Manchester United: Alejandro Garnacho deserves to be a regular starter under Erik ten Hag

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Alejandro Garnacho has started matches this season against Real Sociedad of Spain, Sheriff Tiraspol of Moldova, and Carlisle United and Barrow of Cumbria. Well, they do say variety is the spice of life.

But whereas even a month ago a taste of European football for the Argentine teenager might have been immediately followed by a back-down-to-earth outing for the Under 21s in the Papa Johns Trophy, his importance to Erik ten Hag and Manchester United is now clear to see.

The 18-year-old has impressed in both of those Europa League appearances, showing the flowing confidence of youth and playing without inhibition as he skimmed past opponents.

Alejandro Garnacho has looked impressive in Manchester United's last two European matches

Alejandro Garnacho has looked impressive in Manchester United’s last two European matches

He scored United's only goal against Real Sociedad on Thursday but they didn't top the group

He scored United’s only goal against Real Sociedad on Thursday but they didn’t top the group

Garnacho plays for United's Under 21s in the Papa Johns Trophy - but those days could be over

Garnacho plays for United’s Under 21s in the Papa Johns Trophy – but those days could be over

He scored a well-taken goal against Sociedad on Thursday night but ultimately United couldn’t find the second they needed to top the group and avoid a play-off potentially against Barcelona or Juventus.

What positives there were from the performance focused on Garnacho, who drew praise from Ten Hag and Paul Scholes in the BT Sport studio for his no-fear approach.

His form is very handy for the manager, too, given his attack was starting to look a little threadbare.

Anthony Martial didn’t travel to Spain because of the back injury that has now seen him miss seven games, while Jadon Sancho was ill and Antony out with a knock.

Things get worse for Sunday’s visit to Aston Villa because Bruno Fernandes is suspended having accumulated five yellow cards in the early weeks of the season.

Garnacho's performances in the Europa League have given coach Erik ten Hag cause to think

Garnacho’s performances in the Europa League have given coach Erik ten Hag cause to think

Jadon Sancho is struggling to find his best form and Garnacho could take his place on the left

Jadon Sancho is struggling to find his best form and Garnacho could take his place on the left

There’s a possibility Martial, Sancho and Antony will be fit and ready for the trip to Villa Park but the big question for Ten Hag is whether Garnacho is ahead of them in the pecking order right now.

After watching the youngster really make his mark against Sheriff and Real Sociedad, perhaps Ten Hag should just run with it and hand him a first Premier League start on the left side of attack.

That could mean Sancho is benched but he was against Sheriff and West Ham anyway having lost his way in terms of form following a bright start to the season.

The England winger cost United £73million but we’re still waiting for the kind of performances that justify such an outlay.

When Sancho netted against Liverpool and Leicester City earlier this season, we started to think Ten Hag would get the best out of him.

Garnacho took his goal well as United claimed a win but not top spot in northern Spain

Garnacho took his goal well as United claimed a win but not top spot in northern Spain

The teenager had also looked the part on his European debut against Sheriff the week before

The teenager had also looked the part on his European debut against Sheriff the week before

But he still disappears from too many games and frustrates when he checks back rather than taking defenders on in advanced positions. He has set up just one goal so far this season.

Ten Hag handed him an extended run of games but ultimately couldn’t ignore the slump any longer, with Sancho also seeing his England World Cup ambitions recede.

Martial could prove to be a false dawn as well. He shone during pre-season, doing enough to prevent United selling him as everyone expected.

Since then, he has been afflicted by three separate injuries, meaning just four appearances so far. It seems that unfortunately Martial just isn’t reliable enough with his fitness to have a successful future at United.

Alejandro Garnacho (left) asks Cristiano Ronaldo's (right) permission to do his celebration

Alejandro Garnacho (left) asks Cristiano Ronaldo’s (right) permission to do his celebration

A laughing Ronaldo gives his blessing, completing a 'dream' moment for the 18-year-old

A laughing Ronaldo gives his blessing, completing a ‘dream’ moment for the 18-year-old

Antony has started well following his £85m move from Ajax, finding the net against Arsenal, Manchester City and Everton in the Premier League.

Ten Hag will hope he will return to fitness in time for Sunday to bolster the right side of the attack, having shuffled Fernandes over there against Sociedad.

Marcus Rashford, United’s most in-form attacker, surprisingly started on the bench in Spain but came on for the ineffective Donny van de Beek with half-an-hour left to try and force a second goal.

He will surely start on Sunday, potentially in place of Cristiano Ronaldo at centre forward, or on the left flank.

But the temptation to give Garnacho another start must be strong. He does offer something a bit special.

Anthony Martial has looked sharp when he has played but has become injury prone

Anthony Martial has looked sharp when he has played but has become injury prone 

Bruno Fernandes (right) will miss Sunday's Aston Villa game after picking up five bookings

Bruno Fernandes (right) will miss Sunday’s Aston Villa game after picking up five bookings

‘Going off the evidence that we’ve seen, he’s played twice and he’s been amazing,’ said Owen Hargreaves on BT Sport. ‘Two games so far and he’s been the difference maker.

‘I’m proud of him – when you step on that stage as a young guy you never know, sink or swim. So far, he’s done a great job.’

Scholes said: ‘I’m really pleased for the young lad, he’s been United’s best player.

‘He’s a young lad, he’s going to learn. His attitude has changed and we’re seeing the benefits of that, now he looks a really top-class young player.’

The mention of ‘attitude’ is significant. It has been reported that Ten Hag wasn’t best impressed by Garnacho during United’s pre-season tour.

Antony has performed well in United colours since arriving for £85million from Ajax

Antony has performed well in United colours since arriving for £85million from Ajax 

The youngster would apparently walk out of training with his boot laces untied, a sign of ‘lax’ attitude. Fernandes said on Thursday night this led to the teen being held back at the start of the season.

But Garnacho has clearly bucked his ideas up and Ten Hag praised him after the match in Spain.

‘A positive is we have extra options in the frontline with Garnacho. He’s developing very well. I hope he can keep that attitude like now,’ said the United boss.

‘When he is reliable, you see he is a threat, he can create, he can give final passes and he can score goals, so it’s a good process.’

Garnacho came on against Brighton on the opening weekend but hasn't played in the league since and could well make his first start in the competition on Sunday

Garnacho came on against Brighton on the opening weekend but hasn’t played in the league since and could well make his first start in the competition on Sunday

The next step comes at Villa on Sunday and Garnacho could start on the left, with Rashford leading the line and Antony (if fit) or Anthony Elanga on the right.

Christian Eriksen could be pushed forward to the No 10 role to compensate for the absence of Fernandes, with two more defensive-minded midfielders behind him.

Even if his first league start doesn’t come this weekend, Garnacho’s bold performances have forced him into the conversation and his manager’s thoughts.

He offers Ten Hag another reliable option and the former Ajax coach enjoys helping academy players reach their potential. The Papa Johns will have to do without him.