Paul Heckingbottom’s side have made a pretty good fist of things without him. But they look much more dangerous, incisive and creative, when Morgan Gibbs-White is on the pitch.
With five goals and four assists to his name this season, the on-loan midfielder is one of United’s most influential players. Maybe even the most influential, although Billy Sharp, with 10 and six respectively, would probably have something to say about that.
The evidence of your own eyes is enough to tell you that, when Gibbs-White is fit and firing on all cylinders, United’s promotion chances go up. But statisticians analysing Europe’s leading five leagues, which include the Championship, have produced a report highlighting how important other members of Heckingbottom’s squad are to the cause. The research - a partnership between the CIES Football Observatory and InStat, a tool measuring “pitch production” balanced against the “general level of the matches” in which a footballer participated - reveals some surprising results.
Before Friday’s victory at Birmingham City, Gibbs-White topped United’s inter-club ranking with a score of 272.7. In second place came John Egan (268.9), the Republic of Ireland centre-half, closely followed by Jayden Bogle (266.0).
Intriguingly, despite the on-going debate about what is his best position, Rhys Norrington-Davies came fourth. The Wales defender was only 0.4 points behind Bogle but 3.8 ahead of fifth-placed Ben Davies. Since arriving on loan from Liverpool, the 26-year-old has been plagued by fitness and other issues. But the latest paper released by the CIES, a world renowned body based in Switzerland, illustrates why Heckingbottom is determined to ensure he features on a regular basis between now and the end of the season. Even though Jack Robinson, who has deputised for Davies until his return at St Andrews, is the eighth most productive player on United’s in-house list.
West Bromwich Albion, Wednesday’s visitors to South Yorkshire, are heavily reliant upon defenders according to the data. Three centre-halves - Dara O’Shea, Kyle Bartley and Matt Clarke - topped their list of players when Steve Bruce, previously of United and Sheffield Wednesday, was appointed as manager last week.