The last game of the professional season in English football was good for Manchester United. James Garner was one of the best players on the pitch at Wembley, finishing an impressive loan spell with Nottingham Forest by helping them to the Premier League after a 23-year absence.
He hasn’t kicked a ball for United this season, but the campaign at Old Trafford has been so poor that Garner is one of the most heartening stories to emerge from 2021/22. He is going from strength to strength for Forest, especially since the appointment of his former England Under-17 manager Steve Cooper in September, and has earned a pre-season chance with his parent club.
Erik ten Hag will take the midfielder on tour to Thailand and Australia and with places up for grabs in an area of the pitch weakened by the departures of Nemanja Matic and Paul Pogba, an opportunity presents itself for Garner. How he does on this tour and in the four pre-season games included in the itinerary will decide his next move.
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Garner could still work his way close to the first-team photo under Ten Hag, but a central midfielder is top of the Dutchman’s shopping list and Donny van de Beek is also returning from a loan spell at Everton. If Garner does enough to be among the first five players to be selected he could stay at Old Trafford, but at 21 he also feels he needs to play Premier League games and a season of football with him. Forest is a possibility.
Garner wasn’t the only United player in action at Wembley over the weekend, with goalkeeper Nathan Bishop on the losing side for Mansfield in the League Two play-off final and the 22-year-old enjoyed a good run. season. Another loan move is a certainty for Bishop, however.
These two, however, stand out as rare success stories when it comes to players on loan from United this season. Garner has improved dramatically for his exposure to first-team football in the Championship and he has been at the perfect club, although Cooper’s appointment was a fluke.
Beyond that, players who would expect to move up to the first team have struggled, while senior players who have moved on to try and restore their own credentials have also generally found it difficult.
There are vacancies to the right of United’s attack this summer, but neither Amad nor Facundo Pellistri have done enough to clear their way. Excitement was high around Amad when United pledged a potential £37m to sign him two years ago, including £19m. upfront at Atalanta, but his career has yet to take off.
He turns 20 next month and a loan move to Rangers in January culminated in the opening four minutes, when he scored against Ross County. He scored two more goals in May, but in 13 appearances he never played more than 66 minutes. He was an unused substitute in all nine of Rangers’ Europa League games after Christmas and now has a point to prove next season.
The idea of the loan was to accustom the teenager to the rigors of British football, but in his second match he looked out of his depth in an Old Firm game and six months later there are more doubts than ever on his ability to succeed in the Premier League.
Pellistri returned to Alaves after spending the second half of last season there, but he has started just six La Liga games this term and has never completed 90 minutes. Alaves finished bottom in La Liga and Pellistri appeared in just five of 20 games after the Christmas break. At 20, he’s not returning to Carrington ready to make an impact this summer.
There are similar stories elsewhere. Ethan Laird did well for Swansea in the first half of the season, but then United decided to transfer him to Bournemouth and he played just six of the Cherries’ 21 league games.
Dyan Levitt did well at Dundee United and Brandon Williams was solid at Norwich, but Teden Mengi lost his place in the Birmingham squad. Axel Tuanzebe had disappointing loan spells at Aston Villa and Napoli, Anthony Martial’s value plummeted during his time at Sevilla and Van de Beek only shone occasionally at Everton.
That makes Garner a clear winner and it’s an area United need to improve next season. Most elite clubs now pay close attention to their loan system, with staff employed to find the right clubs and maintain regular contact.
With United’s footballing structure taking shape, this is an area they can look to fine-tune next season, with technical director Darren Fletcher likely to take a more hands-on approach in this area.
The success of the side that won the Youth Cup this season shows that the talent is there at United, but getting players the right loan moves is essential for their development. It’s inevitable that not every loan goes well and there are lessons to be learned when they don’t, but too many players have seen their development stall this season.
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