Erik ten Hag opted to deploy Alejandro Garnacho, not Antony, on the right flank against Aston Villa; his decision was vindicated.
Alejandro Garnacho’s match-winning performance in Manchester United’s 3-2 Boxing Day defeat of Aston Villa capped “one of the best days of my life,” he said, and on the evidence of his effectiveness, it might just be a new dawn for him at Old Trafford.
The 19-year-old Argentina international has enjoyed a quick rise to prominence at United, already making 61 first-team appearances despite not leaving his teens until July 2024. However, the majority of those outings have been from the left flank, putting him in direct competition with Marcus Rashford, who, although enduring a difficult 2023-24 individually, is undoubtedly one of United’s best players.
But Erik ten Hag finally made a decision on Tuesday that many United fans have long been calling out for, deploying Garnacho from the right in order to accommodate him and Rashford rather than one or the other with Antony on the opposite side.
Aside from his first three Premier League appearances, each of which he scored in, Antony has been a huge disappointment at United. Without a goal or assist in any competition since May, and just eight goal involvements this year, the Brazilian simply hasn’t offered anything like the sort of attacking quality you’d expect of a player who cost roughly £82 million, regardless of any other qualities he might sporadically bring.
Seemingly, Ten Hag felt it was time to try something different; Antony found himself on the bench with the more direct Rashford and Garnacho providing the width and running power either side of Rasmus Højlund against an Aston Villa side who’ve been one of the Premier League’s standout teams in 2023.
Of course, for a while it looked like being yet another horror show from United, who found themselves deservedly 2-0 down after 26 minutes. Anyone watching wouldn’t have been particularly surprised; it was just another meek showing against a team that’s been coached better.
But clearly United had the weapons to potentially do some damage. Much has been said and written about Villa’s high line in recent weeks, and Ten Hag’s side last season thrived when they had space to run into. Their 102 direct attacks were the most of all Premier League teams in 2022-23, and their nine goals from such situations was also more than anyone else.
The fact United were caught offside six times before half-time – the most by any team in the first half of a Premier League game this season – highlighted how there would be possibilities for chances if they were persistent and a little smarter with their runs.
For a moment just after half-time, it appeared their approach had paid off. Rashford got in behind Ezri Konsa as United transitioned effectively, passing the ball across to Garnacho, who had the composure to skip past Emiliano Martínez before slotting home. It was subsequently disallowed as Garnacho was slightly ahead of Rashford when the pass was played, but the signs were promising at least.
Soon after, in the 59th minute, United carved Villa open again in a near-carbon copy of that move. Rashford latched onto a ball between Diego Carlos and Konsa by the excellent Bruno Fernandes, darting into the box before playing a left-footed pass across goal; Garnacho was there to apply the finish and this time it would count.
Twelve minutes later, it was 2-2. Garnacho took up possession in a central area and carried it forward before slipping a pass out to his right for Fernandes. His low cross was deflected but it still fell kindly for Garnacho, who’d continued his run into the area – he pounced, striking left-footed, and a touch off Diego Carlos took the ball beyond Martínez.
Højlund’s late winner, his first Premier League goal in his 15th appearance, may have grabbed the headlines, but Garnacho was the chief instigator. His general positivity on the ball routinely helped get United on the front foot and into encouraging positions, and that was coupled with bravery that ensures he remains persistent even when things may not be going his way.
It shouldn’t suddenly be forgotten that Garnacho can be frustrating; he’s not a particularly effective dribbler, and he has a tendency to be selfish in the final third – in fact, one first-half instance saw him go for goal from a relatively tight angle when a pass to Højlund looked much wiser. But he clearly possesses an exceptional temperament and already has a good track record of scoring important goals.
He’s also not Antony, which would count as a mark in the plus column for most United fans at the moment.
There’s no denying that the wings have been problem areas for United this season, and it cannot be a coincidence that Højlund has largely had to make do with underwhelming service.
Fernandes is the only United player to average more than 2.0 chances created from open play per 90 minutes (2.8) this season; Antony is actually the second highest, but his average of 1.5 hardly makes him stand out as a beacon of creativity. Garnacho and Rashford are both on 1.3, while right-back Diogo Dalot – who’s supposed to an attack-minded full-back – is only on 1.1.
Of course, fans would probably be able to look past Antony not being an especially reliable creative presence if his output was significant in other ways, but as already mentioned, he hasn’t scored or set up a goal this season in 20 appearances, and otherwise offers precious little. He shows the occasional flash of technical ability, but it’s not enough.
With Garnacho deployed on the right instead, United might not get a huge uptick in creativity, but he does appear to have a greater understanding of how to get into better offensive positions. His 8.3 touches in the opposition’s area per 90 minutes is the most of any United player this season; Antony (3.2) can’t even boast half his teammate’s efficiency in that respect.
So, although he may not tee up lots of chances for teammates, it’s clearly a promising sign that Garnacho has the desire and drive to have an impact in the box – and it’s not like he never looks for the final pass; he very nearly teed up Højlund with a pass into the danger zone on Boxing Day.
Garnacho is also registering more shots than any other United player in 2023-24 (3.2) on a per-90-minute basis – of course, that’s mostly from the left, where cutting inside onto his stronger foot is more conducive to getting shots away, but we highlight this more to point out his mentality and self-belief.
Antony, on the other hand, has gone from 3.5 shots per 90 last term to 2.1 this season and his key pass frequency is almost identical, so his overall output has decreased considerably.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that Garnacho has shown he’s capable on both feet, and the win over Villa highlighted how he can still impact the game cutting in off the flank even if such a movement doesn’t bring him onto his strongest foot, a la Antony, who appears to do everything he possibly can to avoid using his right. That obviously makes him predictable, whereas Garnacho can go in behind or come inside.
Given how disappointing Antony has been for United and the talent Garnacho clearly possesses, it’s astonishing Ten Hag hadn’t experimented sooner with the latter on the right.
Sure, it was only one match and it’d be fair to accuse Villa of being naïve considering they didn’t heed several warnings before Garnacho got United on the scoresheet, but in the second half, Ten Hag’s men played with a fluency and fluidity in attack that we arguably haven’t seen this season.
Rashford and Garnacho were essential to this in a way Antony could currently only dream of.