Garnacho’s Heroics Spark United Comeback, Conjuring Legends of Old

The move by Erik ten Hag was retro by comparison to much of the Premier League and modern football: A natural right-footed winger stationed on the right wing. That was the surprise when he named his team to take on Aston Villa at Old Trafford in the Premier League on Boxing Day, as Alejandro Garnacho took up his place on the right to allow Marcus Rashford a return to his favoured inside-left role. Garnacho has most commonly lined up on the left of United’s attack in his short senior career, but it’s the opposite wing that has flummoxed manager after manager in the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era. Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Mason Greenwood, Jadon Sancho and even Bruno Fernandes have all been tried there in recent years, while the incumbent, Antony, has hardly justified his starting place this season. Yet Garnacho took to his task with aplomb against Unai Emery’s side, tracking Villa left-back Lucas Digne diligently and looking to spring forward on transition. Ten Hag’s move paid dividends in that riveting second-half comeback. Garnacho was unlucky to be denied a breakaway goal after Rashford’s pass found him fractionally offside, but made no mistake with an excellent cross from Rashford. It was a tricky finish, executed at pace with a defender lunging and Emiliano Martinez stretching his considerable frame, but Garnacho kept his head and squeezed it in over his compatriot. The second goal showed his growing confidence. Picking up the ball in a center-right channel, Garnacho drove forward and slipped Fernandes in on the right, driving into the center to take a deflection and rifle a shot in with his left foot, via a sizeable deflection off Diego Carlos. Lucky? Sometimes you make your own luck. The plaudits will rightly go to £72 million signing Rasmus Hojlund for finally breaking his Premier League duck with an instinctive finish to win the game, but Garnacho’s positioning on the right gave United’s attack a natural shape they have lacked with Antony cutting on to his left foot. The Brazilian’s one-footedness is a significant problem (although that lesser-spotted right-foot cross made an appearance in their last game against West Ham on the weekend), because he never threatens to go on the outside unlike other left-footed right wingers like Bukayo Saka, Riyad Mahrez, or even West Ham’s Mohammed Kudus and Villa’s Leon Bailey. But with Garnacho, the additional width brought by his right-footedness expanded the pitch and gave Rashford and Fernandes space to work in. Of course, it isn’t as simple as putting a right footer on the right wing. Garnacho has the combination of pace, inventiveness, and a willingness to go in either direction. But there’s something else unique about him: he’s an old-school winger in United’s best traditions, who prioritizes attacking his fullback before delivering an end product. Pep Guardiola may desire control with Bernardo Silva, Phil Foden and Jack Grealish on the wings for Manchester City, but Garnacho is United’s answer to Jeremy Doku: controlled chaos, willing to draw and beat his fullback, and with a penchant for the spectacular. The difference between a winger like Garnacho and strikers who play wide like Rashford, Greenwood, and Kylian Mbappe is subtle but significant. Rashford’s best work has always been done not while receiving the ball wide, but when he is launched like an arrow onto a ball in space. He’s absolutely capable of rinsing fullbacks (ask Trent Alexander-Arnold), but his focus is clearing a path to goal, most often for himself. So it was with Garnacho’s first goal: Bruno Fernandes won the ball after a poor Diego Carlos pass into midfield, but Rashford had already raced in between Villa right back Ezri Konsa and his central defensive partners to receive the ball and square it. Garnacho’s point of difference is his relish for the duel, the desire to take his fullback out of the game with the ball. It’s no coincidence that both Rashford and Garnacho, in their own styles, flourished when United decided to test Villa’s high line with balls in behind, isolating them against backpedaling defenders. Time will tell whether this latest stirring comeback is a flash in the pan, as has so often been the case this season. But after seeing his wingers thrive with a more direct, transitional style than a patient possession-based build-up, Ten Hag might decide this is the way to go: quickly move the ball through midfield to the wings, let Garnacho stretch the play on the right and allow Rashford to arrow in diagonally from the inside-left channel. However badly the first half of this season has gone, in Garnacho United’s fans have a wing talisman to grip their hearts in the vein of Andrei Kanchelskis, Ryan Giggs, and most intriguingly, 2004-2006 Cristiano Ronaldo, right before he burst into his first iteration as the best player in the world. It can only be hoped that Ten Hag is the right man to steward his development.