Barnsley in the Carling Cup is hardly the auspicious start that most Manchester United signings hope for. Injured, questioned and even derided since the France under-21 international’s £3 million move from Bordeaux, for Gabriel Obertan a début has been three long months in coming. Success Tuesday shows that after Ronaldo, life may go on.
Obertan, who has eight caps for France under-21s, suffered a serious spinal injury prior to the move across the channel in the summer. It was a setback – well understood by United manager Sir Alex Ferguson prior to the youngster’s acquisition – that has kept the Clairefontaine graduate out of United’s 15 games this season.
Rated highly by Ferguson’s coaching staff who have watched the youngster for more than two years, the winger has appeared 54 times for Bordeaux in addition to 15 games on loan at Lorient. At 16, Ferguson says, Obertan was among the very best in Europe for his age group.
“We’ve taken our time with Gabriel as we want him at 100 per cent,” said the United manager following Tuesday’s victory over Barnsley.
“He’s very quick, he can play both sides or through the middle, and he brings a real versatility to us.
“At 16 he was one of the outstanding young talents in Europe, but over this last year-and-a-half, he’s been playing with a back injury. We expect big things from him. He’s a nice boy, he speaks good English and he’s had no problems settling in.”
Yet it’s a career that has stagnated and not just because of injury this season. Obertan, transformed from leading starlet into loanee at Lorient one of Ligue 1’s less-fashionable clubs, is no longer the player Ferguson bought into at 16.
United – somewhat surprisingly for some in French football – provides Obertan with a route towards redemption. In three games for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reserve team this month Obertan has demonstrated the pace, awareness and outstanding touch that brought Ferguson’s eye two years ago.
Indeed, in what turned into a tough night for United at Oakwell Tuesday, Obertan was a stand-out attacking figure on début. While it’s too early to declare the Frenchman the next Thierry Henry – as opposed to the next David Bellion – the early signs are promising.
The attacker’s intelligent use of the ball, creative instincts and obvious teamwork against the Yorkshire side contrast so starkly with the infuriating Nani. Obertan’s ability to hit an early and accurate cross was also eye-opening.
So much so that the Portuguese winger may now come under pressure from United’s new signing. In three years with the club, the former Sporting Lisbon wide player has lurched from the stylish to the ridiculed. Nani’s direct, attacking performance in United’s recent victory over CSKA Moscow last week is one of the winger’s career highlights. Far too often though, Nani is lost in a sea of misplaced passes, blind alleys and wasted stepovers.
Yet width is an area in which United is both strong in numbers and weak on quality. While Antonio Valencia, Ferguson’s £16 million acquisition from Wigan Athletic this summer, is slowly growing in stature there are question marks hanging over the rest of United’s wide men.
Park Ji-Sung, who recently signed a new four-year contract, has long been a favourite of the United manager. So much so that in the really big games Park has tended to play a major role. But as was the case in the 2009 Champions League final, many supporters question Park’s inherent quality at the very top-level.
Then there is Zoran Tosic who, in nearly a year at Old Trafford, is no closer to the first team than on the day of his signature. Considered too lightweight for the Premier League on arrival from Partizan Belgrade, Tosic remained in the reserve team never to return.
Even Ryan Giggs, so majestic this season, cannot go on forever.
Obertan offers not only hope of better quality on United’s left flank but a more consistent approach. On a night when Danny Wellbeck was again excellent, and Michael Owen scored a peach of a goal, Obertan was the highlight.
Obertii, Obertaan, Life goes on! After Ronaldo life goes on… Ferguson might say.
Additional reporting by Paul.