Rising Ballers: Alejandro Garnacho is irrationally confident

Let’s face it; I’ve been a bit boring with these columns.

Not in my writing (hopefully), but in my player selection. In five columns, I’ve discussed six players who — if you’re already a soccer fan — you probably already knew and were aware they were headed to the top of the sport.

So with this one, I’m going to call my shot. Alejandro Garnacho will one day lead a team to Champions League glory.

Out of all the players I’ve written about, Garnacho has by far the least experience in senior football. He’s made 17 Premier League appearances for Manchester United F.C., starting only four matches. In those matches — most of which are off-the-bench cameos — he has 2 goals and 2 assists. So while the early returns are promising, Garnacho still has a lot to prove. Even F.C. Barcelona’s Pablo Gavi, a fellow 18-year-old, has a much larger sample size of top-level league matches.

But when you watch Garnacho, he just has it. He plays with more confidence than he deserves to have, but with every touch, his inherent quality becomes more convincing.

To be clear, Garnacho has as much pedigree as any teenager in the Premier League. Born in Madrid to a Spanish father and Argentinian mother, Garnacho starred for Atlético de Madrid’s youth teams before making the move to United, perhaps England’s biggest club by reputation. He played for the Spanish Under-18s national side, but Argentina’s senior team called him into their squad before United even gave him his senior debut.

For the Argentinian national team to try and cap-tie a player (therefore ensuring he can’t play for Spain in the future) before he’s made a senior appearance, Garnacho must be special. 

His limited minutes mean that the sample size for his underlying numbers is not rock-solid, but the stats keepers at FBref would tell you that he’s already a top goalscorer and creator from the wing. 

Garnacho already knows how to find and take quality shots, with 2.91 shots and 0.30 non-penalty expected goals per 90 minutes (it’s crucial to subtract penalties, since they’re separate from the flow of the game and are easy for the attacker to score). As a true winger still finding his feet at the top level, those numbers rank quite well at the 82nd and 81st percentile respectively among players who play the same position. 

So while he still has room to improve as a goalscorer, cutting inside to shoot is already an observable fixture of his game.

With Manchester United tied 1-1 against West Ham United F.C. in the FA Cup fifth round, striker Wout Weghorst lashed a shot that deflected off a West Ham defender and popped up into the air. The ball fell fortuitously to Garnacho’s feet in space. The young Argentine took a composed touch to set up his shot and curled the winning goal past the goalkeeper to ice the game from about 15 yards, sending United to the quarterfinals. 

It was the most important goal of Garnacho’s young career and displayed exactly how he will make a living as a top footballer. His composure was exceptional. Most teenagers, faced with the opportunity to win a cup game for their side in the 90th minute, would wildly overhit the shot. Garnacho kept the shot low, so even if the keeper deflected it or it struck the past, a teammate might’ve been able to score a rebound. 

Garnacho looked so composed that when he settled with that perfect touch, you knew it was hitting the back of the net. 

Manager Erik ten Hag still uses Garnacho sparingly and will likely bring him off the bench for the remainder of the season. He has stiff competition for places on the wings, with Premier League Comeback Player of the Year Marcus Rashford (not a real award, but it should be) ahead of him on the left as well Jadon Sancho and 80 million-pound signing Antony Santos on the right. It might be a couple more seasons until Garnacho truly makes a difference in United’s push for their first Premier League trophy of the post-Sir Alex Ferguson era.

But Garnacho has a confidence that reminds one of — dare I say it — Cristiano Ronaldo when he donned the Red Devils badge. That’s a lofty and frankly unfair comparison to place on Garnacho, but he has the dribbling ability, goalscoring nous and pure attacking aggression to make him a star.

Jack Hallinan is a sophomore writing about the top wonderkids in men’s and women’s soccer in his column “Rising Ballers,” which runs every other Wednesday.