not shy to get into an aerial duel anymore.
His tackles, interceptions and challenges especially in the middle third are also impressive, once again showing how far ahead he is willing to go to win the ball back. Garner is a constant presser and is prepared to hunt high and wide for the ball.
If there was some doubt about which type of box-to-box player Garner was – the attacking kind like Pogba or Gundogan or the defensive kind like Fred or Kante – though Garner is capable of playing both roles well, it might be safer to assume given his intensity and ball-winning focus, that he’s closer to the second kind. His days as a DM in the academy have given him a good sense of defensive awareness. While his positioning might not be enough for a holding role, it helps him note the flow of the attack, get stuck in and win the ball back for his team consistently.
In summary of this section, Garner is a constant presser, runner, tackler and ball-winner in defence, boasting a wide area of operation and various means to win the ball back – something which would fit really well with Erik Ten hag’s pressing ethos and midfield demands.
One aspect that hasn’t been covered so far is his goal-scoring. Most of Garner’s goals are either long-range shots from a left-sided AM position or direct free kicks from distance. He has managed to score 8 goals for Nottingham over the past 1.5 years.
Fitment for Erik Ten Hag tactics
We have already written a detailed article on Erik Ten Hag’s tactics here. To summarize his formation, he enjoys a sweeper keeper, progressive defenders with 2 fullbacks who invert, holding DM who shields the aggressive defence, 2 intense CMs who offer support to the attack, 2 inverted wingers who provide width and one CF capable of linking play with the front 5. Assuming Ten Hag recreates much of the current Ajax tactic to United next season, the main candidates for the B2B CM role (Gravenberch currently) and AM role (Berghuis currently) are probably Fred and Bruno respectively. The anchor man DM role (Alvarez currently) is a real head-scratcher and probably needs a new signing instead of risking McTominay there.
Among these 3 midfield options from all that we have discussed so far, Garner would fit best in the B2B role. He has the pressing intensity, ability to link play from defence to attack and movement to connect with the front 3, to pull off that role to perfection. The AM role could be a nice second option since Garner additionally has the creativity and shooting threat to contribute there as well. The DM role needing high levels of positioning, transition defence and physicality, makes that a far 3rd choice option in case of an emergency need.
So, in summary a rotation option for Fred and Bruno would probably suit him the most. In an ideal world, McTominay and Mejbri also should be competing for the same 2 roles as backup as well. This leads to the major ask for the window to be the DM United have been crying out for for 2+ years now. If United can buy a consistent DM and integrate Garner for the advanced midfield roles, the current paper-thin midfield could start looking strong really quick.
What happens next
A lot still depends on whether Manchester United include Garner in the squad next year. Garner still has a contract until 2024, with the option of an extension, so there is no danger of losing him for free or cheap anytime soon. A few weeks ago, Phil Hay of the Athletic mentioned the possibility of Leeds signing Manchester United’s James Garner, despite the rivalry between the clubs.
“It’ll be interesting to see who Leeds target. James Garner, the Manchester United midfielder who’s on loan at Nottingham Forest in the Championship and having a very good year, is someone I’ve heard mentioned recently,” Hay told The Athletic.
This is the latest rumor in a line of many over the past few months with outlets like Telegraph and DailyMail carrying stories of strong interest from Leeds United to bolster their midfield in the coming summer with James Garner.
In an interview with Footballleagueworld, transfer guru Dean Jones reflected that the Englishman would intend to continue as starter wherever he goes next. “Garner’s having a great time this season, and he doesn’t want to be on the fringes anywhere else at the moment. He’s shown his value, and he wants to kick on next season and be a big part of a team, wherever that is.”
If United are unable to convince one of their brightest academy midfield prospects of the last decade to be a part of the senior team setup, especially when their midfield badly needs some bodies and he fits really well in Ten Hag’s philosophy, it would be a real shame.