Manchester United’s season reaches new high thanks to Alejandro Garnacho

Rasmus Hojlund, Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo celebrate (Manchester United via Getty Images)
Rasmus Hojlund, Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo celebrate (Manchester United via Getty Images)

Sixth in the table, unbeaten in five games. These have not traditionally been the things Manchester United would boast about. They have achieved far more too often to mention. Now, however, this may represent the high point of a troubled campaign; perhaps, for the often beleaguered Erik ten Hag, the springboard that will rescue it.

Winning the battle for sixth, and dislodging West Ham, puts United in their joint best position of the season after their joint biggest victory of the campaign. Besides beating Aston Villa, they had not seen off anyone currently in the top nine, so West Ham ranks among their prize scalps. And if that five-game sequence includes FA Cup ties against lower-league Wigan and Newport and three matches when they have lost leads, they are at least undefeated in 2024 and acquiring some momentum.

Perhaps most encouragingly, United were propelled onwards by men who could be scoring for them well into the 2030s. This was their future against their past, with their former manager David Moyes overcome as Rasmus Hojlund scored on his 21st birthday and Alejandro Garnacho, still a teenager, delivered a double. A picture of three rookies – with Kobbie Mainoo the other – celebrating sat together on an advertising hoarding may prove the afternoon’s abiding image. As United marked the 65th anniversary of the Munich air disaster, it felt fitting that youngsters were the match-winners. Ten Hag’s willingness to trust in emerging talent is one of his finest attributes. He has been rewarded in recent weeks.

A predecessor may deem himself luckless. Moyes has still never won a league game at Old Trafford as a visiting manager. A first half when West Ham were superior suggested his wait could end; now it looks still likelier it never will. Moyes’s side possess a far better record than United this season against the supposed big six. They had more shots at Old Trafford but without converting any of their 21. Too few – a mere three – were on target.

They could rue a decisive minute when Emerson Palmieri, capitalising on a mistake by the recalled Harry Maguire, could have equalised but lashed a shot wide and instead Garnacho, aided by a deflection, put United two goals ahead.

Rasmus Hojlund fires Manchester United in front against West Ham (Getty Images)
Rasmus Hojlund fires Manchester United in front against West Ham (Getty Images)

It was their misfortune, too, to encounter Andre Onana on an uncharacteristically good day. After his ignominious African Cup of Nations – three goals conceded, no saves, dropped for his cousin who plays in the French third division – Ten Hag’s No 1 produced a terrific early save, reacting smartly after Tomas Soucek’s header was redirected by Edson Alvarez. A subsequent stop from Ben Johnson denied the Hammers a leveller.

If Onana’s errors have undermined United this season, Ten Hag is finally benefiting from something he long lacked: in-form forwards. Hojlund scored his fifth goal in six games, Garnacho a second brace in three home matches. Marcus Rashford did not join them on the scoresheet but his first outing at Old Trafford since his evenings out in Belfast passed smoothly.

There was a verve to United and a threat. Garnacho sparkled and his captain was influential and impressive. Alphonse Areola flew to his left to ensure Bruno Fernandes’ 25-yard curler did not find the top corner, but a breakthrough came in style. A scorer of a Champions League hat-trick for Moyes’ United was in the directors’ box and it is safe to assume Robin van Persie admired the execution.

It was a further confirmation of Hojlund’s potential. He showed first deftness and then explosiveness, beating Nayef Aguerd with a stylish turn and then Areola with a fierce shot. Wrong-footed then, Aguerd found himself in the wrong place in the second half when Garnacho’s shot flew in off him. The 19-year-old’s second of the day was more deliberate, angled in with his less-favoured right foot after a burst forward by the substitute Scott McTominay. United, who had not won a league game at Old Trafford by more than one goal all season, had three.

West Ham’s day, which had begun promisingly, turned sour. Kalvin Phillips was dropped, three days after a disastrous debut, while Johnson was pressed into service as a right winger in a reshuffle. West Ham were immediately sharper than they were against Bournemouth on Thursday. There was plenty of intent in a purposeful performance but they missed Lucas Paqueta, who unlocked United with his passing in their December win.

Ten Hag spared Raphael Varane a second start in four days. Maguire came in and had a reprieve when he lost the ball to Emerson. Alongside him, Lisandro Martinez was combative before hobbling off. It represented the one worry for United. That apart, it became the sort of day they have waited for. The question now is if the high will precede further lows or if it will be a sign of things to come.