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James Garner: Is he ready to make his name at Manchester United? – scout report

The Manchester United academy needs no introduction, having produced exceptional talents and world stars over the years. The Class of ’92 is a prime example, boasting the likes of David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt, Paul Scholes and the Neville brothers but you only need to look at Marcus Rashford or Mason Greenwood from the current squad to know the quality that it produces. This means that there are always exceptional talents among the ranks and one such player on the rise is 20-year-old James Garner, the central midfielder who was the club’s Reserve Team Player of the Year for the 2019-20 season. 


While Garner has not broken into the first team yet like Greenwood has, having made just seven senior appearances since 2018, competition for the midfield spot has been tough but United have seemingly decided not to leave his talent in the youth leagues, initially loaning him out to Watford in September of 2020. However, with the appointment of new manager Xisco Munoz, Garner fell out of favour and his parent club swiftly terminated his loan deal there to send him out to Nottingham Forest on loan. He has not looked back since, failing to start just a single game in the Championship and netting three times for Chris Hughton’s side, including a stunning free-kick recently against Queens Park Rangers. Garner is having his best season in terms of goals and his performances regularly grab the attention of fans all over and in this tactical analysis presented as a scout report, we will see if he is in fact ready for life in the Premier League next season. 


Aiding the build-up


As a defensive midfielder, Garner is heavily involved in his side’s build-up and is crucial to progressing the ball out from the back. He needs to be able to receive while facing his own keeper and be quick on the turn, often having to evade the opponent’s press as well, especially when looking to take the step up to the Premier League. However, this seems to be an area that the young Englishman has covered. 



As shown in the image above, the two Brentford forwards press the centre-back and look to cut out the passing lane to the full-back and his other centre-back. Garner’s movement, however, opens up the pass to him and while it may have been easier for the 20-year-old to play the ball backwards to relieve the pressure on him from the Brentford midfielders, he quickly identifies the space behind him and using his body to cover the ball, turns quicky and with this simple movement, evades the press. Garner always seems to be a step ahead of the opposition in such cases and does not waste time holding up the ball before looking to make his next move. He is quick to find a way out and is eager to get his side moving forward. 



Not only can he receive ahead of the defence, but he is also capable of falling back into a makeshift back three in possession. This is crucial in allowing his full-backs to move higher up the pitch to provide width in attack and is similar to how his parent club, Manchester United, build up as well. Despite being right-footed, it should be said that Garner is comfortable moving to the left-flank as well, collecting the ball and dribbling inside before cycling possession with his teammates. Despite the angles being somewhat against him, he also shows good signs of link-up play with his full-back and wingers down the flank and this right-footedness has not shown itself to be a major issue in him dropping to the left side of a back-three. However, he is more obviously effective in dropping to the right side from where he can drive forward on his stronger foot. 



Once he drives pushes forward into more advanced positions, Garner displays some excellent passing ability as well. Not only is he able to cleverly pass through the lines and find his teammates, but he also shows good ability in switching the play with quick and efficient cross-field passes. At times, this resembles the way Paul Pogba passes from deeper positions and Garner’s ability to play these passes not just accurately but also swiftly means that he can catch the opposition off guard and ensure his side move the ball from wing to wing quickly. This is particularly useful against a side setting up in a low-block and defending deep as it is very important to stretch the play and do so quickly to create gaps between the defence. Garner’s ability to do just that could be a major asset not only for sides looking for balls from deep, like the one shown above but for sides pinning the opposition back and looking to penetrate their defence as well. 



Now, not only is Garner useful on his own in the build-up, but he is also able to create better situations for his teammates. In the image above, we see Queens Park Rangers press the centre-back in a similar manner to what we saw earlier, cutting off the passing lanes to the fellow centre-back and the full-back. However, here the QPR midfielder has gone ahead of Garner and effectively this pass is off as well. While in most cases this would result in the centre-back having to play it back to his keeper or playing a long ball forward, Garner allows him to move forward and dribble past the press owing to his clever movement. The 20-year-old drags his marker towards the right with his movement, meaning that his centre-back can carry the ball forward into space in midfield and this opens up more passing options for him from this area. His clever understanding of time and space means that he is an excellent player to have in the build-up and at just 20, he is only going to get better and iron out any flaws that he may have in this aspect. 


Clever movement and link-up play


The defensive midfielder also plays an important role when in advanced positions on the pitch, needing to link the play and cycle possession all over the pitch. They also play a crucial role in switching the play as we mentioned earlier and, in this section, we will see how Garner fares at this. 



A key aspect of Garner’s play in advanced positioned is his ability to move towards the flank and create triangles, providing a third man run for his teammates. While this may sound complicated, the idea is very simple and effective and Garner’s understanding of it is crucial to its success. The formation of a triangle is quite simply to prevent the same two players from having to pass to each other and being easily pressed or intercepted by the opposition. The addition of a third man to create the triangle allows the side to better cycle possession and the third man run is used to play a player into space using another teammate. The implementation of this is shown above and as mentioned, is something that Garner is good at. 


Here, Garner has moved into an advanced position and has the room to attack the half-space. The pass from the full-back is not on though and instead of moving down the line to receive the ball, he turns inward, making a run so that his full-back can play him into this space using the other teammate in the triangle. His clever movement to offer himself as a third man runner into space can create excellent opportunities for his side in attack. 



We see an example of this once again, with the two Forest players being closed down by the opposition down the flank. Garner identifies the space between the opposition players for the pass and moves into it, creating a triangle for his side to play out of the tight situation. He has also once again moved into a space in midfield from which he is afforded time and space to analyse what his next move should be and is in a prime position to dictate the play with this simple movement. 



While his movement is excellent, Garner is also effective in playing his teammates into space and creating space for them. In the image above, his movement to the flank drags an opposition player, creating space in the centre of midfield. Upon receiving possession, Garner does not just play the pass right to his teammate, but plays him into space and allows him to progress into more dangerous positions more effectively. While this seems like a very simple thing, many players are often caught trying to play right to the feet of their teammates and in certain scenarios, such as quick transitions, doing so could lead to a stalling of play or slower transitions and this could result in the opponent having time to regroup. Garner’s passing and link-up play in these scenarios is very useful to his side and his ability to create space for his teammates and practically do the work for them to get into dangerous positions is an important and perhaps undervalued asset. 



He is also no stranger to advancing much higher into the opposition box either, and his goal against Cardiff City is an excellent example of his movement and eye for space. Garner’s link-up play around the edge of the box allows his side to move the ball down the wing and get into a crossing position. With the opposition dropping deep into the six-yard box to defend the cross, Garner pushes forward and holds his run momentarily upon seeing the depth of the backline. This means that he is in loads of space in the centre of the box and with the ball played into him, he has an easy finish that he converts without any fuss. His clever link-up play and movement have effectively created this goal from start to finish and once again this demonstrates how good he can be in breaking down sides that defend deep.  The quick movement of the ball allows his team to play with urgency and incisiveness and his movement rounds up an excellent manoeuvre started by himself. 




Of course, his ability on the ball is not enough to become a good defensive midfielder and Garner must possess strong defensive ability as well. At 182 cm tall and weighing 78 kilograms, Garner’s frame is not yet one that boasts of incredible aerial ability or strength but there are signs that these can improve in the coming years. He does have decent strength at the moment and does not shy away from a physical challenge and all signs show that he could surely get better as he grows.  



Currently, however, Garner, represented by the orange dot above, engages only in about 3.0 aerial duels per 90 with a success rate of about 35%. The above graph shows the statistics for Championship midfielders having played a minimum of 500 minutes and in terms of volume and success rate, the 20-year-old does fare below average. This is an area of the game where Garner should look to improve but it is also possible that he gets better naturally with age. 


Apart from this, Garner also has a weakness in terms of tracking back as well. He tends to follow his marker when engaging in a press off the ball and his movement further up the pitch to link with the attack means that he could get caught out in transitions, with pacey forwards able to get past him in midfield. 



The image above is an example of this, with Garner unable to track back and prevent the opponent from running into space. This could cause problems for his side when they are hit with quick counters or transitions and his positioning and ability to cover spaces in such cases could also be improved. He is not the quickest of players but his determination to get back is evident and should his teammates manage to hold the opponent back for some time, Garner can get back into position and stop the attack. This by no means is to say that Garner is weak defensively though, his ability to read the play is excellent and the 20-year-old fares much better when the ball is ahead of him. 



Garner tends to hold his position and not commit easily to challenges, preferring to hold his position and engage the opponent on a bad touch. He allows the opponent to move towards him, cutting off any passing options and then engages him and looks to steal the ball back. His reluctance to commit easily is quite an important aspect as this prevents the opposition from easily passing the ball around him or drawing him into a challenge and attacking the space left behind him.



His ability to intercept is also very good, with Garner reading the pass very early and moving to cover it. This can be seen above, with the Englishman already in movement just as the opponent plays the pass, having identified the direction of the pass, and he has already closed down the passing lane. He can read these passes from deep quite early and cut them off, preventing the opposition from progressing the ball by large distances and allowing his side to recover possession in the middle of the pitch. 



He also reads the play well closer to his own box as well, often cutting out passes near the edge of the box. More importantly, he can cut out passes into space with the opposition looking to work their way into the half-spaces as shown above. Should the above pass be successful, the opposition would find themselves in a very good position to move the ball forward, with the full-back and winger able to move forward into space. The player receiving the pass can also move to the edge of the box and create a dangerous attack from this position. Garner’s ability to read this pass and cover the space to get to the ball is terrific here and it not only breaks down the opponent attack but allows his side to almost immediately get back at the opposition. 



His eye for an interception is particularly useful higher up the pitch as well, allowing his side to constantly pile the pressure on the opposition. We see this above, as Garner swoops in to intercept just as the opposition look to play out after gaining possession. His interception means that Forest can attack once again and the defence is once again under pressure owing to the location of the interception as well. To have someone so adept at winning possession all over the pitch is an excellent asset for any side and Garner excels at this. 


Dead ball excellence


One area that sets Garner above the rest is his impressive ability over the dead ball. Be it a free kick or a corner, he is Forest’s set-piece taker and shows a good ability to deliver consistently. This is perhaps a bonus and this section will merely elaborate on how it could be useful for United once he returns. 



He can whip the ball into dangerous areas in the box from corners, generating good pace and dip on the ball as well. What was interesting was his ability to reproduce the accuracy on multiple occasions. While United already have a long line of good set-piece takers, Garner’s excellence in this will add another option for the side to turn to. With the likes of Maguire and Pogba having the height and strength to compete for balls from a corner, Garner’s ability would be excellent in creating goalscoring opportunities. It could probably relieve Luke Shaw and Bruno Fernandes from corner taking duty and allow the former to be positioned to defend a counter while the latter can be ready for shots from outside the box. 



Garner is also able to deliver the same type of deadly crosses with out swinging corners and with goalkeepers more hesitant to step out for outswingers, this could cause more havoc among the defence. United have often struggled to score from set-pieces despite the number of good crossers they have in their ranks but with another option in the form of Garner, this could be a chance for them to step up their ability and become genuine threats from them especially with the aerial ability of their squad. 




When Garner joined Forest, the side was 19th and just a point above the relegation zone. 14 games later, the side are 15th and 14 points clear of relegation and the 20-year-old has been at the heart of it all. We have seen how he has operated under his side’s tactics in this analysis and his performances in the Championship have surely not gone unnoticed and despite his season starting poorly at Watford, he will return to United having made a significant mark in the Championship. However, the Premier League is a major step up from the Championship and competition for places within the United squad is tough with Pogba, Fred, Scott McTominay and Nemanja Matić already fighting for the two defensive midfield spots in the first eleven. 


A fit Pogba almost certainly makes the cut on most days as well and should the Frenchman stay beyond the current season, it becomes all the more difficult for Garner to breakthrough. He does not directly solve United’s defensive midfield conundrum either, with the side needing a player that is strong defensively with good passing to partner Pogba in midfield. Declan Rice has been a name floating around for a while with rivals Chelsea also interested but should United snap up a star defensive midfielder in the summer, it only pushes Garner further down the pecking order. That being said, a long-term successor for Matić is needed with the Serbian possibly leaving in a season or two and this is a mould that fits the 20-year-old perfectly. He may not be thrust into the first team immediately but with his impressive performances, it could be likely that he goes out on loan to a Premier League side next season as United look to expose him to the highest level while grooming him as a potential replacement for Matić. 


Garner boasts immense talent for a 20-year-old and with players often hitting their peak around 24, a season on loan in the Premier League would do him a world of good and beyond that, he could genuinely contend for a spot in United’s first team, adding incredible depth to Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s side.