Of Sir Alex Ferguson’s many faults, lack of patience is not among them. The great Scot has, according to recent analysis, the most stable squad in European football, with players remaining at Old Trafford almost six years on average. That lengthy tenure is aided no doubt by Paul Scholes’, Ryan Giggs’ and Gary Neville’s longevity but the point remains – when it comes to some players, Ferguson has almost limitless patience.
In many ways Ferguson’s approach is anathema to the modern game, where high annual turnover of players and coaches is commonplace at many leading clubs. Yet, the flip side of this undoubtedly virtuous coin is the Scot’s seemingly unwavering loyalty to players that many supporters find insufferably frustrating.
Ferguson’s faith in Darron Gibson, Anderson and Gabriel Obertan, as three midfield examples, is based not on an aggregate of excellence but faith that each will come good in time. That they may, even if the evidence is scant to date.
Discounting any player as not fit for purpose comes with risk of course. The oft-repeated example of Darren Fletcher’s rise from fan pariah, cruelly dubbed ‘the Scottish player’, to an essential cog in the Red machine is now something of an Old Trafford cliché. Yet the 26-year-old Scot’s story is instructive – even those that do not posses natural talent in abundance can carve out a niche if Ferguson’s patience and the player’s will are in sync.
Expectation plays a hefty part in supporters’ reaction of course. Fletcher cost the club little, with the player not commanding a transfer fee and serving United on eminently reasonable wages until the Scot signed a new four-year contract in 2008. The same can be said of Gibson, who graduated through United’s academy, and even Obertan, whose £3.5 million fee made little impression on the club’s mammoth debt.
Anderson, by contrast, attracts a different level of expectation – and therefore criticism – having joined the club as Brazil’s ‘next Ronaldinho’ for more than £19 million in summer 2007.
But in each Ferguson has shown faith beyond concrete evidence; perhaps even beyond reason. While Anderson’s undoubted natural talent comes to the fore only sporadically, it is hard to recall any occasion on which Gibson or Obertan have truly impressed. Certainly against the highest level of opponent.
Anderson’s pace with the ball is a boon but the Brazilian’s impact is continually limited by horrendous passing statistics that in aggregate over three seasons barely reach 70 per cent successful completion. That the player neither scores nor creates goals has led to some fans to acerbically labelling the former Porto midfielder as United’s “fake Brazilian.”
Meanwhile, Obertan continues to run into blind alleys on the rare occasion he is selected for United’s first team. The French under-21 international appears to have little to no knowledge of the game’s mechanics. That nothing is left to chance at United, with players drilled in every small detail of gameplay and tactics, makes the wingers progress over the past 18 months – or lack thereof – all the more frustrating.
Then there is Gibson, who sank to new depths this week with two performances of such casual ineptitude as to call into question the very sanity of his selection. The Irishman, who lacks pace, touch, skill, vision or seemingly the ability to pick out a teammate with the simplest of passes, can at least shoot. Whether the Derry Dynamo’s long-range efforts actually work the goalkeeper is another point altogether.
Ferguson though is unlikely to give up on the trio with any speed. Indeed, the 69-year-old United manager believes that Anderson is the long-term successor to Scholes, despite the Brazilian lacking almost all the attributes that have made the flame-haired midfielder one of the finest midfielders of his or any generation. Time will presumably tell whether Anderson inflicts damage to United’s ambitions or aids them.
Whether Obertan and Gibson face a different fate is as yet unknown. The Frenchman is no closer to a first team berth than when he arrived at the club the summer before last. That Obertan has seen so little first team football, even with Giggs ageing, Antonio Valencia injured and Park Ji-Sung having an inconspicuous season, is relevant. Gibson’s one Champions and three Premier League starts this season tell the tale of a player who has seemingly progressed not one iota in five seasons on the fringe of United’s first team squad.
Each is tied to the club in the long-term though. Anderson signed a new four-and-a-half year contract in December that will keep the 22-year-old at Old Trafford until 2015. Meanwhile, Gibson is tied to the club until summer 2012, as is Obertan.
On current evidence Anderson will continue to frustrate until the penny finally drops. If it ever does. Obertan has natural talent if not the know-how to use it. Yet, with the least natural talent of the trio there seems little prospect, even from the most blinkered of supporters, of Gibson ever making a success of his time at Old Trafford.
If Fletcher’s rise to Old Trafford stardom was hugely surprising from those who followed the Scot with increasing frustration from 2003 to 2006, then a similar path taken by Gibson will be little short of miraculous. More talented players than the Irishman have left United, as Giuseppe Rossi and Ryan Shawcross might attest.
Fortunately for the 23-year-old Ferguson is of a more patient bent than most.