Rasmus Hojlund, Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo posed for an iconic photo during the win over West Ham – but can the rising stars maintain high standards to bolster United’s top four hopes? Watch Aston Villa v Manchester United live on Sky Sports Premier League on Sunday from 4pm; kick-off at 4:30 p.m.
By Peter Smith, senior football journalist @psmithXI
7:56 a.m., United Kingdom, Sunday February 11, 2024
This is an image that will be referenced and reused for years to come.
Rasmus Hojlund, Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo, sitting on the Old Trafford advertising boards, celebrated the Argentine’s opening goal in the win over West Ham, immediately seen as an iconic moment.
But whether this is seen as the dawn of a new era of success for United or a brief flash of promise that has faded will depend on this talented trio, the group around them and the work of the manager -chief Erik ten Hag.
The promise is one thing, but at United, results are demanded now.
This was the message emphasized by Ten Hag as he sat down with Aerial sports at United’s training ground, still warming up after a session in the sleet and wind at Carrington. Conditions were difficult, he says, but these are the decisive days – and even in February, United are in must-win mode.
Back-to-back wins last week against Wolves and West Ham have boosted morale – “It gives confidence,” says the Dutchman – but if the team is to qualify for the Champions League, the eight-point gap to Aston Villa , fourth must be closed when United take on Unai Emery’s men on Sunday, live on Sky Sports.
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“We have exciting players,” smiles Ten Hag when asked about Hojlund (21), Garnacho (19) and Mainoo (18) sitting together.
“We also had such [standout] moments of the season – for example, Garnacho’s brilliant goal against Everton,” he says, referring to that spectacular overhead kick at Goodison Park.
“We have very high potentials in this team. And now we have to perform at a high level.
“We do it now in some games, but on Sunday, for example, we come up against opposition who have a very high standard. So it’s a challenge to play there and get the end product from these players on Sunday. This So are the next steps, which must come.”
Ten Hag knows all about the power and momentum that young, in-form players can bring to a team. He was a driving force during his time at Ajax. It has also long been the basis of United’s success.
Coupled with the experience of players like Casemiro and Bruno Fernandes, this can be a winning formula.
“They bring energy,” Ten Hag says of his young players. “I think it’s always a combination of experience and high potential. And when they respect each other and want to strengthen each other, then you have a team and that’s always the goal because every player knows when there is a team that you can achieve higher performances and levels and thus achieve more.
Of course, goals are another key element. And in Hojlund, United now have a striker who appears to have finally found his feet in the Premier League. There was a flurry of goals in Europe earlier in this campaign, but with four goals in his last four top-flight games, it feels like the big summer signing is now starting to bear fruit.
This goalscoring streak began against Aston Villa on Boxing Day, when he scored a late winner in a comeback victory at Old Trafford. The relief and release of pressure when that ball found the net was evident in his celebration. But it is perhaps the consistency of the selection in attack which has allowed him to maintain his form.
In each of United’s last four Premier League games, Marcus Rashford and Garnacho flanked the young Dane. The top three have combined for 10 goals and three assists in those matches – more than the 10 goals they have recorded between them in other Premier League games this season.
“Football is about cooperation,” says Ten Hag. “Finding the spaces through movement, by moving the ball and getting players into positions where they can attack their opponents or get into one-on-one situations. And then these players have the ability to score goals .”
Finding familiar patterns and combinations on the pitch has been a problem for United and Ten Hag throughout this campaign due to a long injury list. Ten Hag celebrated being able to finally name their strongest XI for the first time this season against Wolves last week. A game later, he lost Lisandro Martinez to a knee injury.
“Absolutely,” he replies when asked if that has been the biggest frustration of this season. “It stops progression.
“Any time you have to adapt, you don’t have routines, you don’t have partnerships and that’s what we saw.
“I think we’ve had nine different configurations at centre-half. In other positions we’ve had to swap a lot and that’s been forced by injuries, so now we hope we can keep a cohesive team.”
United will certainly need to be at their best this weekend. Ten Hag describes the work of his Aston Villa counterpart Unai Emery as “incredible”, and the hosts will be eager to respond to their surprise FA Cup replay defeat to Chelsea on Wednesday night. But this is the time when United need their stars – and rising stars – to step up.
“We know we can beat them,” says Ten Hag, referring to the Boxing Day victory. “But Sunday is a new game. It’s a test. We have to take our chance.”
Man Utd’s next five matches
- Aston Villa (A) – Premier League, Sunday February 11, live Aerial sports
- Luton (A) – Premier League, Sunday February 11, live Aerial sports
- Fulham (M) – Premier League, Saturday February 24
- City of Bristol/Nottingham Forest (A) – FA Cup, Wednesday February 28
- Manchester City (A) – Premier League, Sunday March 3, live Aerial sports
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