Two Man Utd attackers busting a gut desperate to defend? No wonder Ten Hag was purring
It’s taken almost two months, but Manchester United finally delivered their first convincing performance of the season on a mild Tuesday evening at Old Trafford.
After a start to the season marked by haplessness on and off the field, United retreated to their happy place of the EFL Cup. Erik ten Hag picked a strong line-up for the visit of Crystal Palace and was rewarded with a yawn-and-stretch of a 3-0 victory.
Sofyan Amrabat was a shot of adrenaline in midfield, providing defensive competence to a midfield that’s been shaky all season.
Everywhere you looked, there were positives to be taken. Andre Onana kept his second successive clean sheet, Mason Mount showed enough to suggest that the early-season obituaries were premature in the extreme, while Harry Maguire also performed well.
But the sight that will have gladdened Ten Hag more than any, sending the Dutchman to bed beaming from ear to ear before sleeping like a log, came as two impressive academy graduates showed a willingness to run through brick walls to help their defence.
Hannibal, who performed impressively at Burnley last weekend, and Alejandro Garnacho certainly had the bit between their teeth as Palace made a rare foray towards Onana’s goal.
Showing the kind of determination that can move mountains or remove the top from a stubborn jar, Hannibal and Garnacho hared towards their own goal to put pressure on Palace midfielder Jairo Riedewald.
With a nervous sweat appearing on his brown, Riedewald pinged a pass towards Jean-Philippe Mateta that gave his team-mate little to work with. United dealt with the danger with ease.
So simple but I love this. Hannibal and Garnacho truly bursting themselves to get back to help defensively pic.twitter.com/8MKgegJWO9
— EverydayMUFC2 (@EverydayMUFC22) September 26, 2023
“You have seen at the start of the season [that] we played him… his contribution was not good enough,” Ten Hag said about Garnacho after the game.
“But he also had some good actions. You see always he is a threat in the game even when he is not playing that well.
“He has to learn when he does his job in defending he will always have his moment and he will always be decisive because he has great qualities.’
Pressed on whether he is searching for more reliability from the 19-year-old off the ball, rather than on it, Ten Hag qualified what he is demanding of Garnacho moving forward.
“As well, it’s not only off the ball,” he said. “But I want to see like today, he is entering the box in the right spot to finish.
“But I think it is quite normal for a player of his age that there is space for a lot of improvement.
“Everyone likes him, the fans like him, the team likes him, I like him but we also have to demand from him and push him because he can act on a very high level but he has to show it every day.”
Meanwhile, Hannibal completed 85 per cent of his passes, making three ball recoveries, and one interception. He was in the six-yard box for United’s opener, with the cross just evading him, with Garnacho slamming the shot home.
MUTV pundit Danny Webber praised his performance, commenting: “He’s got a lot of courage, the way he plays football, willing to make mistakes. He puts his foot in, not scared of anybody he comes up against.
“He’s got a lot of spirit in the middle of the park. We saw it again tonight, a real maturity coming into his game. I like watching him, a lot of maturity in his play.
“He’s gone away on loan, come back, showing a real level of intelligence to his play, got fight, a bit of nastiness when he needs to have it.”
After a string of lackadaisical performances this season, with certain players strolling around the pitch as if working off the effects of a heavy Sunday lunch, the sight of two academy kids torching their lungs to prevent a counter-attack was heartwarming viewing for everybody of a United persuasion.
Ten Hag will have an extra spring in his step this morning. Perhaps his message is finally getting through.
By Michael Lee