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Tactical Analysis: Alejandro Garnacho brings excitement and frustration

A look at Garnacho’s form and development in a chaotic attacking lineup...

Manchester United v FC Bayern München: Group A - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Richard Sellers/Sportsphoto/Allstar via Getty Images

There is no nuance on the internet. Say one thing and you’re guaranteed to get a bunch of responses either arguing or complaining about things you didn’t say. That’s a problem when you’re writing about football because football is almost all nuance.

That’s especially true when you want to talk about 19-year-old Alejandro Garnacho and what he currently is. To do that you have to strip out the extremes on both ends. He’s not a bad player, and while he has the potential to be a star or even superstar, that’s not who he is right now either.

When it comes to the 2023-24 Manchester United squad, Erik Ten Hag cannot call on the player Garnacho might one day become. He can only use the player Garnacho is today. So what exactly is that player?

The Busby Babe has long spoken about the difference between traits that are actively good (or bad) and passively good (or bad).

An example was Scott McTominay under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. McTominay did things that caught your eye. He went hard into challenges, he made big tackles or had a big defensive stop. Those things catch your eye and you register them as good. But in possession McTominay often played safe, opting for square passes, or long diagonals that look good but take a long time to get to their destination giving the defense time to shift. He didn’t give the ball away so it didn’t look bad, but his lack of risk-taking and inciteful passing could limit how dangerous United’s attack could be.

An example on the other side is Fred. Fred wasn’t the best passer but would often try to make high-reward passes. If they didn’t come off United lost possession and a collective groan would be released from the entire fan base. But Fred did a lot of things off the ball that may not have stood out to the naked eye, but were very important for United.

A 1-1 draw against Southampton in August 2021 was the perfect example of this. That day United’s attack ran through Fred, and all the Brazilian seemed to do was misplace passes. Off the ball, Fred was doing a lot of work in United’s midfield to help keep control of the ball and the game. These were things that didn’t quite catch your eye. What did catch your eye was the fact that Fred gave the ball away 16 times. It looked like he was awful, and if United just replaced him with someone who could keep possession, they’d be able to launch more attacks. But when United took him out, they lost all the other things Fred had been doing. More importantly, they lost their foothold in midfield and struggled to possess the ball. They no longer had to worry about a midfielder constantly giving the ball away because they no longer had the ball to give away.

What does any of this have to do with Alejandro Garnacho?

Garnacho is United’s most exciting academy prospect since Mason Greenwood. He’s arguably the most fun player to watch right now.

He exudes confidence, he likes to run at defenders, and he’s afraid of no one. In a United team that’s been lacking going forward, Garnacho has been a breath of fresh air.

Garnacho does all the things that stand out to the naked eye, especially within the context of his teammates not doing those things. His 3.7 shots per 90 don’t just lead the team by a long way, it puts him in the 99th percentile among Premier League attacking midfielders/wingers. Garnacho’s in the 82nd percentile for take-ons attempted showcasing how much he loves running at opponents.

In a short period, Garnacho has become a ball-carrying machine. He’s in the 95th percentile for progressive carries. Meanwhile, his 5.16 successful box entries per 90 is higher than all but one of box entry extraordinaire Jadon Sancho’s full seasons. Sancho led United in this field for the last two years and was always among the top players in Europe.

All of this culminated with Garnacho’s recent performance against Chelsea. Chelsea had no answers for Garnacho who was simply unplayable on the day. Chelsea tried switching right backs at halftime to no avail. Garnacho’s final line from that game: 8 shots, 7 shot-creating actions, 1 assist, 8 successful box entries, and 17(!) progressive carries.

Garnacho’s long dribbles away from or at defenders catch your eye.

He takes on defenders at the edge of the box and beats them. When he charges into the box and shoots it’s exciting because no one else is doing that. He’s essentially to Erik Ten Hag what Anthony Martial was to Louis van Gaal. A young player bringing a spark of joy as he stands in an otherwise far too rigid system.

Garnacho doing all the actively good things that catch your eye serves to distract you from the fact that Garnacho is a big reason why United’s attack is struggling so much this season.

As the left winger, Garnacho’s job is not just to try and score goals but create goals as well - especially when you’ve got a striker like Rasmus Hojlund who relies on the service of his teammates. Part of being a good winger is being able to create shots for your teammates.

While Garnacho is good at running at players and taking people on, he completely lacks an end product. Garnacho has only 13 key passes or shot assists this season (1.68 per 90), putting him in the 61st percentile for attacking players. The xA of those key passes is just 0.18 per 90, the 45th percentile, with nearly half of his xA coming in the Chelsea match. More concerning is who those key passes go to, four to defenders (Diogo Dalot, Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Harry Maguire, and Luke Shaw), two on cross-field switches to Antony, two to Bruno Fernandes, and four to Scott McTominay. There’s one important name missing from that list, striker Rasmus Hojlund.

Garnacho is wired like a goal scorer. He has the talent capable of the spectacular...

...but he lacks the more basic qualities in front of goal that will help you score goals week in and week out. That makes using him like Rashford - as a wide forward coming from the left - a bit of a downgrade, especially if you’re looking to set him up for chances on counterattacks.

This is where there’s a bit of give and take with Garnacho. His high work rate off the ball means he’s going to find himself getting very high-quality chances that perhaps wouldn’t fall to a player not working as hard as Rashford, but his lack of 1v1 finishing quality will tend to let him down.

Garnacho has never been a great finisher, so while he can work on this area of his game, drastic improvement is unlikely.

Garnacho’s dribbling can get him into trouble. He’s never met a player he doesn’t want to dribble past, and when he gets the ball there’s only one thing running through his head. Get to the middle and shoot. Garnacho has played just over half the available minutes in the Premier League this season (52.42 percent) but when he’s on the pitch he’s taken nearly half of United’s shots (47.83 percent). That is significantly higher than the absurd 31.09 percent Cristiano Ronaldo used to get.

Erik Ten Hag’s tactics haven’t done Garnacho many favors. Ten Hag keeps his wingers very wide, preferring to have his fullbacks more narrow.

The fullbacks then make runs from the inside out wide. This hurts a dribbler like Garnacho because all it does is bring more defenders toward him, limiting where he can go.

At the same time, the underlapping fullback doesn’t provide a passing option for him, leaving Garnacho with nowhere to go, and more defenders in place to defend against him.

Yet, *despite* Ten Hag’s tactics, Garnacho still has enough ability to get himself into the box pretty regularly. Unfortunately for him, every team knows exactly what he’s going to do and how to defend him.

Look at this situation early on in the match against Bayern Munich. As soon as Garnacho gets the ball winger Kingsley Coman leaves his man and tracks back like a madman against Garnacho.

Coman reacts like Thomas Tuchel specifically brought up Garnacho in a meeting the day before the match and instructed his wingers to make sure they double-teamed him when he got the ball.

Later in the match, Garnacho broke free but center-back Dayot Upamecano never even seemed bothered by Rasmus Hojlund. He only had eyes for Garnacho.

When Garnacho gets the ball in the box he’s not defended by just a fullback. At this point when the ball comes to Garnacho opposition defenses will have at least two, usually three, defenders close him down with a fourth standing in the middle to provide backup.

Here Garnacho gets the ball in what looks like a one-on-one situation and looks to run at the fullback. But as soon as he gets the ball, two other defenders are running back to get in position to provide support.

Rather than play a ball to Scott McTominay making a near post run, Garnacho tries to beat his man with his right foot. Only doing that takes him right towards the defender's running to get back.

McTominay is United’s leading scorer. Three days before this match he scored two goals. Bournemouth never even bothered picking up his run into the box because they knew he wouldn’t get the ball.

Similar situation in the second half. Garnacho gets the ball on the edge of the box. This time he has an overlapping fullback to help him out, but not only does he choose not to use him, Bournemouth doesn’t even see Sergio Reguilon as a threat.

Garnacho manages to split the initial defenders, putting himself in a very favorable position. The center back initially marking Anthony Martial comes off him to serve as the third man “backup” against Garnacho. When he splits the defenders he has a very ball to slip into Martial.

But Garnacho doesn’t take it. Instead, he keeps dribbling back toward the top of the box, toward more Bournemouth players, and ultimately dribbles himself into a whole heap of trouble.

As you watch the whole thing, notice the central midfielder realize what’s happening and get back to further cut off Garnacho.

Similar scenario against Chelsea. Garnacho on the edge of the box has a very simple pass on to Bruno that would leave Axel Diasi in a vulnerable position of having to choose between stepping out towards Bruno and leaving a 1-2 back to Garnacho open or letting Bruno have an open shot.

This was a very similar setup to the goal Rashford scored against Wolves last season where he made the pass to Bruno who gave it right back. But instead of passing, Garnacho continues to dribble and ends up in the middle of four Chelsea players. The positioning of Chelsea’s defenders leaves them in a great position to block nearly any shot that would be on target from this angle. Only a spectacular finish would find the back of the net.

The xG value of this shot was 0.04

Manchester United’s attack has been brutal this season. United ranks seventh in the league in shots but is down in 15th for shot quality (xG per shot). A big part of that is Garnacho.

Garnacho shoots a ton. His 3.7 shots per 90 ranks him fourth in the league. But when it comes to shot quality he ranks somewhere around 140th. All in all, Garnacho has accounted for 13.41 percent of all United’s shots this season but only 9.8 percent of their xG.

That’s become a problem for Manchester United because Garnacho is their most-used attacker. In the matches he’s started, no one has taken more touches in the attacking third or the attacking box than Garnacho. Garnacho ranks in the 97th percentile for touches in the attacking box but a quick look at the actual list shows that no one who has played as many minutes as Garnacho has touched the ball in the attacking box more than him. Consistently no one gets the ball into more dangerous areas for United than Garnacho, but once he gets there, his extremely poor decision-making reduces things down to two options: shoot or try to dribble through someone for a better shot.

When Garnacho isn’t shooting, he’s not doing anything else. This is a problem for United because Garnacho is the attacker who gets on the ball the most in the final third.

It’d be one thing if Anthony Martial was still United’s striker. Martial isn’t known for making runs into the box or trying to get on the end of a cross, but United now have Rasmus Hojlund. Hojlund makes these runs every game, the ball just doesn’t come to him. We can all see it. Garnacho isn’t the only one at fault here but as a winger, it’s your job to try and get the ball to your striker.

Similar to McTominay not making that incisive pass, not getting the ball to your striker may not be something that stands out to the eye as bad. You don’t play that early ball into Hojlund but rather play a cross-field switch to Antony. You keep possession and get the ball out into space etc, it looks good even if Antony isn’t in a position to do anything. Forcing a ball to Hojlund that just gets knocked away would look bad as you lose possession.

When you score a bicycle kick people will know you’re capable of scoring spectacular goals, and they’ll forget that you only have one league goal despite leading the league in shots.

Consider the blind resumes of the following two players (all stats are per 90):
Player A:
7.29 progressive carries
5.16 box entries
3.82 shot-creating actions
1.68 key passes
0.17 xA
0.26 NPxG
0.22 npG+A

Player B
4.71 progressive carries
4.48 box entries
4.64 shot-creating actions
2.3 key passes
0.27 xA
0.22 NPxG
0.48 npG+A

Astute readers who follow me on Twitter will know that Player A is the terrifically exciting potential superstar Garnacho. Player B was last season’s Jadon Sancho, who was labeled as underachieving or disappointing. Sancho got that label because while he was progressing the ball, he wasn’t taking his man on or dribbling at people. He wasn’t doing the exciting things that catch your eye even though he was still providing United with a very good end product with slightly fewer touches.

Garnacho does the flashy things. More than that he has that bite that fans love. He’s not afraid of anyone, he’ll throw you into the advertising boards, and he’ll taunt the crowd in Istanbul. Those things make you endearing to fans, but equally as important is when you’re on the pitch you still need to do productive things with the ball.

There is certainly some truth in the idea that United’s attack is so disjointed right now that anyone would struggle to be successful in it, especially given the way Ten Hag insists on using his wingers. However, the reality is a big reason the attack is so disjointed is that their attacker with the highest ball usage doesn’t provide any creativity and often kills attacks with poor decision-making.

Garnacho isn’t struggling because the attack is bad, the attack is bad because there’s no accountability. No one seems to be trying to coach these bad habits out of Garnacho. He doesn’t seem like he’s getting dropped anytime soon.

This is where things get murky. Garnacho is only 19 years old. He’s going to be inconsistent. It’s unfair to expect so much from him at such a young age. But if you’re going to be a starter for Manchester United (Garnacho has started 12 straight games in all comps), and you want Manchester United to be a team competing for the Champions League places, then you need to perform at a level that attackers for that quality of team perform at.

Right now, Alejandro Garnacho is simply not good enough to be a starter for a Champions League-level club. That’s ok, he’s only 19. He can still get plenty of minutes coming off the bench, continue developing, and make an impact for this team.

Whether you choose to keep an eye on the future and persist in starting him is acceptable, but it’s crucial to recognize that fielding an attacker not of Champions League caliber, alongside Antony, who certainly doesn’t meet that standard, will limit your squad’s potential this season.

While Garnacho holds promise and might evolve into a star player someday, the reality for the 2023-24 season is different. Manchester United’s offensive struggles can’t be solely attributed to Garnacho, but he undeniably plays a role, contributing to the many challenges faced by the team in the attack.