Ten Hag sets a challenge for his "exciting" young players


It is an image which will be referenced and reused in years to come.

Rasmus Hojlund, Alejandro Garnacho and Kobbie Mainoo, sat on the advertising boards at Old Trafford in celebration at the Argentine’s first goal in the win over West Ham, immediately struck as an iconic moment.

But whether it will be looked back on as the dawning of a new era of success for United or a brief flash of promise which faded away will be down to that talented trio, the group around them and the work of head coach Erik ten Hag.

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Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag hails his side’s fighting mentality and looks ahead to their match against Aston Villa on Sunday.

Promise is one thing but at United results are demanded right now.

That was the message emphasised by Ten Hag as he sat down with Sky Sports at United’s training ground, still warming up after a session out in the sleet and wind at Carrington. They were tough conditions, he says, but these are the decisive days – and even in February, United are in must-win mode.

Back-to-back victories last week against Wolves and West Ham have boosted the mood – “It gives confidence,” says the Dutchman – but if the team are to achieve Champions League qualification, the eight-point gap to fourth-placed Aston Villa must be closed when United go to play Unai Emery’s men on Sunday, live on Sky Sports.

“We have some exciting players,” smiles Ten Hag when asked about Hojlund (aged 21), Garnacho (19) and Mainoo (18) sat together.

“We also have had such [standout] moments during the season – for instance, the brilliant goal from Garnacho against Everton,” he says, referencing that spectacular overhead kick at Goodison Park.

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Ten Hag remembers Alejandro Garnacho’s overhead at Goodison Park fondly

“We have some very high potentials in this squad. And now we have to perform to high levels.

“We do it now in some games but on Sunday, for instance, we get an opposition who have a very high level. So that’s a challenge to perform there and to get end product from those players on Sunday. So they are the next steps, which have to come.”

Ten Hag knows all about the power and momentum in-form young players can bring to a team. It was a driving force during his time at Ajax. It has also long been a foundation for success at United.

Coupled with the experience of players such as Casemiro and Bruno Fernandes, it can be a winning formula.

“They bring energy,” says Ten Hag of his young players. “I think it’s always a combination of experience and high potentials. And when they respect each other, and they want to strengthen each other, then you have a team and that is always the objective because every player knows when there is a team you can achieve higher performances and higher levels and so achieve more.”

Another key ingredient, of course, is goals. And in Hojlund, United now have a striker who looks to have finally found his feet in the Premier League. There were a flurry of strikes in Europe earlier in this campaign but with four goals in his last four top-flight games, it feels like the big-money summer signing is now starting to deliver.

Rasmus Hojlund unveils an air guitar celebration after scoring against West Ham
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Rasmus Hojlund unveils an air guitar celebration after scoring against West Ham

That scoring streak began against Aston Villa on Boxing Day, when he hit a late winner in a comeback victory at Old Trafford. The relief and release of pressure when that ball found the net was plain to see in his celebration. But it is perhaps the consistency of selection in attack which has maintained his run of form.

In each of United’s last four Premier League games, they’ve had Marcus Rashford and Garnacho flanking the young Dane. The front three have a combined 10 goals and three assists in those matches – more than the 10 goal involvements they’ve registered between them in other Premier League games this season.

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from the Premier League match between Manchester United and West Ham.

“Football is about co-operation,” says Ten Hag. “Finding the spaces by movements, by moving the ball and bringing players into positions where they can attack opponents or get into one-on-one situations. And then those players have the abilities to score goals.”

Finding familiar patterns and combinations across the pitch has been an issue for United and Ten Hag throughout this campaign because of a long list of injuries. Ten Hag celebrated the fact he could finally name his strongest XI for the first time this term against Wolves last week. A game later, he lost Lisandro Martinez to a knee injury.

Manchester United's Lisandro Martinez holds his knee after an injury
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Manchester United’s Lisandro Martinez holds his knee after suffering an injury

“Absolutely,” he says when asked if that has been the great frustration of this season. “It stops the progress.

“Every time you have to adjust you don’t have routines, you don’t have partnerships and that is what we have seen.

“I think we have had nine different set-ups in the centre-half positions. In other positions we have to swap a lot and that was forced by injuries so we hope now we can keep a consistent team.”

United will certainly have to be at their best this weekend. Ten Hag describes the work of his counterpart at Aston Villa, Unai Emery, as “incredible”, and the hosts will be eager to respond to their surprise FA Cup replay loss to Chelsea on Wednesday night. But this is the time when United need their stars – and rising stars – to step up.

“We know we can beat them,” says Ten Hag, referring to the Boxing Day win. “But Sunday is a new game. It’s a test. We have to take the chance.”


Sunday 11th February 4:00pm


Kick off 4:30pm


Man Utd’s next five games

  • Aston Villa (A) – Premier League, Sunday February 11, live on Sky Sports
  • Luton (A) – Premier League, Sunday February 11, live on Sky Sports
  • Fulham (H) – Premier League, Saturday February 24
  • Bristol City/Nottingham Forest (A) – FA Cup, Wednesday February 28
  • Manchester City (A) – Premier League, Sunday March 3, live on Sky Sports

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