For players in the formative years of their professional career, exposure to success is incredibly important. Therefore, it would be foolish to argue that the biggest clubs shouldn’t utilise their equally established youth setup to develop their talent pool right in front of their eyes. However, there are many strands of developmental success that cannot be replicated in academy football.
The rapport built with fans and the worldliness and wisdom learnt from veteran teammates is essential in preparation for senior football. Conversely, there are aspects of loan spells, such as the language barrier and cultural embedding when venturing abroad that flare up its issues, as does the shift in mindset and motivation when dropping into the divisions below.
A middle ground is so often the saintly solution to such problems, where every pro and con is gradually spoon-fed to eliminate any stress and measure satisfaction and success in a way that neither overwhelms nor overindulges a young player at the height of their emotional and psychological evolution. In many instances, that happy medium is second-tier football. In this instance, the Championship.
With the exception of Dean Henderson, recent years haven’t seen Manchester United make use of the second tier in the way that the likes of Manchester City, Arsenal and especially Chelsea have. Mason Mount, Tammy Abraham and Fikayo Tomori are all examples of players who have benefitted from the competitive yet comforting nature of the league, which, in the critical stage of a footballer’s career that distinguishes an elite level player from the many that become stuck in the lower leagues, is an essential compromise to have.
As a result, the advent of James Garner’s impressive spell at Nottingham Forest last season has whet the appetite of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in a summer that saw Garner return to the City Ground, where he will face three of his United teammates looking to reap the rewards earned by the aforementioned Chelsea trio among many others.
In recent loan spells with Salford and MK Dons, Di’Shon Bernard and Ethan Laird landed more lucrative moves to Hull and Swansea. On the other hand, Tahith Chong experienced quite the opposite after settling for sporadic minutes at Werder Bremen and Club Brugge, a move to Birmingham indicating his intention to become the focal point of a team and find regular minutes in doing so.
Chong has most certainly done that so far this campaign, proving integral to his team’s philosophy much like his Man. United counterparts. At this crucial crossroads, the foursome find themselves at, it’s important to establish where they’re currently at in terms of ability and trajectory towards the potential end goal of walking out at Old Trafford week in, week out. Like any good lineup, let’s work our way through it from back to front, starting with the aptly named ‘Big Dish’.
Di’Shon Bernard – Hull City
One of few bright lights in Grant McCann’s squad so far this season, Bernard has formed a solid partnership alongside fellow 21-year-old Jacob Greaves at the heart of defence. Whilst there are only five Championship clubs that have conceded more than Hull so far this season, the pairing haven’t looked particularly overrun at any point, with the likes of Aleksandar Mitrovic and Dominic Solanke being kept fairly quiet in the respective encounters.
From an individual perspective, Bernard relishes a physical battle and has more than held his own against Mitrovic and Solanke among other sizeable strikers. However, it is against the Billy Sharps and Siriki Dembeles of the division, quick in their interchanges and acute in their movements where he has looked most uncomfortable. It would be easy to attribute this to a lack of pace, but neither Bernard or Greaves are slouches by any means.
This issue points to the lack of leadership, communication and organisation that comes with inexperience. Both would thrive with a more commanding, instructive centre-back partner, and the space opposition teams find in the final third due to an inability to delegate markers for forward runners or cover exposed spaces is a consequence of that. As is the bombardment from wide areas and set pieces that inevitably lead to goals.
In the game vs Middlesbrough, the only time Hull have adopted a 3-5-2 formation, it was blatant to see that Bernard had come out of his shell and looked considerably more assertive, particularly with the ball. However, the 4-3-3 denies his desire to carry the ball and make an impact further forward without creating a chasm of space behind him.
Once Bernard finds himself in the opposition half, he has showcased real passing quality, especially over long distance, and an eagerness to play progressively with the agility and presence of mind to draw players out and stretch the opposition.
Overall, the fact that Hull’s poor start hasn’t hindered the impression Bernard has made thus far is testament to his ability, even if he has been playing within himself at times. With that being said, consistent game time in which he is constantly required to stay focused and on the front foot against typically dominant teams will serve a valuable lesson to him, so there are plenty of benefits to take from this season for the former Chelsea youngster.
The step up to the Premier League is still some distance away for the 21-year-old at this stage, but it’s easy to draw comparisons with Harry Maguire, especially in the way he carries the ball and likes to play out from the back when given the licence to.
There is certainly still a long way to go to reach that level, but in the way his career is developing and well-rounded skillset is taking shape at an increasingly competitive level, it wouldn’t surprise me to see him deputise, perhaps even succeed the Manchester United captain in the future.
Ethan Laird – Swansea City
Let’s not beat around the bush here, in terms of technical ability, Ethan Laird is streets ahead of Manchester United’s first-choice right-back Aaron Wan-Bissaka. Although Wan-Bissaka’s capability on the ball is often underappreciated and overshadowed by his unorthodox play-style, Laird’s ruthless intent going forward is something Solskjaer’s system is missing at times.
Having such profuse influence in the final third is one thing, but taking into account that it doesn’t come at the expense of Laird’s defensive diligence is what is most impressive about the 20-year-old. His enjoyment of playing in tight spaces on the touchline or navigating one-on-ones, both with and without possession, is evident in the way he gets on the front foot and manipulates split-second situations to his advantage.
Whether this is showing an opposition winger on his weak foot or buying half a second for the movement of teammates to open up space, Laird’s awareness of his immediate surroundings is so crucial to the success he has in attacking and defensive transitions. Then, when that moment comes for him to explode past a defender, fire a cross into a dangerous area or lunge into a tackle, he so often gets it right.
In terms of numbers, Laird has completed nine duels per 90, considerably higher than the next Swansea player – Joel Latibeaudiere with 6.6. He has also completed 26 dribbles overall, and alongside Jamie Paterson (19) is one of only two Swansea players to be in double figures. This is also the sixth highest in the league, the most of any defensive player in the division.
Having worked under Russell Martin at MK Dons last term before the now Swansea manager entrusted him once more in a role about as close to a wide forward as a wing-back can be, Laird has been vital in helping the rest of Swansea’s team adapt to the possession-heavy, high-pressing philosophy that he has appeared so at ease with.
Though it could be argued that this wide position in Martin’s 3-4-2-1 has been essentially designed for a player of Laird’s mould, allowing him free rein further forward, his natural defensive discipline and tenacity to track runners and win the ball high up showcases a resounding example of an elite level, modern-day full-back.
Partnered with that, Laird is quick and intelligent with the ball, possessing the nous in and around the area to take an extra touch up when necessary, lift his head and cut the ball back rather than flashing a cross-shot across the six-yard box without second thought. This is also effective in transition, where he isn’t afraid to come inside, switch play or go backwards instead of forever seeking out an isolated striker or running into trouble.
Inevitably, however, the sheer volume of possession he obtains does result in a tendency to be over-zealous and needlessly give the ball away, but his confidence and willingness to create is something Martin sees as such an asset that it cannot be tethered. In the capable hands of a former Premier League right-back in Russell Martin, Ethan Laird really has landed on his feet.
These minor signs of imperfection aside, Laird’s development as a Premier League player is all but complete, and the prospect of an entire Championship season watching him tear it up evokes nothing but excitement.
Before he embarks on a long and fruitful career at the top level, perhaps he can help the Swans get there first. Of all people, Aaron Wan-Bissaka will be most hopeful of that outcome. At least it would likely give him another season unchallenged in the United starting eleven.
James Garner – Nottingham Forest
For the most part, the recent rise of Nottingham Forest is rightfully credited to new boss Steve Cooper, who has released the reservations that Forest were playing with and unleashed the full potential of key players. But, of course, there is only so much Cooper can do from the sidelines. Thankfully, the philosophy he has implemented, intended to create a fierce attack playing in tandem, is facilitated by the all-encompassing talent of James Garner in midfield.
Comparisons can be drawn to Man. United in the way Forest are fraught with luxury players who tend to relinquish defensive responsibility and rely on team mates to do the graft, offer them space and service in good areas before repaying them with goals aplenty.
In many ways, Garner is perfect for this supporting role. You’ll often see Championship players half-heartedly pressing him, knowing he will rarely give the ball away before occupying a passing lane, hoping that his laser-guided accuracy is slightly off centre. Even when a pass is fizzed into him under pressure, he rarely loses it.
The fact that he is so assured on the ball makes you wonder why he doesn’t take more risks, breaking lines not just with his passing, but with his technical presence further upfield. However, Forest don’t need that, and neither do United. Instead, they need a player equally capable of intercepting passing lanes as he is at exposing them whilst being able to hoover up any loose balls in front of the defence.
Within the Nottingham Forest squad, Garner has completed the most passes per 90 in the opposition half (22) and the final third (11.6) by some distance, with the next best standing at 17.4 and 9.8 respectively. He also wins 59% of ground duels and makes 1.4 interceptions and 2.1 tackles per 90.
That positional intelligence and anticipation of the next four or five steps in any phase of play are essential attributes of Garner’s. Both in and out of possession, the 20-year-old has an instinctive ability to make a quick sprint into space or to drop off, opening up space and controlling the path of the ball without even being directly involved.
Garner understands that the team needs an aspect of unpredictability and dynamism in order to nullify an opposition press or form defensive shape in transition, which frequently sees him helping to shut down an attack before, most importantly, launching his own team’s instantly.
With spectacular set pieces, dancing feet and a ferocious strike to match the many other standout traits that have been highlighted, there are plenty of clubs above Forest’s current level that are crying out for a midfield maestro of Garner’s calibre. Brighton and Watford spring straight to mind in the Premier League alone.
With that being said, in the inevitable comparisons between Garner and the McTominay-Fred partnership that Man. United fans are constantly calling to be improved upon, Garner isn’t the man to step into those shoes at this stage of his career despite having a slight technical edge over the duo.
Whilst he has undoubtedly enhanced Nottingham Forest’s quality and efficiency, particularly when playing forward towards the tremendous options they boast ahead of him in Philip Zinckernagel and Brennan Johnson among others, Garner doesn’t offer Solskjaer anything significantly different to what he currently has.
Since the arrival of Steve Cooper at the City Ground, Garner is already showing signs of returning to the form he was heavily praised for last season and the next few months are crucial in deciphering whether he is ready for the top-flight this time next year or the year after.
Either way, his path into the Premier League will arise, and though it is unlikely it will work out at Man. United right now, a year elsewhere at the top level will be ideal for his progress. Expect to see him battling it out with the best, passing them into submission very soon.
Tahith Chong – Birmingham City
In the same way that Garner, despite having more experienced, reliable Championship figures in and around him, is the catalyst for a good amount of his team’s effective work in possession, Tahith Chong is bestowed with such creative burden on a much wider scale for Birmingham City.
In Troy Deeney, Scott Hogan and Lukas Jutkiewicz, manager Lee Bowyer is spoilt for choice with three forwards you would bank on to reach double figures at this level, and yet, none of them are particularly capable of creating chances for themselves. In fact, besides Chong, the Blues have looked bereft of any spark and innovation going forward, often opting to go route one and expecting their established strikers to guarantee goals.
However, prior to their recent 2-1 win over Swansea, Birmingham went six league games without scoring, equalling a club record, and when they get the ball down and utilise their Dutch danger man, they look an entirely different team. No goals and two assists in 13 may suggest otherwise, but you wonder where a team who currently sit in 18th would be without Chong.
With the reputation he built in the ranks of the Man. United academy, there has always been a target on Chong’s head so far in his career, both in the expectation to perform and the appetite to hamper from other teams. This season has been no different, but as has been the case whenever he is given regular game time, the 21-year-old’s confidence never wanes, even when the quality and consistency of his performance does.
Consequently, it was crucially important for him to get a loan move where he was a regular starter. Fleeting features in the United team and out on loan in Bremen and Bruges proved he needed to take a step back to work on his overall game and maximise his growth.
In previous seasons, the Feyenoord youth product has showcased glimpses of his genius; namely frightening foot work and a selection of staggering long shots, which is all well and good until the dogfights of senior football commence – the encounters where intensity and tenacity prevails at the expense of all but one or two moments of magic. This was where Chong began to struggle, at least until this campaign.
In his ever-evolving role in Bowyer’s starting eleven, work ethic and perseverance has trumped transient contributions to the team. Rather than floating across the opposition defence, waiting for the ball to come his way, Chong now takes matters into his own hands, tracking back, chasing lost causes and taking responsibility in conducting the press and fighting to retain possession as far back as his own box.
In many ways, Chong is a man transformed. However, this new-found industry hasn’t come at the detriment to his ability to infuriate defenders with his agility and explosive turn of pace. It is comforting to see he still regularly receives those bear hugs from opposing players which imply “give it a rest, will you? I’m knackered chasing after you.”
On top of that, his sharp passing is still unstoppable at times, as is his devastating left foot when crossing and shooting, and it is delightful to see that those attributes are no longer the only strings to his bow. Recent years have proven he doesn’t quite have enough to break into a congested Man. United front line, but there are certainly parallels to the way Jesse Lingard has reinvigorated his career as a hard-working, adaptable playmaker. Not to mention Lingard also honed his craft early in his career with a successful loan spell at St Andrews.
As he continues to progress into a more polished product, ideal circumstances would see Chong take a leaf out of Lingard’s book. Where it is likely United will continue to offer a bit-part place in the squad, the 21-year-old has proven with Birmingham that he thrives upon being the main man, and current trajectory suggests he will certainly be able to do that at a higher level in years to come.
If Chong suffers the same fate as Lingard, left languishing on the periphery of the first team for years, it will be a real shame. Recent history shows there are more fruitful avenues elsewhere, let’s hope they don’t make the same mistake with another outstanding asset.
By: Brad Jones / @bradjonessport
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Athena Pictures – Getty Images / David Rogers – Getty Images / Matthew Ashton – AMA / Getty Images