Is Gabriel Obertan part of the problem or the problem itself?
I’ll start off by straight away stating my position on Gabriel Obertan, I like him. While the popular view amongst supporters is to write him off as not being good enough for Manchester United, I just can’t bring myself to discredit him and his ability just yet.
Before his 20th birthday he had appeared 79 times for Bordeaux and played a further 17 times on loan at Lorient. A month before he joined United, he won the player of the tournament award at the Toulon Under-21’s International Tournament after a series of impressive performances for France. Despite this, his manager at the time and former United defender, Laurent Blanc was surprised that United made a move for the Parisian winger.
Speaking after Obertan’s move, the French National team manager said: “He has the potential, but he must overcome psychological and mental challenges so he can express his true value.” Obertan has undoubtedly got a lot of skill, a great turn of pace and good strength – in summary everything you would want from a winger. Unfortunately the mental challenges that Blanc referred to are never far away and as a result lead to underwhelming performances.
After overcoming an injury that saw him miss the first few months of the season, Obertan made his first-team debut in the League Cup 4th Round tie against Barnsley in October 2009. Regardless of the lower-League opposition, his direct running and skill on the ball saw him stand-out in the 2-0 victory. It led to his Premier League and Champions League debuts against Blackburn Rovers and CSKA Moscow the following week, where once again he impressed. He then came on against Chelsea with United trailing and very nearly set up two goals as United undeservedly lost to the eventual Champions. His repeated skinning of Branislav Ivanovic gave fans a glimpse of what Obertan was capable of.
This ability to beat a man with skill as well as pace is rare in football nowadays and Obertan has it in abundance. His assist for the second of Michael Owen’s goals against Wolfsburg in December 2009 was a thing of beauty; taking three Wolfsburg defenders out before unselfishly setting Owen up for a tap in.
He played for 70 minutes on his first League start the following week in a 3-0 victory over Wolves before a further substitute appearance against Hull. Any psychological issues the player carries reared their head in the aftermath of a humiliating 1-0 defeat to Leeds in the FA Cup 3rd Round. Like everyone in a red shirt that day, Obertan had an inexcusably poor game. His touch was poor and he was constantly muscled off the ball before being hauled off after an hour. Obertan didn’t appear again for six weeks, when he came on as a substitute and was largely anonymous in a 3-1 defeat to Everton.
After a two-month spell in the Reserves, Obertan came on in April’s Manchester derby at Eastlands and was integral in the move that saw Paul Scholes score a 93rd minute winner. Despite this, Obertan didn’t play for the first-team again that season.
After a promising pre-season, Obertan was dealt a blow when he was injured in the final match of United’s tour of the USA. His return came in late-September before spending a further month working on his fitness before playing for the first-team again. His return to League action came at Stoke City in October, coming on as a substitute to help United get their first away League win of the season. He then started the following game in the League Cup and performed poorly, looking like someone trying far too hard.
He bounced back from the disappointment of the Wolves League Cup game to score his first goal for the club to round off an impressive performance against Bursaspor. His performance led to his inclusion in the following League game against Wolves where he floundered once more when given the chance. The week after however, Obertan’s introduction at Villa Park saw a change in fortune for United and his pace and skill aided United in pulling back a two-goal deficit to draw. He was unlucky not to score a winning goal with time running out after a run and effort that saw him take on half the Villa team and force an instinctive save from Brad Friedel.
Obertan perpetually impresses when playing for the reserves and it’s often after these games he gets promoted to the first-team once more. He surprisingly started in the New Years Day fixture away at West Brom and the hour he played summed up the frustration felt about him amongst United’s support. He played a part in the build-up to Wayne Rooney’s opening goal but as the game progressed and he was continually knocked off the ball and looked out of his depth.
Rumours that Obertan had handed in a transfer request because he didn’t have enough faith in his ability appeared at the beginning of February, but were quickly denied by the player and his agent.
His most-recent United performance came in the FA Cup 5th Round victory over Crawley Town. United scraped past the non-League outfit and Obertan – as well as Bebe, was widely castigated for his display. He once again played like someone without self-belief, losing the ball time and again and rather than playing a simple pass, unnecessarily tried skill before being dispossessed trying to make the pass he should have in the first instance. There were a few brief moments of showcasing his ability during the game, but against non-League opposition as a Manchester United player that should be a given.
It’s unfair on Obertan to categorise him with Bebe – even if the latter has scored more than Obertan in less appearances, who clearly isn’t a football player. Obertan is a football player who – for the majority of the time, appears not to have a football brain. He’ll never win his detractors over by attempting the sublime while negating the basics, and as a confidence player he needs the backing from the stands to thrive – backing he’ll only receive through good performances, and therein lies the conundrum.
Whether he plays any further part in United’s attempts to win three trophies remains to be seen. Full-back Fabio da Silva’s inclusion on the wing at his expense in the Arsenal cup game would suggest his days are numbered, but one thing is certain if he does play once more – fail to impress and it will be the end of the line for the 22-year-old.