Rashford, Højlund and Garnacho: power trio leading Manchester United revival | Jonathan Wilson

These are strange times at Old Trafford. Sir Jim Ratcliffe’s 25% investment in Manchester United has been ratified by the Premier League. They have won their last four games in all competitions and haven’t lost this year. They have a forward line that is young and dynamic and that, while you wouldn’t yet trust it not to spin out of control, nuts and bolts dropping off until it finally collapses into a heap of shattered potential, is beginning to look as though it could be extremely effective. Are things finally beginning to look up for United?

Everything, of course, is relative. It feels every detail comes with a caveat; everything remains subject to multiple interpretations. With the top five likely (but not guaranteed) to qualify for next season’s Champions League, United are still sixth in the Premier League but at least have a four-point cushion over Newcastle in seventh. They are eight points behind Aston Villa in fourth – but the gap would have been bigger had Scott McTominay not scored an 86th-minute winner at Villa Park last Sunday. They did concede three goals in the final 20 minutes at Wolves two weeks ago, but at least they won 4-3.

Nobody can claim that a corner has been irrevocably turned. United’s goal difference is 0, poorer than eight other sides heading into this weekend. It is entirely reasonable to ask whether what is happening isn’t similar to last season, when a series of narrow wins, many of them achieved late, perhaps offered an unduly positive impression of United’s form. Arsenal’s demolition of West Ham put United’s 3-0 home win over them the previous week into perspective. And even Newport County made life difficult for them in the FA Cup.

So let no firm conclusions be drawn. But what is true is that United have scored 17 goals in their six games in all competitions this year, and that Rasmus Højlund has scored in each of his last five matches. After the misery of the 2-0 defeat at the London Stadium two days before Christmas, one of the most insipid and joyless performances from a notionally elite club in the history of the English top flight, the transformation has been remarkable – even if it has led to an uneasy openness at the back. Something similar happened in the Champions League this season, where United’s devil-may-care spendthrifts seemed an entirely different team to the worn-down fidgeters of the weekend, like a dour husband who goes wild on business trips.

It could be that at the end of the season, this period looks like a false dawn, a run of decent results in which United’s flaws remained all too obvious. But it may be that it is seen as the moment at which the uptick began, when Erik ten Hag’s side showed the heart and the gumption to overcome their flaws and start actually winning games; the emotional impact of the Ratcliffe takeover before any of the real – and difficult – business of rebuilding the club begins.

Alejandro Garnacho is capable of moments of brilliance, like his overhead kick at Goodison Park in November. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters

But whatever is to come in the next three months, what is true is a side that seemed to lose its way at the first sign of strife has found, at least temporarily, a new resilience. They may be doing silly things and leaking needless goals in games they seem to be controlling, but they are, at the moment, finding ways to overcome that.

And if this really is the moment of a tentative rebirth, it’s the forward line that probably offers most hope. Marcus Rashford, the oldest of the three at 26, has been horribly out-of-sorts at times this season but there shouldn’t be any real doubting his quality. Alejandro Garnacho, while capable of brilliance, remains unpredictable – reasonably enough for a 19-year-old – but, happily for United, seems quite capable of playing on the right, even if his preference would be to come from the left, allowing Rashford to operate on his preferred flank. Højlund, meanwhile, who looked at risk of being crushed by the responsibility, has started taking chances with the unflustered ease of a forward now playing with confidence. His goal against West Ham, creating space at the edge of the box and drilling the ball into the bottom corner, had an unfussy ruthlessness while his calm sidefooted volley against Aston Villa suggested a predatory sharpness in the six-yard box.

Perhaps he got lucky, but if he really did aim between Emi Martínez’s legs – and from that range it seems possible – it was the finish of an instinctive poacher. If he does have both elements to his game, he could be a very dangerous forward indeed. A conversion rate of 19% is exceptional (11% is around standard) and suggests his lack of goals earlier in the season was less to do with him than the service he was receiving.

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The Danish forward’s relationship with Rashford and Garnacho seems key. United have played a front three, from right to left, of Garnacho, Højlund and Rashford seven times this season and have won all seven. It’s true they played together in the 4-3 Champions League defeat by Copenhagen – but not only did Rashford start that game on the right with Garnacho on the left, he was sent off after 42 minutes with United 2-0 up.

The three have a combined age of 66. All have had fitful careers to date. But there is a balance when they play together, a sense of mutual enhancement. Ten Hag has to find a way of restoring solidity, without compromising their attacking freedom too much – and Rashford and Garnacho have been criticised for a failure to fulfil their defensive duties. There is plenty that can still go wrong, nothing that is guaranteed. But Ratcliffe’s arrival is the start of new chapter, and new pages tend to mean news hope.

This might not be the forward line anybody at United planned – if they did, there was no need to spend £160m on Antony and Jadon Sancho, and it would surely have been used before now – but it is the one they’ve got, and for now it seems to be working. And it’s been a while since you could say that about anything at Old Trafford.


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