Alejandro Garnacho needs more chances to start for Man Utd - but how does Erik ten Hag fit him in?

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Alejandro Garnacho Erik ten Hag Manchester United 2022-23
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The Argentina youth international winger has turned into a fan favourite, and the time has come for him to prove he is more than just a supersub

The Argentina youth international winger has turned into a fan favourite, and the time has come for him to prove he is more than just a supersub

When a player causes more excitement in the stands while he is on the sidelines than his team-mates do when they are on the pitch, you know you have a star on your hands. When Alejandro Garnacho came out to warm up against Wolves last Saturday, the anticipation among the Manchester United fans at Old Trafford was palpable. Chants of 'Viva Garnacho' rang out across the stadium, lifting supporters who had become a little drowsy watching their team try to see out their 1-0 lead.

The mere sight of the Argentina youth international,

 who endeared himself to fans as one of the leaders of last season's FA Youth Cup triumph, was more interesting than what Antony and Jadon Sancho were offering in an unconvincing second-half display.

In a mere nine minutes plus stoppage time on the pitch, Garnacho was able to score to make it 2-0 and clinch all three points. Antony has not managed to score in his last seven appearances, and Sancho has not netted in his last four.

Having returned from two months out with an ankle ligament injury, Garnacho looks ready to round off his breakthrough season with a bigger role in United's final four matches. The fans are desperate to see more of their new hero, but Erik ten Hag must balance their demands with what works best for his team.

  1. The most impactful of substitutes

    The most impactful of substitutes

    Garnacho has scored all three of his Premier League goals after coming off the bench, and all of them came in the 85th minute or later. Only Son Heung-min and Callum Wilson have scored more league goals as a substitute than Garnacho this season.

    His debut goal to snatch a 2-1 win at Fulham in November, which was reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo's winner at Craven Cottage 14 years previously, came in the 92nd minute, after he had come on in the 72nd. His second league strike, away to Leeds to seal a 2-0 victory, came in the 85th, while his goal against Wolves was in the 94th minute.

    Garnacho's other major contribution in the Premier League this season was when he set up Marcus Rashford's winning goal against Manchester City. That was also a game in which he had started on the bench, coming on in the 72nd minute. Ten minutes later, he latched on to a through ball from Bruno Fernandes on the break, smacked a cross against Manuel Akanji's face then span away from Nathan Ake to tee up Rashford to score and seal a 2-1 win.

    Another memorable performance came when he was a substitute in the 4-2 win over Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup. When he came on, United were trailing 2-1, but Garnacho provided assists for their last two goals, setting up Rashford and Scott McTominay.

  2. Not as effective as a starter
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    Not as effective as a starter

    Garnacho has started only four Premier League games and he did not perform particularly well in any of them. In those four matches, against Aston Villa, Leeds, Leicester and Wolves, United took seven points from a potential 12.

    He made poor decisions against Leeds, and when he was taken off in the 59 minute, the team were trailing 2-0. In his absence, they eventually battled back to draw 2-2. The teenager also struggled to make an impact when starting against Leicester, and was taken off even earlier, at half-time for Sancho. Just as he had done after coming on against Leeds, the England winger went on to score in an eventual 3-0 win.

    Garnacho was also taken off at half-time away to Wolves, though he had only been named in the team after Rashford had been dropped for turning up late to a team-meeting. Rashford went on to score in the 1-0 win. The longest Garnacho has lasted in a league game was in the 3-1 defeat at Aston Villa, his first Premier League start, when he was hooked in the 65th minute.

    Garnacho has fared better starting matches in the Europa League. In his first competitive start for United against Sheriff Tiraspol, he was voted Man of the Match. That was enough to earn him another starting berth for the trip to face Real Sociedad, where he scored his first goal for the club in a 1-0 win.

    He also started the FA Cup fifth-round tie with West Ham, although he did not play well overall, despite grabbing what was effectively the winning goal in the 90th minute.

  3. No time for experiments
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    No time for experiments

    Given what has happened in previous Premier League games, it is understandable why Ten Hag might be reluctant to start Garnacho away to Bournemouth on Saturday, or in the final two home matches against Chelsea and Fulham. This stage of the season is no time for experiments.

    With Liverpool breathing down United's necks and trailing them by only one point in the race for fourth place, United need to win two of their final three games to be assured of qualification for next season's Champions League.

    The game at Bournemouth could be particularly dangerous given how bad United have been away from home this season. With the Red Devils likely to be under plenty of pressure in the Cherries' final home match of the season, they could do with a player more likely to work hard off the ball, such as Antony.

    Sancho could also be a more preferable player to start at the Vitality Stadium due to his passing ability. Although the England winger has been lacking confidence this season to drive at opponents and try to make things happen - something Garnacho could never be accused of - he rarely gives the ball away. Indeed, Sancho has the best passing accuracy out of United's midfielders and forwards in 2022-23.

  4. 'He lacks defensive transition and pressing'
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    'He lacks defensive transition and pressing'

    Ten Hag clearly likes Garnacho a lot, given how much he has used the player this season despite him only turning 18 last July. But the manager has been open about some of the reservations he has with him, and has spoken about how he needs to improve his defensive actions if he is to nail down a starting role.

    "He is showing some things, but also sometimes he lacks defensive transition and pressing. You have to step up when you go into an action, or keep the ball, so decisions," Ten Hag said after the Wolves game.

    "He is a huge talent and he is brave. [He also needs to improve] making decisions and scanning situations, knowing when to go into one-on-ones, or to get behind. When to go for goal, or when to give an extra pass, or get an assist rather than to go for your own success. It’s decisions like that make a good player a top player. That’s the difference."

  5. Fernandes: 'Mentally he is much better'

    Fernandes: 'Mentally he is much better'

    Bruno Fernandes also stressed after the Wolves game that Garnacho still has plenty more work to do, saying: "We know Garna can change games. He plays with pace, he can take players one-against-one, but he’s still developing, so we don’t have to push too much on him. He can do great things, but in the future, he has to do much better than he is actually doing, because he has the capabilities to be even better."

    It is not the first time the Portuguese has sought to send a message to the rising star. After Garnacho scored against Real Sociedad, he revealed that the youngster "didn't have the best attitude that he should have had" during the club's pre-season tour. There have been some suggestions that the player's time-keeping left a lot to be desired.

    However, it seems that Garnacho is becoming more mature and more settled the longer he spends with the first team and the more he gets used to his new status. He is soon to become a father and has recently signed a new and improved contract with United. Fernandes also underlined the positive steps he has taken lately.

    "Mentally he is being much better also, and I think he understands what it takes to be a professional player. He is taking that and he is working a lot also in the gym with the coaches. He’s been doing amazingly for the first season he’s been playing in the Premier League, with more minutes, with more consistency, he’s doing great, but we all know he can do much for us.”

  6. Rashford return complicates matters
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    Rashford return complicates matters

    Garnacho is at the stage where he is ready to make his first league start since February, and while Ten Hag might have some reservations about his defensive contribution over 90 minutes, putting the Argentine in the starting XI could have other benefits.

    Taking early chances in matches has been a real problem for United in recent weeks. Antony has been wasteful in his last three outings against Brighton, West Ham and Wolves, while Sancho has looked afraid to shoot.

    Garnacho, by contrast, looked utterly composed when he scored United's second goal against Wolves, slowing down after latching on to Fernandes' through ball before picking his spot. He has a killer instinct in front of goal which Antony and Sancho currently lack.

    But with Rashford returning to the team after missing the Wolves game with injury, there is no easy way to fit Garnacho in. Rashford's most dangerous position is on the left-hand side of the attack, where Garnacho has played most of his matches, and although the England man can play through the middle, United have played some of their best games with Rashford on the left and Anthony Martial, who scored the opening goal against Wolves, as centre-forward.

  7. Battling with Antony on the right
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    Battling with Antony on the right

    With Rashford likely to start on the left, Garnacho's best chance of getting into the team against Bournemouth or at home to Chelsea appears to be at the expense of Antony. Ten Hag is fiercely loyal to the Brazilian, who he worked with at Ajax and asked the club to pay over the odds for, but he has cut an ever-more frustrated figure in recent matches, missing clear chances and making a number of poor decisions with his final passes.

    It would be fascinating to see whether Garnacho, who is naturally right-footed but is strong with both feet - unlike Antony - can be more effective than the Brazilian on the right of United's attack.

    The Bournemouth game might come just too soon for Garnacho to start, given how long he was out from his ankle injury. But starting him against a hapless Chelsea side at Old Trafford on Thursday, with United fans rooting for their homegrown hero, makes a lot of sense.

    But whether the Argentine is on the bench or in the starting line-up in United's next game, you can guarantee the fans will be watching his every move, the words 'Viva Garnacho' on their tips of their tongues.