If Erik ten Hag ends up having a long-term future at Manchester United, he may look back at two tactical tweaks that acted as turning points this season.
The irony is the players involved do not come from the £380m United have spent on signings under his tenure. Instead, they are two players who cost nothing at all – and both have helped keep United’s season alive.
Promoting Kobbie Mainoo to United first-team regular was the first switch in November. A month later, Ten Hag decided to start Alejandro Garnacho on the right wing for the first time against Aston Villa.
And since Christmas, the two teenagers – who were part of Man Utd’s FA Youth Cup-winning team in 2022 – have produced big first-team moments when Ten Hag needed it most.
Mainoo’s stunning late strike in United’s 4-3 win over Wolves took the headlines, but his all-round game stood out on Thursday night – rubberstamping the midfielder’s status as one of this season’s breakout stars.
The 18-year-old ended the Wolves game with a 100 per cent passing record and more ball recoveries than any player on the pitch. “His temperament and composure is off the scale. He’s got the world at his feet for the next few years,” added Gary Neville to Sky Sports about the teenager’s performance.
Go back further in this season and Mainoo’s overall numbers since he broke into the United first-team clearly brand him a welcome addition to a midfield where Christian Eriksen, Scott McTominay and Mason Mount have failed to nail down a regular spot.
Mainoo’s clearance and duel records show how well he can read the game at one end of the pitch. His goals in back-to-back games against Newport and Wolves show he can be equally effective at the other.
But perhaps tweaking Garnacho’s position from left wing to right has been equally influential to United’s improvement, despite being less subtle.
In his debut right-wing start against Villa, Garnacho scored twice in United’s dramatic 3-2 comeback win. With that game representing the INEOS investment’s first official trip to see Ten Hag’s United, it felt like a big moment in the Dutchman’s Old Trafford career.
And since that match, Garnacho has been regularly used on right flank and, just like Mainoo, his numbers have stood out.
The 19-year-old has been one of the top 10 players in the Premier League for chance creation, taking on and beating his defender – and high-press regains: one of Ten Hag’s key buzzwords.
In fact, Garnacho has been impressing under the surface for a while as the Argentine’s dribbling numbers have been impressive all season – even when he was on the left.
The young winger has created 31 chances via ball carries – that’s two more than Mohamed Salah despite Garnacho playing 500 fewer minutes – while only Man City’s Phil Foden has more out of any Premier League player.
It makes Garnacho one of the Premier League’s top dribblers this season and it has helped unlock a United attack that once struggled for goals.
Before the young Argentine was moved to right wing, United had failed to score in four straight matches at the start of December, even with Bruno Fernandes, one of the most creative players in the league, in their attack.
But since that game, Marcus Rashford has goals in back-to-back Premier League games, while Rasmus Hojlund has three goals and two assists in his last three top-flight matches. Ten Hag can feel something growing with his front four.
The performances of Garnacho and Mainoo – both with a combined age of 36, or one Jonny Evans – have propelled United from an inconsistent side to a more stable team with something to fight for.
Four wins in their last six, plus an FA Cup last-16 appearance to come, means there is light at the end of what has been a long tunnel for Ten Hag this season.
Remember that old United saying: ‘You can’t win anything with kids’? United haven’t won anything yet this season, but these two youngsters are taking these kids in the right direction.
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