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The Curious Case Of: Gabriel Obertan, The Wing Wizard That Wasn't

Gabriel Obertan has put in some very good performances for Newcastle United, yet is roundly regarded as a player worthy of our derision. Why?

Jamie McDonald

Gabriel Obertan. If you were to do a quick word association game using the French winger's name as your game material, you would likely come up with any (or all) of the following when asking your average Newcastle fan:

  • Disappointing
  • Worthless
  • Squidward
  • Awful
  • Fast
  • Flop

A graduate of France's prestigious Clairefontaine Academy, Gaby's career seemed to be on the fast track from the word go. Despite having made only 25 career starts (to add to 44 substitute appearances) at the senior level by the summer of 2009, he was snapped up by Champions League finalists Manchester United for a reported £3m. He was aged 20 at the time. Purportedly flexible enough to play center forward or either wide attacking position, he surely had the versatility and quality to eventually make an impact at Old Trafford. Red Devil fans were excited to have the France U21 international.

The 20 year-old, who can play on either flank or as an out-and-out striker... -Rory Smith - The Telegraph - July 8, 2009

Much like the obligatory "Welcome to Manchester United" YouTube video, you can see why they may have been enamored with the idea of Gabriel Obertan from this highlight video from his first season in Manchester:

... or can you? In this entire video, you see him do exactly 1 thing besides exhibit dribbling "skill" (a shot that drags wide of the goal). What you see here, and what it largely looks like his reputation is built upon, is much more what you would expect to see in a Hatem Ben Arfa highlight video... which is part of the problem. You would be hard pressed to make a like-for-like comparison of Hatem Ben Arfa and Gabriel Obertan, even though on the surface you might describe them the same way (see inset quote above). I don't purport that I'm smarter than Sir Alex Ferguson or Alan Scott Pardew, Esq., but maybe - just maybe - the difficulty in finding the best of Gabriel Obertan lies in a chronic misuse of Gabriel Obertan. It's hard not to see him as being a useful tool attacking down the flanks, using his pace to trouble the opposing left back. The problem is, just because someone can do something doesn't mean they should. Think back to the best that we've seen from Gaby - he has been freed from the requirement of playing a pure wing position, instead being allowed to play more into the center from the wing (like a right wing is required to do when you really are playing a 4-2-3-1, for instance) or even on one or two occasions as a CAM or withdrawn striker, whichever idea you prefer, and allowed to roam to the outsides from his central position. From the word go, the real strength of his game has been misidentified, or at the very least misinterpreted.