Alejandro Garnacho: The Latest Showman

Thursday 21 March 2024 08:00

As Alejandro Garnacho continues to embrace the limelight, United Review looked at the unique circumstances under which the exciting prospect began to bloom in Manchester…

There is more than one road to Manchester United’s first team. Few possess as many twists, turns and camber shifts as that taken by Alejandro Garnacho. The young Argentina forward, who will still be 19 come the end of the current season, has enjoyed a breakthrough campaign at Old Trafford, convincing Erik ten Hag of his worth as a starting fixture on either side of United’s senior attack.

Now a scorer and provider of goals at both Premier League and Champions League level, Garnacho has already cemented a place in club folklore with his jaw-dropping overhead kick at Goodison Park back in November and, while such feats of skill augur well for the future, just as encouraging are the youngster’s dedication and commitment off the field – key stabilisers which helped him through a tumultuous introduction to life with the Reds.

Growing up in the southern Madrid suburb of Arroyomolinos, Alejandro was renowned within his school as a model student and had already enlisted with Getafe when Atletico Madrid came calling in 2015. His development continued apace before, in 2020, he found himself atop a wishlist compiled within United’s Academy. 

“We said we were looking for a wide player, 16 years old, with certain qualities and a certain type of temperament,” says United’s Head of Academy, Nick Cox. “So our recruitment team profiled all the wide players of that age across Europe, comparing the talents and trying to identify which talent would be the one who would be the best fit for the way that we play and the best fit for us as a football club. Alejandro would have been at the top of that list. 
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“Gerardo Guzman, our academy scout in Spain, put Alejandro forward as the best talent available in Spain. Then, the likes of [director of scouting] Steve Brown and [future lead talent scout] Dave Harrison correlated all the best wide players across Europe to confirm that Alejandro was the preferred target, presented to me and the coaches with video footage. We qualified that the scouts had made a really good judgement, so I signed off on Alejandro as the appropriate player to pursue.”

Under conventional circumstances, the next step in the sequence would have been an invitation to visit Manchester, where the youngster would tour the club and receive a pitch pitch detailing why United would be the ideal next stop in his career. The problem for Cox and his department, however, was that the recruitment drive was taking place amidst the outbreak of Covid-19. Pitching in a pandemic proved to have its pitfalls.

“That’s where it gets fun,” laughs Cox. “It became my job to present to Alejandro, his agent, his family, why this would be a wonderful opportunity and why he should leave a really good football club to come and join our football club. But, I had to do that from my spare bedroom via video call, using a translator. 

“My boys at the time would have been 14 and 10, and I remember vividly that they were arguing with each other while I was trying to sign Alejandro. I still tell my boys now, had that argument rumbled on much longer, then we probably wouldn’t have Alejandro Garnacho at Manchester United! [Head of Academy football operations] Steve Higham and myself had to present to them and we must have done okay because he agreed to sign. He joined us as a first-year scholar in 2020, late August, right in the throes of lockdown.”

The unconventional theme of Garnacho’s transfer continued long after the ink had dried on his first Reds contract. He arrived in Manchester and was immediately required to spend a fortnight quarantining, while temporary restrictions around all English training grounds meant that, even when he was able to attend Carrington, he had to arrive changed and ready to train for no more than 75 minutes, before immediately leaving for home. Alejandro’s ability to socialise, explore and overcome language barriers were all affected during his early months in England, requiring nimble approaches from United’s staff and unwavering commitment to the venture from the teenage talent.

“Ordinarily, when we’re bringing a player to Manchester we have to factor in all sorts of things: accommodation, transport, support for the family,” says Cox. “In this case, also language because his English needed work, plus an education programme because he was still a 16-year-old boy who had to continue that. We needed him to understand the local area, life at Manchester United, build relationships around Carrington with the team of staff, be it coaches, medics, athletic development coaches, the psychologists, the analysts, and that is a huge piece of work which we had to do before a backdrop of Covid. That limited him and also meant that the football programme was severely hampered. 

Garnacho won our Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award in 2022.

“When he landed, we had to coach him over video call in his back garden and get a fitness programme together. Then once he was with us, trying to deliver fitness sessions in the afternoons when he was back at home, or English lessons via video call, it was tricky. Our staff had to be really inventive and imaginative in how we supported him, but he had to be really resilient and focused, and there was an early example there of the character he’s got.

"We’d done our best to try to assess his character from afar and we learnt very quickly that we’d got a young man who’s determined, resilient, focused, driven, and those are all things that you need if you’re going to be a Manchester United player. We had experts to support him, but it had to come from him. The most important person was Alejandro, and his drive and his resilience, perseverance and focus to make this work. We just supported him. This came from within him.”

An understandably low-key first season in United’s Academy preceded a second term in 2021/22 in which Garnacho grew in stature, starring in the Reds’ FA Youth Cup triumph under Travis Binnion, winning the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award and making two senior cameos before the season’s end. It was in the second half of that campaign in which the starlet began to truly shine on bigger stages, showcasing the X-factor which had initially convinced United’s Academy network that he was an ideal fit for Old Trafford.

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“As a really young player he was incredibly down to earth, humble and he trained with great focus,” says Cox. “Around the building he would be incredibly respectful, would just quietly go about his work, but, on the pitch, you’d see a little bit of what we see now: that desire to be a little bit of a showman; a desire to try and do things that are a little bit unorthodox and try to entertain. That’s his thing: his desire to entertain.

"He has a real flamboyance on the pitch which perhaps isn’t visible off the pitch, where he’s just a level-headed, grounded, great kid. On the pitch, I think we saw in particular during our Youth Cup run that he really got a taste for the arena of Old Trafford. He would rise to the occasion. The bigger the game, the better his performance would be. The bigger the crowd, the more he felt this need to entertain and be a showman in a positive sense. We drum into our boys what Matt Busby educated the players what their job is, when the people come out of the factories, entertain them. I think Alejandro really embraces that sentiment. 

“He took his time; his first year with us was a slow year, second year, he started to come more to the fore and as the Youth Cup run progressed, we could really see that we’d got the early makings of a player who had the potential to play in our first team. It was slow and steady, he didn’t explode onto the scene as people might think. It’s always slow, steady, a rocky road that lies behind any great achievement, and definitely in his case.”

During the course of 2021/22 and 2022/23, Garnacho began to line his road with major milestones: Youth Cup winner, senior debutant against Chelsea, senior goalscorer against Real Sociedad (“the sweetest moment of my life so far,” as he termed it) and League Cup winner. 

His eye-catching FA Cup final cameo against Manchester City provided compelling evidence of his comfort in the limelight, and 2023/24 has produced a watertight verdict. All term, the teenage prospect has steadily developed. November’s unfathomable acrobatics at Everton and an ice-cold Champions League opener in Istanbul are the stand-out moments for a forward player whose goal contributions will be his chief currency but evolutions in his defensive awareness, discipline and decision-making have been just as crucial in Erik ten Hag’s increasing comfort in starting his no.17. “There’s a lot to come, but he has potential,” stressed the Dutchman.

There is much more road left to run in Alejandro’s journey but, for those who have accompanied him on the journey so far, the pride is unmistakeable in a player who has already captured the imagination of those who watch him, either up close or from afar.

“We take enormous pride,” says Cox. “However, I can never lose sight of the fact that the major player here has always been Alejandro. Our job has always been to wrap support around him. This has to come from him. There’s also a huge amount of people in his life who aren’t at the club, that’s his family, friends, agents. There’s a huge network of people. But we’re enormously proud.

“There is just something about the fact that he’s a wide player at Manchester United that makes it that little bit more special. I have to say, on the occasions that I take my seat in the Stretford End and the fans are singing his song, it can be quite overwhelming. The fans have got a connection there with a player and I think that’s the magic of Manchester United. Our DNA is youth and wide players, so when you get a young wide player who breaks into the first team, there seems to be a real connection.

“It also sends a ripple through the kids just behind him on their journeys. It makes them realise it is possible, they can do it too. Or the really competitive kids might want to go past him. Kobbie Mainoo, Alejandro, Dan Gore, they’re real competitors and when one breaks through, that only inspires the others to want to follow suit. For our really young players, to see a young boy score a goal like the one he did at Everton, that can only be an inspiration for them. There were bicycle kicks in our indoor area left, right and centre the following week. Everyone was trying it, even the goalies, and that's the power of a positive role model. It's an amazing thing for us to be able to celebrate."

This article first featured in United Review, the official matchday programme.

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