The game was somehow still balanced at 0-0. The opposition of the day, Arsenal, had dominated possession and had Newcastle pinned up against their goal for the entirety of the first half.
With both front men seriously short of match fitness Newcastle lacked any attacking presence or ability to break away – it was surely only a matter of time before the home side cracked under the visitors’ increasing pressure. At 46 minutes Gabriel Obertan was summoned from the bench and replaced Ba to play behind the remaining striker, Shola Ameobi. All of a sudden NUFC had an outlet, a lighting quick release to the pressure – a whole new dimension.
His purchase only four days earlier had sparked much debate – his reputed potential as a former student of the world famous Clairefontaine academy in France was without question, but a largely unconvincing and uninvolved spell in his previous employment at Manchester United echoed the hallmarks of the archetypical prodigal footballer who simply failed to ‘make it’.
His introduction into the Arsenal game went some way to buoy the mood of those unconvinced and underwhelmed – after a season of predominantly slow moving, set piece based football NUFC now appeared to have blistering pace on the ground to form the kind of white-knuckle counter attacks that had not been seen since the Sir Bobby Robson days.
It’s fair to say it hasn’t been all so positive since.
The exit of Joey Barton along with Ryan Taylor carving out a covering role at left back meant that Obertan was now not only NUFC’s first choice at right midfield, the role was almost exclusively his. This was the perfect scenario for Gabriel – in two seasons at Manchester United he had been afforded a grand total of 446 minutes first team playing time (less than five games worth), but now he was a fixture in the team without the pressure of rejection upon a patchy performance.
Thrust into the mix without the reassurance of consistency to call upon, his form since has been understandably patchy, although he has managed to show flashes of the kind of attacking prowess that attracted NUFC to him in the first place in an assist wielding performance at Stoke followed by an identical contribution in the boxing day win over Bolton.
However, with Jonas Guiterrez preoccupied covering the vulnerable left back position Newcastle have looked increasingly to Obertan’s right flank to create the much needed width for their predominant 442 formation. When out of form it showed patently and the frustrations of some came quickly to the surface – a notable low being sarcastically applauded off the field after a fruitless performance against Wigan. It was his ninth game.
His early season air of optimism has disappeared without trace.
Gabriel, going forward…
“Obertan broke through to the Bordeaux side in ‘06. He was only used as a sub – but there were signs of definite talent. His ability on the ball and dangerous slalom runs were very eye catching.
The second season failed to see him progress as everyone had hoped and a loan move to Lorient didn’t seem to benefit either party. The ability he first showed gave reason to be excited, it just never developed”. Andrew Gibney – French Football weekly.
First and foremost Gabriel needs to continue playing if we are stand a chance of him reaching his potential. Despite this now being his sixth year in professional football, he has managed just 39 starts in all competitions, at all clubs – 16 of those have been at NUFC. Furthermore, this is the first time those starts have been in consecutive sequence of any reasonable length of time. Lack of reasonable competitive playing time will seriously hinder any player’s development.
“Our fans need to be patient with him as I and the staff need to be at times because we know what he can do”. Alan Pardew – December ’11.
And surely there is talent there to develop. Although his flashes of attacking threat have been short lived, he has crucially shown it enough to know he is capable of it – to state his plus points to be merely a fluke would be very disingenuous. Continuous playing time will undoubtedly provide the best opportunity for this to surface, as will savvy coaching. But Gabriel himself is not devoid of responsibility and must show an equal desire to develop and succeed.
But are NUFC missing a trick?
“Because he is so quick the crowd think he can just beat the full-back by racing him on the outside all the time but he can’t do that, he’d be too one-dimensional”. Alan Pardew – December ’11.
Whilst appreciating the sentiment of wanting to produce a more rounded player, is it perhaps not in both NUFC’s and Obertan’s best interests that he develops (and also improves his confidence) by concentrating on his ability to create from his wide position by using his near untouchable pace as a huge advantage? After all, a standard 442 layout will predominantly look for the right sided midfielder to primarily provide an attacking outlet and to create goal scoring chances.
Indeed, are we missing the point entirely and not playing Obertan in the most effective position for his obvious pace and dribbling ability? Gabriel has, on a number of occasions shown the ‘slalom dribble’, coming in from the right but usually being pressed out when shown onto his left foot. Instead, imagine him playing on the left side of a 433, even 442, using his pace and cutting inside onto his favoured right with the space opened up from his burst of acceleration… This of course does not mean his instant transformation into Cristiano Ronaldo, but perhaps worth a try at in a low risk fixture.
“Of course I have a point to prove, If I had stayed with Manchester United, I think I would have made it, but I don’t know how long it would have taken.
I didn’t want to spend another two years learning and fighting for just a few minutes on the pitch here and there…but I needed to play and here at Newcastle it’s a great opportunity”. Gabriel Obertan – August ’11.
In the short term, seeing a literal manifestation on the field of the positive attitude he showed in his press conference upon singing (above) would do Gabriel the world of good. Although not one for lack of work-rate, his lack of aggression when attacking – even when the situation is tailor made for him – certainly limits his output and lets the opposition full-back grow in confidence when he could easily be a ball of nerves.
Also, for the first time this season his place appears under a very real threat, with both Ryan Taylor and Hatem Ben Arfa excelling in their very short appearances at right midfield – whether Gabriel can up his game quickly to force the competition away, or whether Alan Pardew with continue to consider Obertan as his first choice regardless remains to be seen.
The undoubted physical attributes are there – the technical attributes and mental attributes can be learned. But only through patience, practice and positivity…
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