The Curious Case of Manchester United’s James Garner

Upon Watford’s relegation from the Premier League, the Club knew they would need to fill the holes left by departing stars. Abdoulaye Doucoure transferred to Everton before the season kicked off. The Hornets even announced on the official club website that Etienne Capoue handed in a transfer request. Will Hughes’ future at Vicarage Road was uncertain. And so, to alleviate the potential midfield crisis, the Hornets loaned in James Garner. 

Garner’s Rise in Manchester

The England U20 international team player made his Premier League debut for Manchester United on February 27th, 2019, playing in the final minute of a 3-1 victory against Crystal Palace. However, Garner seriously started to turn heads in the following campaign. 

The now 20-year-old appeared in 10 Premier League 2 matches in the 2019/20 season. Despite playing in his preferred defensive-midfield position (a Michael Carrick-esque role), Garner scored eight times. This effectively proved that Garner was too talented to only be plying his trade at the Premier League 2 level, as any defensive midfielder scoring eight times in 10 matches is unheard-of. Thus, he frequently trained with the first team and even appeared in six matches with the senior squad.

His most notable performances, putting him on the radar of many clubs hoping to secure a signature such as his on a temporary basis in the future, came in the Europa League. He started three group stage matches and came off the bench in another. On the pitch, he showed tremendous discipline, intelligence, and technicality. This is when Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s claim he could be the “next Michael Carrick” came back into the spotlight.  

The Truth About Garner’s Time at Watford

The Hornets loaned in Garner without an option to buy on September 18th. Watford viewed Garner as a player capable of filling a starting role vacated by a departure, the Red Devils determined a loan to a promotion-competing side offering starting minutes would be perfect for Garner’s development, and the player himself knew the value the loan could have. The season-long loan only lasted until January, but that is not to say Garner’s time at Watford did not show any signs of promise.

There were for sure parts to his game that required considerable improvement. The physical Championship style of play seemed to trouble Garner to start with. He did not always brim with confidence as he did in his senior appearances at Old Trafford. He occasionally tried holding onto the ball for too long or was indecisive. 

Still, positive signs were present. In the matches where he was full of confidence, such as in Watford’s 3-2 victory over Coventry City, he played smart passes between the lines and made encouraging dribbles forward. Consistency at Watford was not his best friend, though saying his time at Vicarage was solely characterized by struggling to adapt to the second-tier style of play would be more than just harsh.

What must also be taken into consideration is how Vladimir Ivic’s tactics saw Garner (as well as other players) not playing in their strongest positions. In the 5-3-2 formation Ivic started the season with, the Carrick-esque role was not available for Garner. In Ivic’s experimented 4-4-2, there were no defensive-midfield roles. When Ivic called for a 4-1-4-1 against Birmingham City, Chalobah was given the defensive-midfield role while Garner played in a more creative-midfield position. 

When Xisco Munoz was announced as head coach, Garner’s job as a frequent name in the starting eleven was taken away. Between Xisco opting for more experienced players (which also saw him drop Jeremy Ngakia and Ben Wilmot from the starting conversation) and Will Hughes’ return to full fitness, the prospects of Garner seeing considerable game time were dim. After the loan was terminated – a loan where Garner was not frequently played to his strengths, still showed need to improve, but portrayed signs of tremendous potential – he was sent to a club further down the Championship table.

Impressed at Nottingham Forest

Nottingham Forest wasted no time securing Garner’s services for the second half of the season. With the reputable Chris Hughton at the helm offering him consistent starter’s minutes in a 4-2-3-1 formation, the Red Devils were happy to let Garner continue to develop in the Championship. 

Even though his time at Watford was decent but not jaw-dropping, his spell at Nottingham Forest saw an undeniable uptick in performances. This is likely a mixture of simply having more experience thanks to his time at Vicarage Road and finally playing in a system calling for him to start in his preferred, deeper-lying midfield role.

His performances were improved (except for a quiet match against, ironically, Watford), leading Garner to start 19 of his 20 games at Nottingham Forest, helping the team steer far clear of relegation despite their rough start to the season. 

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Is He Really the Next Michael Carrick?

Garner is a talented youngster with tremendous knowledge of the sport and now a season of experience as a starter in the world’s best second tier. Whether or not he is destined to be the next Carrick, however, remains to be seen. He for sure has a long way to go to reach that mark, though the tools, such as technicality and intelligence, are present. Even when played out of position at Watford, he showed an eagerness to adapt regardless, a mindset not present in all young talents. 

He is almost certainly going to be a consistent top-flight player in the future as he already proved himself in the Championship at the age of 20. Is he Big Six worthy? Well, he still needs to improve which, admittedly, is an achievable task well within his abilities. Give Garner time and he has the potential to shine. Whether or not he will at the highest level remains to be seen. 

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