Alejandro Garnacho wasn’t the only Manchester United player caught out by Erik ten Hag’s new rules on the club’s preseason tour of Thailand and Australia. The manager’s no-nonsense approach to squad discipline — in contrast to the way Ralf Rangnick had run things as interim boss last season — took a bit of getting used to and the first week of the summer, spent in Bangkok and Melbourne, was a learning curve for even the most experienced campaigners.
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Garnacho, on his first trip with the first team, missed a couple of team meetings and, despite sympathy that he was suffering from severe jet lag, was reprimanded by Ten Hag and his staff. It’s meant the 18-year-old has had to wait for his chance this season but after impressing in training since the team’s return to Manchester, he’s started three of United’s last four games. It was Ten Hag and Bruno Fernandes who lifted the lid on Garnacho’s struggles this summer, suggesting that it’s only now that the forward is ready to play regular first-team football.
“I was not happy with him [in early weeks of the season] but the last weeks I was happy with him, a better attitude, more resilience,” Ten Hag said after handing Garnacho his full debut in the 3-0 win over FC Sheriff in the Europa League. “He’s developing very well. I hope he can keep that attitude like now. When he is reliable, you see he is a threat, he can create, he can give final passes and he can score goals, so it’s a good process.”
Fernandes, speaking after Garnacho had scored his first senior goal in the 1-0 win over Real Sociedad, went further and hinted the teenager has needed to re-focus.
“He was not at his best at the beginning of the season,” said Fernandes. “On the tour he didn’t have the best attitude that he should have had, and that’s why he didn’t get his chances until now. He’s getting his chances because he’s training better, having a different attitude and deserving his chances.
“He didn’t get his chances before because he was not good enough in training and not good enough mentality-wise. He’s changed that, that’s why he’s getting chances. Everyone is really happy for him and pleased with his goal. He’s still really young, he’s doing really well.”
The tough love from Ten Hag and Fernandes has led to suggestions Garnacho’s attitude could hold him back at Old Trafford. But sources at United insist the incidents early on during the summer tour are an exception rather than the rule when it comes to the young forward, who has learned lessons from the summer and is now among the first to arrive for training every day.
Garnacho was so keen to make the move to United from Atletico Madrid during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 that he agreed to fulfil a period of isolation on his arrival in Manchester and, during his first three months in England, was only allowed to travel between United’s Carrington training base and his accommodation in south Manchester.
Confident on the pitch, coaches have found him to be quiet and shy off it — so much so that it can, at times, come across as arrogance or disinterest — and he’s still not moved over to the first-team dressing room despite being eligible to take his place alongside Cristiano Ronaldo, his boyhood hero. His rapid rise from the academy ranks started last season when he caught Rangnick’s eye almost immediately following his appointment in December, and he impressed Ten Hag early in the summer by turning down a longer break to return to the club early.
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Sources have told ESPN he requested a personalised gym program in an effort to add more muscle having found English football to be far more physical than his experiences in the Spanish youth system. Having arrived at the club as a 16-year-old, he has become almost fluent in English in just two years having insisted on regular lessons after his move. He is close to Uruguayan teammate Facundo Pellistri, also fluent in English, while the club have also encouraged his relationship with Argentina defender Lisandro Martinez, who has been branded his “big brother” around Carrington.
Both Martinez and Garnacho have been named in Argentina’s preliminary World Cup squad — Garnacho was born in Madrid and has represented Spain at youth level but qualifies for Argentina through his mother — although the feeling is that the United youngster will miss out on a seat on the plane to Qatar. Argentina, however, believe the teenager could be a big part of their post-Lionel Messi future and when Garnacho was first called up to the squad in March sent former Liverpool and Barcelona midfielder Javier Mascherano to Manchester for talks with United’s academy boss Nick Cox and technical director Darren Fletcher.
United are convinced Garnacho will be part of their future, too, and the club have been speaking to his representatives about an improved contract. He already has a deal until 2024 with an additional 12-month option and while his weekly wage has increased incrementally since his arrival, it is felt his development warrants renewed terms.
Just a few months into his breakthrough season, Garnacho is still learning about the demands of football at the highest level. After finding out the hard way that, under Ten Hag in particular, there are expectations off the pitch, he is finally getting a chance to show what he can do on it.
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