There is no doubting Gabriel Obertan's intelligence. The hero of Manchester United's 3-0 win at Bursaspor is one of a rare breed of French footballers who applied themselves enough academically to secure the Baccalaureate – and with flying colours – while others such as Hatem Ben Arfa and Karim Benzema cut loose in their mid teens to play football. What has always been less sure, though, is whether Sir Alex Ferguson's 21-year-old has the ability to make it at Old Trafford.
He was certainly the best player at the Clairefontaine academy in the year group of players born in 1989; admired both for his pace and the technical ability ingrained in all of the academy's intakes. All 20 clubs from the French first division pursued his signature when the time came to decide where Obertan, a youth international at under-16, -17, -18, -19 and -21 levels, would take his talents.
But the promise has never been entirely realised. Obertan scored six goals in 77 games in three years at Bordeaux and one in 14 on loan at L'Orient. An absence from the scoresheet was one thing – Obertan has simply never been a natural born striker – but it was his maddening tendency to drift out of games which frustrated those who saw him as the next big thing in France.
Obertan has struggled to make it at Old Trafford, registering just seven starts in nearly a season and a half and only scoring his first goal, at long last, in Tuesday night's win (albeit it was a timely one, as it takes United to the brink of qualification from Group C). That slow path has borne out a prevailing view in France that the Parisian left for England too early and that Sir Alex Ferguson's friendship with Karim Djaziri, who is agent both to Obertan and Benzema, might have talked him into the £3m deal. Ferguson was also pursuing Benzema in the summer of 2009, but ended up with only Obertan.
The player's display up in the Marmara mountains on Tuesday revealed more of that frustrating inconsistency: he looked utterly lost in the first half, then set off on the dazzling 48th-minute run which was a prelude to United's opening goal. But the player's compatriot Patrice Evra, who describes Obertan as his new "younger brother" at Carrington, is among those who feel that this could be the turning point for a player who has the talent, if not always the obvious determination, to bring quality into every game.
"It was definitely his best performance," Evra said yesterday. "I'm really pleased with him because he's working hard. I keep talking with him every day and tell him to take his chance. I'm not surprised about his performance and I hope he will keep getting better. But now the most difficult part is coming: I keep telling him that it's not easy to play [consistently well] for Manchester United."
The defender, eight years Obertan's senior, puts his team-mate's struggle to break through in Manchester down to the injuries which have beset him, though the prevailing view in France is that neither Obertan nor his manager has yet worked out where he is best deployed: behind the striker, on the left or right, and some feel that he is best suited to the role on the flank in which Thierry Henry began his career.
Evra's assessment hints at frustrations with Obertan's in-and-out displays. "I keep talking to him and that's why I hope he won't get too 'sleepy' because now he needs to work harder." But the excitement at a player even Evra knew nothing about until his arrival in Manchester convinces him Ferguson has found another winner. "He has shown his potential now."Reuse content