Player analysis – James Garner

Player analysis – James Garner

James Garner made his debut under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, with his first appearance for the club coming against Astana in the Europa League when he was only 18 years old. He played seven games for Manchester United before he was loaned out to Watford and then Nottingham Forest, where he made an instant impact.


There’s a reason why there aren’t many young defensive midfielders at the top level. Aside from strength and defensive awareness, the position also necessitates the ability to read the game well and make sound decisions, both of which are uncommon among players under the age of 20. Garner appears to possess all of these qualities already, and they will only improve with time.

He isn’t your typical defensive midfielder. Holding midfielders are sometimes expected to play both offensive and defensive roles for top clubs these days, which is very advantageous for the 20-year-old. He plays a more defensive role in Forest’s double pivot, and he’s usually charged with bringing the ball out from the back, something he excels at. His spatial awareness is astounding, especially given his age. The youngster is constantly looking for space to receive the ball before attempting to pass it on or look for a safer option.

Player analysis - James Garner
Garner runs into spaces to receive the ball in a better position

Playing in a position where he must face the goalkeeper when receiving the ball demands a high level of concentration, because opposition forwards try to force mistakes . Garner is a natural under pressure, which is why he scans the pitch repeatedly while asking for the ball. He rarely finds himself in situations where he has to play his way out of trouble because he always knows what to do next, even before he gets the ball.

Player analysis - James Garner
dropping deep to form a makeshift back three

Garner may also drop deep into the backline, between the two central defenders, to form a back three, making it easier to play out from the back. We’ve seen Manchester United’s Nemanja Matic and Scott McTominay do it numerous times.

Movement on and off-the-ball

Garner is a valuable asset to have on the ball. He has an excellent passing range and an uncanny ability to find players in wide areas. This season, he has preferred to receive the ball and pass it short to a teammate in his half, opting for a long option only when the opportunity arises, much like United’s two center-backs do.

He averages 1.4 key passes per game, with most of them coming from set-pieces. On the other hand, his passing ability makes him more of a deep-lying playmaker than a classic defensive anchor. He enjoys receiving the ball and appears comfortable doing so, especially when playing out of the back and in advanced areas.

Garner frequently makes third man runs inside the opposition’s half and offers himself up as a passing option in the wide areas to establish a numerical advantage against the opposition. He is able to do this to such devastating effect because playing in a double pivot allows him to move freely around the pitch into situations where he is constantly looking for the ball. His presence, combined with that of the wide players, creates natural triangles that help unlock stubborn defenses that work particularly well against low blocks.

Garner’s movement does not only create space for himself but also for his teammates. When he makes a run and the opposition player tracks him, it usually opens up space for a teammate to exploit which is why he is also a very useful player to have in the final third.


A lot of intelligence is required to play effectively as a defensive midfielder, but one of the main requirements for that position is defensive ability, and while Garner still has a lot of flaws defensively, he gets the basics right which is a solid foundation to build on.

The 20-year-old isn’t afraid to make tackles, but he does so with precision. Because he does not always commit to making tackles or rushing into defensive duels, his ability to read the game at such a young age is quite remarkable. He is a very reserved player, which is why most of his crucial defensive efforts go unnoticed in stats. But he gets the job done. He averages 1.5 tackles and 1.1 interceptions per game, which may not seem like much, but his off-the-ball work – such as tracking runners and forcing attackers wide, more than makes up for any other defensive lapses.

Manchester United only has one natural defensive midfielder, and he is approaching the end of his career at the top level. Garner, who is still relatively young, appears to be a strong contender to take over the role in the near future, regardless of the club’s decision to sign a new player for that position.

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