Alejandro Garnacho: The rise of Manchester United’s ‘electric’ entertainer – The Athletic

Andy MittenMar 11, 2024

Alejandro Garnacho’s closest watchers had seen it before. The second time was at Everton this season, already a favourite for the goal of the season. Yet two years earlier, he did what his coaches say was identical in an under-17s cup game.

Manchester United film every minute of every training session and every game. After his incredible bicycle kick at Goodison Park in late November, the staff came into the training ground the next day, excited. “He scored that goal at Wigan,” they said to each other and demanded to see it again.

“We do video all the time,” explains Nick Cox, director of United’s academy. “But the rain in Wigan that day became so bad that the cameras used by the analysts wouldn’t work. His first goal was there but not the second. Can you believe it?”


Garnacho is enjoying a good season at Manchester United. He’s starting every week, playing on the right and not just his usual left side, scoring and assisting. He’s becoming a key player aged just 19 and became the first United player in Premier League history to win two penalties in one game in the return game against Everton.

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He might be one of this season’s bright sparks, but United had been receiving scouting reports on the Madrid-born Argentine since he was 14. And that was down to the foresight of the club in setting up a comprehensive youth scouting network around Europe in 2016. One of the appointments that year was Gerardo Guzman, previously head of youth recruitment for Atletico Madrid.

Garnacho scores his stunning goal against Everton in November (Shaun Botterill/Getty Images)

Guzman first saw Garnacho when he was 10 and at that stage the winger had informal links to Getafe. Liking his self-confidence, Guzman signed him for Atletico almost immediately. Guzman was well placed – Garnacho’s family lived only 500 metres away from him in Arroyomolinos, a new town built in Madrid’s fast-expanding southwestern suburbs, 30 kilometres from the centre of the Spanish capital.

It’s a town of 4,000 who live in houses rather than apartments like many Spanish families. Garnacho had attended the same football school as Guzman’s sons so they knew each other well and Guzman laughed as he heard stories of Garnacho playing in his front room and imagining that he was in a huge stadium. At Atletico, Garnacho quickly became a key player, a regular goalscorer from the age of 11 in 2005.

“Gerardo Guzman is Mr Football and everyone in Spain knows him,” says Cox. “He builds great relationships, he’s got a warm character and he cares about young people. And now he’s fallen in love with Man United. Gerardo deserves great praise for his work. It was a coup for us when we brought him in as a scout. Though he had less responsibility (than at Atletico), he saw it as a bigger club.”


Insider knowledge was key in bringing Garnacho to England. Guzman knew Garnacho wasn’t happy at Atletico and that he would soon be out of contract. During lockdown, when Spain had one of the strictest in Europe, Guzman and the Garnachos worked out at the same gym and he could see how hard he was training. Other Spanish clubs were interested but none from England. And thanks to Guzman, none had the insight that United did.

Garnacho’s name had to go through a filtering process. Dave Harrison, who was top of academy recruitment, and Steve Brown (director of scouting), to whom Harrison reported, compared him to talents of a similar age in a similar position across other regions.

Why United needed Garnacho was partly down to Manchester City. All the 2020 new players coming in — Willy Kambwala was another — looked like a splurge before Brexit restrictions came in. In reality, United look closely at their players when they hit 16 and merge them with the age group above. Some are let go and United consider where the gaps are in their squad. United want the best local boys blended with the best international talent — and international talent was more economical.

Garnacho has been a rare bright spark in a tough season (PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

“Back then, we could bring players from Europe across,” explains Cox. “Most of the big English clubs would also look to Europe. That year we had a lot of slots to fill.” United had slots to fill because Garnacho’s age group was raided by Manchester City, with several of the best talents moving from red to blue.

“If we do our job properly, you should only ever have three or four gaps to fill,” explains Cox. “So last year we brought in the two Fletcher boys, Harry Amass and Gabriele Biancheri. That feels about right to me. But in the year when Garnacho turned 16, we had more.

“We’re never trying to build a team, but a healthy pool of talent that is balanced and that can go and support the first team. And Man United has a way of playing, so there’s a type of player we look for, plus we look at their character and temperament because moving to a new country at such a young age isn’t easy. Then we look at their potential and whether they might be able to play in the Premier League in the future. Alejandro fitted the bill and was presented to me as the number one target. We shared video with the coaches and they were all aligned.”


United were attracted by his ability to beat players, his good (if not electric) pace, his strength with both feet. He wasn’t seen as a generational talent. Harrison watched him once in person and studied videos of him. United would normally watch a player a lot more in person. That wasn’t possible in 2020 due to Covid.

John Murtough gave his approval, negotiations began and United got permission to speak to the player. Cox then had the job of selling United to the player, his family and the agent.

“It was a weird time with lockdown,” Cox remembers. “Ordinarily you would have brought the player to Manchester and shown him around the facilities and stadium. Introduced them to the staff and talked to them about what we could do.”

Instead, a Zoom call was arranged between Cox, Steve Higham (head of academy football operations) and Alejandro, his agent and family.

“There was not much English spoken,” says Cox. “Gerardo helped. I was desperately trying to connect with this young person who I’d never met and talk about our reputation for developing talent. I told him how much intelligence we had on him as a player to reassure him that it wasn’t a knee-jerk reaction. We had reports on him since he was 14. And reassured mum that we were going to look after her boy.”

Cox took the call in his spare bedroom, from where he was trying to run United’s academy, and from where his own boys, then aged 14 and 10, would listen in. During the call with the Garnachos, the boys were arguing.

“I still tell my boys that if the argument rumbled on much longer, then we probably wouldn’t have Alejandro Garnacho at Manchester United!” But Garnacho did sign. And for a price that now looks like a bargain.

Manchester United signed him on a pre-contract as he couldn’t sign as a pro until 17. Garnacho’s transfer fee was just £150,000 guaranteed, with £50,000 depending on targets being achieved. Atletico also wanted to keep him and offered a similar amount to United: £70,000 per year, rising to £90,000 within the deal.

Garnacho scores in the FA Youth Cup against Leicester (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

Then there were further complications in the summer of 2020. “Alejandro couldn’t travel to join the club as it was lockdown,” Cox says. “Our boys didn’t report back until later, in July in 2020, when we were told the season could go ahead.”

Even then it wasn’t straightforward and Garnacho had to do two weeks in isolation in his new country.


“Moving to Manchester United is hard in the best of circumstances,” says Cox. “Alejandro had to do it with the odds stacked against him. He’d normally be able to make friends and see the city and get to know his coaches. He spent two weeks in quarantine. We tried to teach him English in video calls, put fitness sessions on with him in the garden – via videos. He was only 16 and needed to continue with his education.”

After those two weeks, life was far from normal for this first-year scholar. To protect the first-team bubble, United’s under-18s and 21s decamped to one of the club’s training grounds at Littleton Road in Salford, where a marquee was erected. The players had to arrive changed and were only allowed to train for 75 minutes per day, while keeping social distance — there was no close contact. Gym use was banned, everything was outside. As he played amid the terraced houses of Salford, Garnacho could have been excused for thinking that this wasn’t quite what he signed up for when United was sold to him as the biggest club in the world.

New players usually build relationships first with coaches, medics, athletic development coaches, psychologists and analysts. United tried to help young players by setting up Zoom calls with established players and coaches including Michael Carrick, Paul Scholes, Nicky Butt, Ryan Giggs, Darren Fletcher and Wes Brown. That was great, but Garnacho couldn’t understand any of them.

Marc Jurado and Alvaro Fernandez, two other Spanish youngsters who joined at the same time, offered great support. They learned and laughed together as they found their way in a new country, turning their noses up at English food, wondering why English people eat and go to bed so early.

His family, who moved to be with him, went to games, sitting in the away end.

Yet Garnacho’s journey at United was far from straightforward. It seldom is.

He took time adjusting to the English approach and was too relaxed to begin with. He was a young kid learning and was allowed to make mistakes, but coaches felt that he got into his stride after six months at the club.


“He was a slow burner in his first year, he wasn’t ripping trees up,” says Cox. “He made his debut for the youth team at Man City when he came on as a sub and found it all a little bit quick.”

In July 2021 he signed his first professional contract and the signs of his talent really started to show.

“Alejandro always backed himself on the pitch, he had an unbelievable self-belief,” says Cox. “He is a showman sometimes who plays to the crowd, in a positive sense. He has a desire to entertain. In the (2022) Youth Cup run, the bigger the game, the bigger the crowd, the better he was.”

Garnacho was shining and won the Jimmy Murphy Young Player of the Year award. He scored an audacious overhead kick against Scunthorpe similar to the one at Everton, but closer to goal. Young fans waited for him afterwards. Against Everton in the next round, he ran at the full-back from the halfway line and, leaving him floundering and beaten, he cut inside and buried the ball in the corner. In the hard-fought quarter-final against Leicester, Garnacho saved his side by scoring twice in the second half, including an 88th-minute winner. Wolves were next.

Garnacho tried to learn as much as he could about the players he was about to face, travelling to Molineux to study Wolves’ full-backs — he and his dad regularly studied his opponents, though usually on video. Then he slinked past the right-back like a young Ryan Giggs and scored as Wolves were defeated 3-0.

Garnacho and his dad scout the opposition at Wolves ahead of the Youth Cup tie (Garnacho family)

In the final, in front of 67,000 fans, Garnacho snatched two in the last 12 minutes as United lifted the Youth Cup for the first time since 2011. His celebrations, the first Ronaldo-esque, the second as he took his shirt off, showed no lack of self-confidence.

As 2021-22 closed, he made his first-team debut, a one-minute cameo against Chelsea. Cox punched the air in delight. His parents, invited into the directors’ box, cried as he came on. “His family are amazing people, passionate football people,” says Cox.


Under Ralf Rangnick in early 2022, Garnacho was back and forward between the first team and the youth team. Darren Fletcher was excellent in supporting him during this stage and continued to champion him on the Asia and Australia pre-season tour after Erik ten Hag joined the club. The youth coaches expected him back after that tour, but he never came.

As well as putting his arm around the player, Fletcher was involved in another way. When Garnacho was called up to Argentina’s senior squad — he qualified through his mother — even before he’d made his United debut, United’s staff held a video call with the Argentinian FA. He was about to be put into the main national squad alongside Lionel Messi, a big deal, and United felt they had to be on the same page.

Nobody at United got carried away.

“He was 18, and when you’re 18 you can be a little loose,” says Cox. “That’s normal. You might have your flip-flops on and not your trainers. You might not bring your water bottle when you’re supposed to bring your water bottle. They’re little things, but they become more apparent when you’re standing next to Casemiro and you’re the new kid at work with someone who has had 20 years of this professional lifestyle.”

“He’s got good attacking flair and there’s real potential there,” said his former boss Neil Wood in October 2022.  “He’s still got a lot to learn and a lot of development to go through. There’s no doubt that he has talent, can score individual goals and that he’s good at dribbling. But there are areas he needs to improve — his passing, keeping the ball, protecting the ball, hiding the ball when he’s dribbling, being more productive with his end product, creating more assists.”

And he began to improve. In November 2022, United played an important Champions League game back in Spain at Real Sociedad. Twenty members of his family and friends travelled up from Madrid. Garnacho was set up by Cristiano Ronaldo to score and said it was the sweetest moment of his life. His father, sat among United fans in the main stand, was crying his eyes out.

The following month, United were back in Spain again for a supposed warm-weather training camp in Andalusia. It rained every day. On the waterlogged pitch, Garnacho was doing little in training until a group of media turned up. Immediately he turned it on with an array of runs and shots. A showman.


He finished last season coming on in the FA Cup final as United tried in vain to get an equaliser against Manchester City. Replacing Christian Eriksen on 61 minutes, his arrival was cheered by fans who knew their side needed to be bolder. Garnacho made clever runs, touches and shot wide. Once again his father was in tears in the stand watching his son.

Jurado and Fernandez left United so Garnacho has been busy building new friendships. He’s a popular, level-headed member of a squad that has undergone a difficult season, yet those difficulties have given him chances. Be it Jadon Sancho being banished or Antony’s poor form, space has appeared on the right for United.

Garnacho signed a new contract last year until 2028. More recently, United produced a video internally to show his time at the club.

The video starts with the highs and his recent goals and assists, like for Bruno Fernandes’s winner in the 91st minute at Fulham. Then the tone changes and it shows the earlier versions of the player, the one coaches worked on to improve his left-foot crosses. Several clips are shown of him overhitting crosses in youth games. Another shows how he needed to improve his positioning and work rate.

Garnacho celebrates with his hero Ronaldo against Real Sociedad (Juan Manuel Serrano Arce/Getty Images)

He did just that and more. He worked on cutbacks and crossing. He learned to play as a nine or 10, to better his positioning and be ready to jump on a poor pass from opponents. His work rate went up and up. He was taught to finish better. Practice, practice, practice.

The video finishes with Erik ten Hag putting his arm around his player as his girlfriend (they recently became parents) and beaming parents watch on.

“This new contract is deserved by his performance,” says Ten Hag. “He had to fight his way into the team and it was a huge step, but he’s been magnificent. I hope that his new contract is a motivation and inspiration to do even better.”


“He stands for everything that Manchester United is about: he’s individual, young, energetic, aggressive,” the twice-assistant manager Mike Phelan tells The Athletic.

“He’s an intelligent player who understands his role in the team, takes risks and gets bums off seats. He’s going to make mistakes, young players do, but he’s got an edge, a skill factor. If he continues to learn and take on information and grow quickly as a player, he’s got a great future.”

Garnacho has played with both Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. A heart-breaking reminder of this came recently when Anderson, a seven-year-old United fan who adores Garnacho and who has undergone a year of chemotherapy, needed to provide an emergency question which is asked when the disease is at its worst and doctors or parents need a cognitive response. Anderson’s question is: “Who has played with Messi and Ronaldo?” It was used a lot last year.

Garnacho celebrates against West Ham with Hojlund and Mainoo (Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

United invited Anderson to Carrington, explaining that they wanted to ask him about the Spurs game he’d attended. Instead, it was to meet Garnacho.

The player, a new father himself, was drawn to the story and visibly emotional when meeting Anderson. He called him “heroic” and “brave”.

This happened in January, when he was having his best time as a United player. Just before, on Boxing Day, he scored twice as United came from 2-0 down to beat Aston Villa 3-2.

On February 1, he played at Wolves where he was a threat on the right and involved in two goals. He was even better against West Ham a few days later, as United won their first home game of the season in the league by more than one goal, scoring twice and balancing alongside Kobbie Mainoo and Rasmus Hojlund on an advertising hoarding. The following day, he came in on a rest day to train alone in the gym.

United have struggled in recent weeks but the two penalties he won against Everton at Old Trafford have kept alive dreams of Champions League football next season.

Once again ‘Viva Garnacho’ — to the tune of his hero ‘Viva Ronaldo’ — could be heard from the United fans. Much like that night at Goodison with the spectacular bicycle kick.

Was it as good as that goal at Wigan? We’ll never know.


Alan Shearer on the biomechanical beauty of the overhead kick

(Top image: PAUL ELLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

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Andy Mitten is a journalist and author. He founded the best-selling United We Stand fanzine as a 15-year-old. A journalism graduate, he’s interviewed over 500 famous footballers past and present. His work has taken him to over 100 countries, writing about football from Israel to Iran, Brazil to Barbados. Born and bred in Manchester, he divides his time between his city of birth and Barcelona, Spain. Follow Andy on Twitter @andymitten