When James Garner joined Nottingham Forest at the start of the 2021/22 campaign, he was out to prove that he’d had what it takes to cut it at a challenging level and ready himself for a spot at the big time in Manchester United’s squad for the near future.
The 21-year-old loan spell at Watford last term failed to bear any fruit as opportunities in the first team proved difficult to come by. He returned to Old Trafford with his future and development unclear and hitting the rocks before Forest came calling before the end of the last term. After joining the Tricky Trees, the club that finished 17th in the Championship in 2020/21 season initially raised a few eyebrows from Man United supporters who thought he’d be ready for a loan at the upper echelons of England’s second tier. Now, seven months later, the Birkenhead-born midfielder has proven that he could indeed be ready for the role in the Manchester United team next season.
In fact, the club could well have done with his services for the rest of this campaign, with Ralf Rangnick struggling to form a solid and trustworthy midfield coalition during his short tenure so far. However, his development and education was better served elsewhere, and he has superbly become the epi-centre of Steve Cooper’s impressively built Forest side as they chase a playoff spot with a view to having a taste of the coveted English top-flight since 1999.
The Carrington academy product has featured in 35 of Forest’s 40 Championship games at the time of writing, starting 30 of them. Since November 23, he has played 90 minutes in every league fixture but one, where he played 87 minutes against Bristol City after scoring in a 2-0 win in February.
A central midfielder by trade, Garner is a player blessed with incredible ball-playing gifts. He isn’t renowned for his goalscoring, but so far this campaign he’s registered four goals and five assists highlighting that he is more than capable of contributing if given the consistent opportunity, as well picking up a very good SofaScore rating of 7.21 for his performances.
In fact, in his last 11 league matches, the loanee has seven direct goal contributions (3G, 4A) and also provided two assists in FA Cup encounters against Leicester City and Huddersfield Town this year. He also recently impressed in Forest’s narrow 1-0 defeat to Manchester United’s northwest rivals Liverpool in the FA Cup quarter-final.
The young midfielder is averaging 33.3 passes per match with an 80.4% success rate as well as just under two key passes per match, but is also not shirking his defensive duties in a team that has 14 clean sheets this campaign. He impressively averages 1.8 tackles and 1.4 interceptions showing that he is an effective screener and protector of his side’s defence, again evidenced by their 14 league clean sheets this term, the tenth-best in the division.
“He’s performed really, really well. I spoke to him at length the other week about that. And he did well for England Under-21s as well.” Steve Cooper told the Nottingham Post last week. “It’s about him understanding that he’s playing well, but, more importantly, understanding why he’s playing well and making sure he doesn’t take any backward steps in not producing game in, game out. I really think he’s found his athletic legs now for the Championship. He’s a strong runner.
Steve Cooper added: “[Garner] He is a very good example of making sure he finishes the season off strong, because there’s still so much to play for and so many minutes to play. He’s doing really well, but now is not the time to think about how well he’s doing – now is the time to play even better in the next game.
“James’s good for a goal, too. He’s around the set-pieces a lot with his delivery, and he’s a good technician.
“He’s got really good technique. His out-of-possession game might go a little bit under the radar, but that’s been really good as well. He reads and intercepts some really important passes, and that’s as pleasing for me as the other stuff.”
Indeed, Garner has proven he is the perfect technician in Cooper’s side. However, not only can perform in a deep-lying role but a box-to-box one too. He possesses incredible energy, work ethic and enthusiasm off the ball as well as his wonderful vision, eye for a pass along with his decorated set-piece deliveries.
At times this season, the Red Devils have regularly failed to penetrate deep opposition blocks as well as progressing the ball through the lines in feeding their more attacking players in those half-space areas. When given time and space on the ball, Garner is perfectly capable of fulfilling these unique characteristics.
Once he picks up the ball, he regularly scans his immediate surroundings before picking out a telling pass into the final third or a perfectly weighted cross-field ball. He is the man Forest looks for in possession and the one who is arguably most gifted in playing the difficult and imaginative line-breaking passes, feeding the likes of Brennan Johnson and Philip Zinckernagel.
These are all midfield traits that Manchester United have desperately missed since Michael Carrick graced those areas in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last few campaigns at the helm.
With Ajax boss Erik ten Hag, close to being appointed as United’s new boss for next season and beyond, James Garner could well have a future under the well-renowned boss who very well favours a possession-based game, and requires his midfielders to be able-bodied screeners, shuttlers and capable of influencing the attacking play in the final third.
The £3.60m-rated playmaker possesses all those qualities in abundance, despite his young age.
While the midfield options are slim at Old Trafford at this moment in time, his chances will likely demand on the amount of midfielders that the club bring in during the summer transfer window, but if he is gifted that chance, his experiences and development in the English second division over the last two seasons would greatly aid him in his aim to be part of a Manchester United squad that will be looking to rebuild under their new manager.
Garner is very highly-rated in Carrington and, given his technical ability and physical attributes that can see him press hard and defend aggressively, he could be someone who sees an opportunity for himself to impress during United’s pre-season tour this summer.
Whatever happens in the foreseeable, the England under-21 international is someone who will undoubtedly be playing in the top flight before long and, after his stunning performances at the City Ground, it may well be an opportunity that crops up sooner rather than later.