Having had a chance to calm down and get over the disappointment of United throwing away another lead late on in a game, I’ve taken advantage of the benefits of Sky + and re-watched the game against Birmingham from Tuesday night to try and figure out what went wrong and why in that rather damp affair.
Following the full-time whistle, my immediate reaction was to lay most of the blame for the teams mediocre performance mainly at the feet of Darren Gibson, a man I’ve often described as a “Champ Manager 14’er.” What this means is that, in Champ Manager terms, most of his stats (passing, pace, technique, tackling) would be 14 out of 20, with the possible exception that his long shots may reach as high as 16 out of 20. Another explanation I’ve heard to summarise his ability is that, “he’d do well at Villa.”
Reading the forums and comments on newspapers though, the above explanation is forgiving, even flattering. There have been some incredibly rancorous and savage criticisms of the mans ability, with many citing his inability to play a simple pass, his non-existent dribbling skills and his inadequate vision and off-the-ball movement as justification for these exorbitant onslaughts.
But are these venomous assaults merely over-the-top, knee jerk reactions from some of United’s more fickle and less knowledgeable fans, such as the “Sack Fergie, Sell Giggs” brigade of previous years, or is Darren Gibson really that bad? My gut feeling is that, whilst he’s not as bad a player as some have described him, there is good case to be made that he isn’t of the ability required to be a successful Man United midfielder. However, I have also learnt over the years to give players time and always trust in Fergie’s assessments, and if Fergie thinks that Gibson offers something to the team, then that is probably the case. Surely we’re all missing something here.
So, using my knowledge and experience of playing in Sunday league football for the past year and a half and at a pretty mediocre level as a kid, here’s my analysis of Gibson’s performance against Birmingham the other night.
The first point to make is that it’s important to take into account how the teams lined up, and what Gibson’s role appeared to be on Tuesday night. When judging a player, you need to consider how well they carried out the orders they were given, and what an alternative player might have done in that position. One also needs to reflect on whether the way the opposition lined up severely inhibited the player’s ability to affect the game as a one-off. If Ferguson would have played two up front, for example, it may have been that Carrick and Gibson would have been overrun in midfield and therefore made to look bad no matter how best they coped with the situation. Think of Messi vs Inter Milan, marked out of the game, but I don’t think anyone’s going to be calling him a mediocre player any time soon.
From what I can deduce, Birmingham were playing a 4-5-1, with Barry Ferguson sat in front of the defence and Bowyer and Gardner providing an attacking threat from midfield, with Larsson in particular drifting in from the wing and further narrowing the play and packing out the centre of the pitch. United essentially played a 4-2-3-1, with Carrick and Gibson sat in front of the defence, and from left-to-right, Rooney, Anderson and Giggs playing behind Berbatov.
This therefore meant that Gibson’s primary concern was limiting the Bowyer threat and protecting the back four from any other runners from midfield, with him also drifting to the right-wing and making attacking runs when Ryan Giggs ventured into central midfield. In short, United also had a very narrow line-up, and due to the conservative placement of Gibson and Carrick most of the time, we were essentially attacking as 4 vs 8-9 for most of the first half.
Gibson made some good attacking runs in the first half, and this proved effective in the 7th minute when his run down the right resulting in him being tracked by Bowyer and surrounded by three Birmingham players, including Barry Ferguson, which allowed Wayne Rooney to drop between the defence and midfield and be picked out by a Michael Carrick pass. However, such forays were limited, and for most of the first half Gibson and United were not adventurous enough.
In the 12th minute, Rooney crossed into the box from the left-wing; Berbatov was marked by the two centre-backs, Giggs by another defender, and Anderson by Gardner, leaving Ferguson and Beausejour patrolling the edge of the area not having to worry about anyone. Whilst Carrick moved forward to receive the ball from Rooney (who decided to cross instead), Gibson was seen being what some may interpret as not being adventurous enough. This happened again a few minutes later, with Rooney, Carrick, Gibson and Rafael being sat back as a bank of four in front of Rio and Vidic when an Evra cross was put into the box.
As mentioned, Gibson and Carrick both sat deep in front of the defence, but it was Carrick who sat deeper out of the two. He often came back to collect the ball and operate in more of a playmaker role, which you’d expect given his comparatively superior passing ability. He was able to do this because he wasn’t being closed down by Gardner to the extent that Gibson was by Bowyer, and the Birmingham wingers weren’t getting forward. The stats back this up; Gibson made 18 out of 22 attempted passes in the first half, although two of the missed passes were “upper body duels” (contested headers), compared to Carrick’s 42 out of 48, with two of his missed passes also being contested headers.
The overall defensive performances of Carrick and Gibson in the first half, on the whole, were okay, and they were adept at changing positions with one another and handing over markers, with Gibson sometimes coming deep to collect the ball and play forward passes up the pitch.
In one notable situation in the first half though, Carrick was indecisive when attempting to stop a Birmingham attack, leaving Evra exposed and allowing Larsson to attack down the right-wing. At times Gibson wasn’t tight enough on Bowyer and could be seen ball chasing and being idle, but the two did a good job marking out one another.
However, Gibson didn’t especially exhibit any sort of passing prowess on the level that Carrick is capable of, and in the 39th minute played an absolute shocker of a ball that left Berbatov fuming. From the above, one can’t help but feel that Gibson and Carrick were cancelling one another out a bit, and that Gibson might have been able to make more of an impact by getting forwards and trying to pin Birmingham back a bit. At times United even went 4-1-4-1, with Rio sometimes being further forward than Carrick, and this conservative attitude allowed Birmingham to control possession and get into the game. Carrick and Gibson would often chase the opposition into their half, but then immediately drop back again to sit in front of the defence.
Another problem was that, although Gibson was making some good runs down the right, he wasn’t particularly posing much of a threat, lacking the technique to take the ball down under pressure or use pace and skill to get down the by-line. How we missed Nani. In the 36th minute, he also engaged in a rare act of foolish hot-headedness, chasing the ball down the right-wing Tevez style, leaving Bowyer free to receive the ball about 35 yards out from goal and launch a dangerous Birmingham attack. It may be that he did this because he hadn’t seen much of the ball in the game and wanted to be noticed by the boss, who knows? Foolish anyhow.
In the second half Berbatov dropped deeper and Gibson was more adventurous, making a good run early on that Anderson should have picked out. This strategy shortly paid off in the 57th minute, with Gibson playing a key part in Berbatov’s goal. After laying the ball off to Rafael deep in the United half, he ventured forward to receive a flick from Berbatov, who in turn had received the ball from Giggs who had dropped deep to receive a Carrick pass. Although the assist to Berbatov wasn’t exactly difficult, he did weight the pass for the Bulgarian perfectly.
Gibson continued to get forward well, although at times he was part of a 3 vs 7 United attack, and as in the first half he made a very poor pass, choosing to pass to an under-pressure Giggs (much to his annoyance) rather than to Rooney who was free on the left wing. At times though Gibson was the furthest forward up the pitch, and although he didn’t support Berbatov as well as he could have done, he played some good one-twos with Carrick and Rooney, which may have affected Ferguson’s decision to take Anderson off for Fletcher.
Fletcher’s introduction confirmed Gibson’s advanced position, and Fletcher showed more energy and awareness than Gibson in performing the defensive duties. Fletcher’s energy dragged Birmingham defenders about, and with Carrick also pressing further up he was able to win the ball 20 yards out from the Birmingham goal, which allowed Rooney to be played in who in turn teed up Gibson, who missed his shot….badly.
Gibson also made another sloppy past in the 76th minute, and from this point on started to look jaded. He didn’t follow his man when Birmingham nearly scored in the 80th minute, and as well as aimlessly whacking the ball up he pitch in the 87th minute (much to the frustration of Rooney and Berbatov), he was partly at fault for the goal, as he didn’t close down the cross that resulted in the equaliser with any urgency whatsoever.
But overall Gibson played okay, and wasn’t as bad as I first thought he was. He seemed to slip into obscurity at times in the match because he was being cancelled out by Carrick, but it would have been interesting to see how he would have performed had he started as the more advanced of a midfield three, with Nani on the right-wing rather than Giggs.
I think the problem is that, as with Nani and Berbatov last season, he’s a victim of confirmation bias, with any mistake he makes being pounced upon and blown out of proportion by his critics so that they can confirm what they already believe. People seem to judge him too much by what he does on the ball, which I’ll admit isn’t particularly amazing, rather than his movement off it. Remember what the great Johan Cruyff said though:
“When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average. The best players – the Zidane’s, Ronaldinho’s, Gerrard’s – will have the ball maybe 4 minutes. Lesser players – defenders – probably 2 minutes. So, the most important thing is: what do you do those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball…. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.”