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.
When Gabriel Obertan signed for Manchester United, little was known about the graduate of the prestigious Clairefontaine academy. Injury held the player back initially before a dash for the first team came last October. But generally since the player’s £3.5 million transfer from Girondins de Bordeaux at Old Trafford, little has been seen of the 21-year-old.
Turning 22 next February, it is an important time in the French under 21 international’s career. Like Federico Macheda and many others at the club, Obertan must now translate promise into reality if he is to win a long-term future at Old Trafford.
It should be the perfect time for Obertan to break into Sir Alex Ferguson’s team. The deeply unfortunate injury suffered by Ecuadorian winger Antonio Valencia against Rangers last month opened up a spot in Ferguson’s team. Fast-forward a month and there have still been no significant outings for the Frenchman save for a substitute appearance against Bursaspor this week.
After all Obertan’s competition is mixed at best. An ageing Ryan Giggs has been in and out of the United side with injuries, and even a fully fit Welshan cannot be expected to play more than a game a week.
South Korean Ji-Sung Park remains about as effective as England World Cup 2010 campaign. Park is lost, a man of whom much is expected but has proven undeniably useless when United’s need for creativity is most apparent this season. Park’s transformation from the player most-often seen in United’s crucial fixtures to desperately giving away the ball this season is stark.
Obertan is surely next in line but either Ferguson appears to have changed his mind on his acquisition, or he is biding his time and will introduce the Frenchman when he has no more cards to play.
After overcoming a back injury last season, Obertan has become a regular fixture for the reserve team. Playing either upfront or as a winger, the 21-year-old offers pace and dribbling ability. But despite featuring in the Carling Cup time against Scunthorpe United in September, he was immediately called back to play for the reserves.
Such a rapid demotion to the stiffs suggests Obertan is further away from the true first team picture than ever.
Obertan’s last memorable outing for the first team came during last season’s Champions League away trip to Wolfsburg, where he superbly set up Michael Owen to regain as United regained the lead.
The other memorable occasion for Obertan last season was an utterly appalling performance in the home FA Cup Third Round defeat to Leeds United. Obertan was not alone in performing badly but displayed all the traits that are worst in the youngster – his end product is poor, even when the winger beats a man he frequently loses the ball.
United fans can only hope that Obertan’s performance in Germany translates promise into a future reality.
Rather more ominously his former coach and former United player Laurent Blanc warned that United may fail with Obertan where others have already dared to tread.
“Manchester United have been tracking him for a long time,” said Blanc last August.
“They certainly hope to advance him, something that Bordeaux and Lorient have failed to do.”
One thing is certain, despite the inconsistencies of Obertan’s performances the winger must get a chance in the coming weeks or he will stagnate.
United’s stock of wingers remains depleted. Save for a miraculous resurgence in Park or the now infamous Bébé makes a meteoric rise in the coming weeks, it seems that Anderson and Darron Gibson may be utilised on the flanks more.
It’s not a picture that Obertan can welcome.
Barnsley in the Carling Cup is hardly the auspicious start that most Manchester United signings hope for. Injured, questioned and even derided since the France under-21 international’s £3 million move from Bordeaux, for Gabriel Obertan a début has been three long months in coming. Success Tuesday shows that after Ronaldo, life may go on.
Obertan, who has eight caps for France under-21s, suffered a serious spinal injury prior to the move across the channel in the summer. It was a setback – well understood by United manager Sir Alex Ferguson prior to the youngster’s acquisition – that has kept the Clairefontaine graduate out of United’s 15 games this season.
Rated highly by Ferguson’s coaching staff who have watched the youngster for more than two years, the winger has appeared 54 times for Bordeaux in addition to 15 games on loan at Lorient. At 16, Ferguson says, Obertan was among the very best in Europe for his age group.
“We’ve taken our time with Gabriel as we want him at 100 per cent,” said the United manager following Tuesday’s victory over Barnsley.
“He’s very quick, he can play both sides or through the middle, and he brings a real versatility to us.
“At 16 he was one of the outstanding young talents in Europe, but over this last year-and-a-half, he’s been playing with a back injury. We expect big things from him. He’s a nice boy, he speaks good English and he’s had no problems settling in.”
Yet it’s a career that has stagnated and not just because of injury this season. Obertan, transformed from leading starlet into loanee at Lorient one of Ligue 1’s less-fashionable clubs, is no longer the player Ferguson bought into at 16.
United – somewhat surprisingly for some in French football – provides Obertan with a route towards redemption. In three games for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reserve team this month Obertan has demonstrated the pace, awareness and outstanding touch that brought Ferguson’s eye two years ago.
Indeed, in what turned into a tough night for United at Oakwell Tuesday, Obertan was a stand-out attacking figure on début. While it’s too early to declare the Frenchman the next Thierry Henry – as opposed to the next David Bellion – the early signs are promising.
The attacker’s intelligent use of the ball, creative instincts and obvious teamwork against the Yorkshire side contrast so starkly with the infuriating Nani. Obertan’s ability to hit an early and accurate cross was also eye-opening.
So much so that the Portuguese winger may now come under pressure from United’s new signing. In three years with the club, the former Sporting Lisbon wide player has lurched from the stylish to the ridiculed. Nani’s direct, attacking performance in United’s recent victory over CSKA Moscow last week is one of the winger’s career highlights. Far too often though, Nani is lost in a sea of misplaced passes, blind alleys and wasted stepovers.
Yet width is an area in which United is both strong in numbers and weak on quality. While Antonio Valencia, Ferguson’s £16 million acquisition from Wigan Athletic this summer, is slowly growing in stature there are question marks hanging over the rest of United’s wide men.
Park Ji-Sung, who recently signed a new four-year contract, has long been a favourite of the United manager. So much so that in the really big games Park has tended to play a major role. But as was the case in the 2009 Champions League final, many supporters question Park’s inherent quality at the very top-level.
Then there is Zoran Tosic who, in nearly a year at Old Trafford, is no closer to the first team than on the day of his signature. Considered too lightweight for the Premier League on arrival from Partizan Belgrade, Tosic remained in the reserve team never to return.
Even Ryan Giggs, so majestic this season, cannot go on forever.
Obertan offers not only hope of better quality on United’s left flank but a more consistent approach. On a night when Danny Wellbeck was again excellent, and Michael Owen scored a peach of a goal, Obertan was the highlight.
Obertii, Obertaan, Life goes on! After Ronaldo life goes on… Ferguson might say.
Additional reporting by Paul.
Gabriel Obertan continued his comeback from a spinal injury when he lined up for the Reserves against Blackburn Rovers tonight.The young winger, signed from Bordeaux in July, played in a front-three as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reserves routed Blackburn Rovers 3-0.
Obertan, who again caught the eye with pace and direct running at the Blackburn defence, set up Matty James for the game’s first chance, only for the England under-20 player to miss the target.
The France under-21 winger played his third reserve fixture in the past week after making his début against Oldham Athletic last Monday and then appearing against Clyde on Sunday.
But with Nani continuing to produce inconsistent performances the door is ajar for Obertan, who is likely to make his first team debut in the Carling Cup tie against Barnsley next Tuesday.
Obertan, voted Most Valuable Player at the Toulon International youth tournament in June, scored on English soil for France under-21s against England in March.
Luis Nani’s place in the Manchester United team is once again under threat with speculation that the club is looking at bringing in Middlesbrough’s Adam Johnson. The 22-year-old left-winger, who has 19 England under-21 caps, is out of contract next summer and will be available for a cut-price fee in January.
Johnson’s place in the team at Middlesbrough has been strengthened with the departure Stewart Downing to Aston Villa. The Sunderland-born winger has put in a series of outstanding performances for the Championship club. But the player, who has also been linked with Everton and Tottenham Hotspur, will leave on a Bosman free transfer unless ‘Boro strike a deal in the January window. Johnson, who has consistently turned down a new deal at Middlesbrough, will command limited compensation because he is under-24.
Meanwhile, Nani’s place in the United side will also come under threat from French winger Gabriel Obertan who is nearing full fitness. The player, signed from Bordeaux for £3 million in the summer, has begun full training at Carrington this week. Obertan has suffered with a long-term back problem and is yet to make his début for the club.
New signing Gabriel Obertan will be fit to make his Manchester United debut in four to six weeks, according to manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The French winger, who was signed for about £3 million from Girondins de Bordeaux, is currently out with a spinal problem.
“Gabriel has had a spine problem, but I think he’ll be back in about a month to six weeks’ time,” Ferguson told Inside United magazine.
“We’re taking our time with him because we want him back and at 100 per cent. He’s very quick, he can play both sides or through the middle and he brings a real versatility to us.
“At 16 he was one of the outstanding young talents in Europe, and he’s said to us that over this last year and a half he’s been playing with this back injury and no-one thought about getting a scan. We expect big things from him. He’s a nice boy, speaks good English and should have no problem settling in.”
Obertan was loaned out by Bordeaux to Ligue 1 outfit L’Orient for the second half of last season and his signing was taken as a major surprise by both player and Bordeaux’ coach Laurent Blanc. Question is – will Obertan be the new Eric Cantona, or the new David Bellion?