If one match encapsulated the improvements Manchester United made over the course of their first season under Erik Ten Hag, it was the derby victory over Manchester City in mid-January. Despite falling behind, the Old Trafford side found a way to impose their own game on the Premier League champions, ultimately winning 2-1. Alejandro Garnacho was key.
Indeed, Garnacho set up Marcus Rashford for the winner eight minutes from full time, bursting into the opposition penalty box to square for his United teammate. This wasn’t the only moment the young Argentine threatened Manchester City with Garnacho’s direct running and dribbling skill a constant thorn in the side of Pep Guardiola’s team.
Ten Hag has surely analysed this performance ahead of this weekend’s FA Cup final against Manchester City. With Antony an injury doubt and Anthony Martial and Wout Weghorst unreliable finishers in front of goal, Garnacho could be in line to start at Wembley. Manchester United’s game plan could depend on it.
City are a formidable force right now. They have already bagged this season’s Premier League title and have a Champions League final against Inter to look forward to. Guardiola has built a dominant outfit and there’s a good chance they will sweep aside Manchester United in the FA Cup on their way to an historic Treble.
Regardless, United have the players to hurt City. Rashford has enjoyed the best goal-scoring season of his career, netting 30 in all competitions, while Bruno Fernandes continues to be the attacking and creative hub of Ten Hag’s team. On top of this, Jadon Sancho is playing more and more like the player he was at Borussia Dortmund.
But Garnacho has the sort of bravery and fearlessness needed to earn a result against Manchester City. The 18-year-old is at his most effective and dangerous when he can stand up an opponent and go at them. This is what he did several times in the victory over City earlier in the campaign.
Guardiola is expected to use a back three against United just as he has in many big matches over the last few months. This shape allows City to push John Stones into central midfield and give Kevin de Bruyne and Ilkay Gundogan the freedom required to support Erling Haaland and get into high-value attacking areas themselves.
However, the back three can leave Manchester City vulnerable in behind. Kyle Walker could start to give the Premier League champions a safety net in defending against the break, but City could still be outnumbered if Manchester United commit enough attackers forward in moments of quick transition.
Brentford did this effectively in their 1-0 win over City on the final day of the Premier League season (and in their win at the Etihad Stadium earlier in the campaign). Manchester United must have conviction in their attacking play in the FA Cup final and Garnacho is someone who makes quick decisions.
“To play for Manchester United you have to be special, at a young age even more,” United teammate Fernandes said about Garnacho and the quality he brings on the pitch. “It’s really important to have him back. He can create, go on one-on-ones, score goals, create assists. It is important for us.”
Garnacho will be a big part of Manchester United’s future, but he could also play an important role in achieving something in the present too. City are favourites to collect their second trophy of the season at Wembley and yet the right United game plan with the right players could stop them in their tracks.
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