MANCHESTER, England — Whatever happens to Manchester United between now and the end of the season, manager Erik ten Hag can at least point to the emergence of Rasmus Højlund, Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo as positives from an otherwise forgettable campaign.
It was fitting that the trio, all under the age of 21, sat up on the advertising boards in front of the Stretford End after Garnacho had scored United’s second goal in a 3-0 win against West Ham on Sunday. Ten Hag will hope that the image is still being passed around and posted on social media in 10 years’ time — a first glimpse of players who would go on to become the core of the next great United team. For now, though, it will be enough that they gave Ten Hag a rare comfortable day at Old Trafford.
Højlund scored for the fourth Premier League game in a row, on his 21st birthday, and Garnacho got the other two as United won comfortably; their first home league win by more than a single-goal margin this season.
This has, at times, been a calamitous campaign, and even a positive afternoon for Ten Hag came with a downside. It was a big one too, as defender Lisandro Martínez, only just back from a foot injury, was forced off with a worrying knee injury. With Martinez, Casemiro and Luke Shaw back from injury, United have started to look more like the team which finished third last season and the last thing Ten Hag needs is to be without Martinez for another extended period.
As miserable as some of the results have been this season, United are still playing for the FA Cup and a place in the Champions League. As much as they need Højlund to keep scoring and Mainoo to keep playing well, they also need Martinez and Casemiro to stay fit.
“I am not telling you we are there, where we want, but you see the potential,” Ten Hag said. “We saw the potential from those players [Højlund, Garnacho and Mainoo], but they need games. They need experience, and the only way you can get it is to play in the first team.
“They have the right attitude and when you have the attitude to improve every day, I am convinced they can achieve high levels, but they need experienced players who have achieved everything to help them.
“When certain positions are not available, you have to be creative. We have certain times in the season when you have to adapt to put an XI out. Now danger is coming from Licha Martinez so I hope we don’t go back. It is not about 11 players, it is about 15 or 16, so I hope we can keep them all fit.”
Ten Hag is finally getting closer to having the team he’s wanted all along. Højlund arrived from Atalanta injured and didn’t start a game until mid-September; Martinez was injured in late September; Casemiro was ruled out in November; Mainoo missed preseason with a knee injury and was only fit enough to start a game for the first time in late November; Shaw was out for three months between August and November.
It’s meant that, at different points, the depth of Ten Hag’s squad has been tested as he was forced to pick Hannibal (now on loan at Sevilla), Facundo Pellistri (now on loan at Granada) and Sergio Reguilón (still unwanted at Tottenham and now on loan at Brentford.)
It will be a blow to lose Martinez for any length of time, but at least there is cover at centre-back with Raphaël Varane, Harry Maguire, Victor Lindelöf and Jonny Evans. In contrast, he has very few options to replace Højlund, Casemiro and Shaw.
Ten Hag picked Maguire to partner Martinez at the back against West Ham, and even though the England defender had some shaky moments — he was robbed by Emerson Palmieri and lost a run from Jarrod Bowen for West Ham’s two best chances of the game — he still helped United to a first Premier League clean sheet since the 0-0 draw against Liverpool on Dec. 17 after conceding at least two goals in their previous five matches.
“It is only one game so don’t go and celebrate it too much,” Ten Hag said. “I don’t think we have reasons at this moment to do it, but for today we are pleased. You need routines to get performances and you have to make decisions in split seconds.
“Every time you have to swap your team, swap your centre-backs, and your right-back for your left-back, it is about looking at each other and making the right decisions. Top football is about details.”
There’ll come a time between now and the end of the season when Ten Hag will sit down with the club’s new minority owner, Sir Jim Ratcliffe, to discuss whether or not he’s the man to take United forward. Ratcliffe’s mission is to bring regular success back to Old Trafford after more than a decade of disappointment, and a decision on the manager will be an early test of his new regime.
Ten Hag is fighting against a start to the season which has seen United dumped out of Europe before Christmas and falling behind in the race for the top four. But more comfortable days like this one, alongside a continued contribution from Højlund, Garnacho and Mainoo, and he’ll be able to point to a bright future with himself at the helm.
First appeared on www.espn.com