Darron Gibson is having a bad season; possibly the worst he has had in a short professional career to date. The Irishman’s performance against Blackpool can perhaps be written off as a bad day at the office. The abysmal appearance against Southampton – a League One side – is harder to justify.
As one of Carrileros – “shuttlers” – in Manchester United’s midfield diamond, Gibson’s role is to provide box-to-box running and auxiliary width. The task requires little technique and is thus independent of one’s innate talents – many players can train themselves to run all day. Certainly, Gibson has the stamina to fulfill the task. The United midfielder just lacked the willingness.
Gibson’s laziness had already got him into trouble with his national team manager. Giovanni Trapattoni fairly argued that the midfielder must do more work off the ball. It is weird, if not downright unbelievable, that the Irishman, someone of clearly limited talent, does so little work on the pitch. When Dimitar Berbatov and Eric Cantona are reprimanded in the British Isles for “not trying,” one must wonder why pundits aren’t more critical of Gibson – surely the mundane and lazy are worse offenders.
In this sense, the Darren Fletcher argument cannot be applied to the Irish international; the Scot has always worked his socks off on the pitch. In addition to the work on the pitch, the Scottish captain is of sound personality. Take the infamous “Keanogate” incident in November 2005. Fletcher was one of the players harshly criticised by the former United captain before the move to Celtic. Instead of hitting back at Keane à la Gibson at Trapattoni, Fletcher took the criticism on board. Realising that he lacked the guile and natural talent of Paul Scholes, Fletcher set about becoming a defensive midfielder, instead of the attacking midfielder he was mooted to be in youth.
In addition to suspect temperament and work rate, Gibson is let down by his technique. The Irishman has a poor first touch for a ball-playing midfielder. Consequently, Gibson often loses the ball under pressure and very rarely gains possession in 50/50 situations – even when he wins the initial challenge.
Perhaps Gibson’s biggest weakness is his tactical naiveté. The Irishman still doesn’t have the feel for spatial aspects of football. He relies heavily on others to create space for him. Coupled with indolence, the tactical shortcomings cause the United midfielder to be far too static. This is primarily why Gibson noticeably drifts in and out of games.
Gibson does have strengths though. He is a good finisher and an excellent athlete. To take advantage of his excellent finishing, the Irishman must improve his movement. He must learn to make clever runs to create space for other midfield players, to support forwards, and to get into positions where he is able to strike at goal. The physical attributes are a great asset in this endeavor.
If Gibson works harder on the pitch and matures a little tactically, the Irish international can become essentially a more attacking version of Darren Fletcher; someone who can be deployed to do a bit of everything.
It is difficult to see Gibson making vast progress, however. He is 23 and only has about hundred appearances under his belt. Fletcher had made 50 odd more games at a comparable stage in his career and it still took the Scot two more season as a rotation player to establish his place in the first team. With Anderson ahead of him, Gibson will find it hard to play the games that he desperately needs to develop.
There is an argument to be made for Gibson staying at Old Trafford. If, for example, the Irishman will progress with a ‘good kick on the backside’ then Sir Alex Ferguson is the best in the game for that particular task. Certainly, United lacks a midfielder who can score goals from distance and Gibson can be brought on to provide that threat.
The ball is squarely in Gibson’s court though. His contract runs out in 2012 and it is up to the 23-year-old whether he stays at Old Trafford. The midfielder has done little to earn a new contract. The likelihood is that Gibson will be moved on but if the midfielder wants to be a United player makes he has to make a case on the pitch.
The next few games will be crucial – they will show whether Gibson has the bottle to ante up when it really matters.