Manchester United travelled to Thailand and Australia for pre-season in the summer and Alejandro Garnacho made the 31-man travelling squad, aged just 18 years old, after his talismanic performances inspired the Under-18s to FA Youth Cup glory.
Garnacho travelled to the Southern Hemisphere alongside Ethan Laird, Will Fish, James Garner, Hannibal Mejbri, Zidane Iqbal, Charlie Savage, Amad, Facundo Pellistri and Tahith Chong, although Erik ten Hag said that there was just room for ‘one or two’ youngsters to permanently break into the first-team squad, which would have served as extra motivation for the academy hopefuls.
Of the 10 players that travelled on the pre-season tour, only Iqbal, Pellistri and Garnacho have been permanently added to the first-team squad this season, despite the latter not playing a single minute during those few weeks in Thailand or Australia.
Laird was loaned to Queens Park Rangers, Fish was loaned to Hibernian, Hannibal was loaned to Birmingham and Amad signed for Sunderland on a temporary deal. Garner was sold to Everton, Chong was also permanently sold to Birmingham, following his successful loan spell at St. Andrew’s, and Savage was the only player retained to feature for United’s U21s.
Ten Hag made a decision on each player during that pre-season tour and it seems bizarre, just as it did at the time, that Garnacho was not given a chance to play, when someone like Chong, whose days were clearly numbered, played two matches.
Garnacho had to wait to get what he wanted before finally making an appearance against Rayo Vallecano in July at Old Trafford, which was the Reds’ final match of the pre-season schedule.
He started alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, who was also making his first appearance of pre-season, that afternoon. Ronaldo had referred to his comeback as ‘the return of the king’ ahead of kick-off and it’s starting to seem like Garnacho might be the prince.
The youngster had only just celebrated his 18th birthday when starting against Vallecano, but he made an excellent impression, despite his eagerness whenever on the ball. He was not fazed by Old Trafford and he embraced the stage.
Garnacho drove the ball forward with every touch against Vallecano and there was a real buzz, despite the family atmosphere, when he roamed down the left wing, just like there was three months later when he was given his full debut against FC Sheriff.
The Argentine made his first-team debut against Chelsea in the Premier League last season, but his first full start came in the Europa League on Thursday night and it was an opportunity that he seized with both hands, albeit against weaker opposition.
Although it has been obvious for some time for those that have followed Garnacho that he is certainly not short of talent, it was also apparent that his talent was raw, but that didn’t stop him from stealing the show against Sheriff this week.
Jadon Sancho has been ponderous and lacklustre in recent weeks at left wing, unable to beat the opposition full-back, and Garnacho was a breath of fresh air in comparison, with his performance enhancing his claims to play in the Premier League.
Ten Hag was asked whether he liked the display after the game and he said: “Yes. He deserved this chance, but there’s still a lot of room for improvement. Especially in the defending part, in the pressing part, in the counter-press and in the defensive transition.
“But you can see, in attacking areas, he can find solutions, his dribbling is really good and he can outplay opponents and that’s what you need against tight, compact playing opponents.”
It was the seal of approval that Garnacho had been working for and the comments also hinted at Ten Hag’s plan for the youngster, as he highlighted he was particularly impressed by his ability to make an impact against ‘tight, compact playing opponents’.
United struggle against teams that play a low block and invite pressure and Garnacho could be a solution to that problem. West Ham will look to play deep at Old Trafford on Sunday and Garnacho deserves consideration to start the game, at least.
Sancho does not deserve to start and it’s worth giving Garnacho a chance in the Premier League, providing that Marcus Rashford starts down the middle and Ronaldo is on the bench, which is how Ten Hag has played for the majority of this season.
Garnacho is hungry for first-team opportunities and Sancho has opened the door for him.