Garnacho is key to Ten Hag’s future at Man United

MANCHESTER, England — As the Manchester United players walked off at half-time, 2-0 up against Everton, they disappeared down the Old Trafford tunnel to a chorus of “Viva Garnacho” coming from the fans in the Stretford End. Manager Erik ten Hag followed wearing his usually stoney-faced expression, but it would have been no surprise if he was singing along in his head.

After a week which has seen pressure mount on the Dutchman, Alejandro Garnacho won two first-half penalties — converted by Bruno Fernandes and Marcus Rashford — after luring James Tarkowski and then Ben Godfrey into clumsy challenges to help United to a much-needed win in the race to qualify for next season’s Champions League.

“I think the lads did a very good transfer of the gameplan,” Ten Hag said afterwards. “By dropping [deeper] Bruno and Scott [McTominay] and then get in the runs in behind from Garnacho and Rashford. We expect the high press from Everton, with their double six goes to our double six and then we created the spaces in behind. I was pleased with that and from there we scored the goals, the penalties.”

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Ten Hag is still walking a tightrope as United manager, having landed his first Premier League victory in three games, but if he survives the summer it will be partly down to Garnacho. Not only is the 19-year-old his most productive attacking player, he can also point to the emergence of the Argentina winger as one of the major successes of his time at Old Trafford.

After a largely disappointing campaign that sees United sit sixth in the table, Ten Hag needs to finish the season strongly while also convincing new minority owner Sir Jim Ratcliffe that he’s the right man for the job in the long-term. Garnacho is key to both those things and his contribution against Everton saved United from another awkward afternoon and — possibly — saved Ten Hag from having another awkward conversation with Ratcliffe.

“He’s progressing very well and we are very pleased with this,” Ten Hag said. “His contribution today was huge, his runs, his dribbles. It’s attractive as well for the audience, obviously we want to show something. I think well-deserved penalties. If he can keep the focus and if he puts the right effort in; sometimes for young players it is difficult. We have their job to do. When he keeps this focus he will improve from game to game. In the week you win your game, you have to be spot on.”

Garnacho, though, can’t paper over all the cracks in this United team and despite Everton arriving on the back of a winless run in the Premier League stretching 10 games, they still managed to expose some familiar frailties.

One criticism of United this season is that they concede too many shots and after the first 45 minutes, Everton had managed 11. Dwight McNeil twice flashed efforts past the post and the half-time score would have been 2-1 rather than 2-0 if Raphaël Varane hadn’t blocked his third effort of the half just before the break.

United’s poor start — which saw them gift a chance to Amadou Onana just two minutes after kick-off — was characterised by midfielder Casemiro, who surrendered possession eight times in the first 25 minutes alone. You can get away with that against an Everton side who are among the league’s lowest scorers, but probably not against Liverpool, who come to Old Trafford next weekend. By the end, Everton had registered 23 shots on goal to make it 134 that United have faced in just their last six league games.

“If you see their xG [Expected Goals] is not that high (1.51) and ours is much higher (3.12),” said Ten Hag, when asked whether it is sustainable to face more than 20 shots every game [though two penalties helped United’s figure somewhat]. “We have players who feel comfortable to defend low. But you have to be disciplined and you have to incorporate it very well.

“They are low-quality chances. You see the chances, they had some, also I think the way we defended set plays was very good. We were really organised and we were focused, everyone did their job. There was one or two second phases where they had some opportunities, but overall we did quite well.”

For all Ten Hag’s insistence that it doesn’t matter how many shots the opposition have, Liverpool will be delighted to see how many chances Everton created ahead of their FA Cup quarterfinal.

United are hoping to have striker Rasmus Højlund available to face Jurgen Klopp’s side, but his potential return won’t be at the expense of Garnacho. The Argentine hasn’t missed a game since the derby defeat to Manchester City in October and with the game against Everton finally won, he was substituted with seven minutes to go. Any rest is valuable for one of Ten Hag’s most important players ahead of a run of games between now and the end of the season which will play a big part in deciding Ten Hag’s future.

Named Man of the Match, Garnacho had to remain on the pitch after the final whistle to fulfil his media duties and when he finally departed, he left to a standing ovation from the supporters who had stayed behind and more chants of “Viva Garnacho.”

The teenager is keeping alive United’s Champions League hopes and also Ten Hag’s hopes of being allowed to stay on as manager.