When Cristiano Ronaldo was banished for good from Manchester United in November 2022, it was heralded as a victory for Erik ten Hag’s new approach.

Ronaldo went rogue with his tell-all interview with Piers Morgan and while he made his own bed by criticising the Glazers, few believed Ten Hag would be backed over a club legend. Yet just a few months into his tenure, United stood firm and the Dutchman came out looking stronger than ever.

But while United’s head coach was savouring a victory, an unseen battle was beginning to rear its head. Alejandro Garnacho was coming to the fore in his idol’s absence which left Ten Hag with difficult questions to answer.

Garnacho estreia-se a marcar pelo Man. United e agradece assistência de  Ronaldo: «Obrigado, ídolo» - Man. United - Jornal Record

In his first pre-season tour, the manager picked Garnacho to join the first team but he failed to make any appearances after he was late to two team meetings. This scuppered any hope for the winger out in Asia much to fans’ disappointment.

It is true what people say, first impressions count and while United insisted they had worked past any attitude worries, their actions in the media showed otherwise. In October and November of that year, Garnacho was beginning to make strides but soon-to-be captain Bruno Fernandes called him out after a good performance.

“He knows we expect a lot from him. He wasn’t at his best at the beginning of the season,” he explained.

“On the tour, he didn’t have the best attitude that he should have, but now he’s training better and getting his chances. He’s deserving of his chances.”

Ten Hag continued in an interview with Sky Sports after Garnacho’s two assists against Aston Villa in the Carabao Cup: “He still has things to learn but quite obviously we are happy with his development and he can contribute to the team. It depends on his approach, his attitude.

Erik ten Hag embraces Alejandro Garnacho at Old Trafford
Erik ten Hag embraces Alejandro Garnacho at Old Trafford

“When he keeps working then yes, it is possible [for him to play more]. He wants to improve every day. He has to do the right things in his lifestyle. He has the capability.”

Garnacho kept his head down and was eventually offered a new long-term deal in April 2023. On what was a huge day for the teenager, Ten Hag gave an emotive speech in front of the youngster’s family at Carrington.

During the speech, the Dutchman once again stressed that Garnacho needed to keep pushing forward, hoping this new contract would inspire him to greatness. With Ronaldo firmly out of the picture, there was hope among the fanbase that the Argentine would inherit not only his chant but his iconic number seven shirt too.

However, this was not to be as Mason Mount was given the nod and Garnacho had to settle for the minor upgrade to 17. Fast forward to the start of this season and the 19-year-old was given a bit-part role leading to concerns that the forward was once again out of Ten Hag’s good books, particularly as Antony was consistently being picked ahead of him.

But the turning point would come in late November and perhaps signalled the start of the power shifting in the relationship between player and coach. Garnacho produced not only a goal of the season but perhaps a goal of the century candidate as his stunning bicycle kick launched a comfortable 3-0 win at Everton.

Alejandro Garnacho produces a stunning goal against Everton
Alejandro Garnacho produces a stunning goal against Everton

Afterwards, Ten Hag claimed his young winger had the potential for greatness but continued to stress the importance of finding consistency. Such words may have begun to fall on deaf ears though as Garnacho’s stock rose and the United manager’s began to diminish.

While Ten Hag has been fielding questions about his job security, Garnacho has become a fan favourite and has been hailed as the future of United alongside Rasmus Hojlund and Kobbie Mainoo. This future has increasingly begun to look like it does not involve the current boss.

Finally, we reach the events of Saturday evening which lie as a milestone for both parties. Garnacho ‘liked’ two tweets from well-known United supporter Mark Goldbridge criticising Ten Hag’s decision to replace him against Bournemouth, before later unliking them.

United say the matter has now been dealt with but it raises questions about Ten Hag amid uncertainty around his future at Old Trafford. While 16 months ago, Ten Hag was on top and held the authority, he cannot afford to be drawn into a power struggle with ‘CR7 2.0’.

Few believe that Garnacho has been the problem this season and the sharks are now circling Ten Hag. He must now hope to keep this incident in-house because this time if it is a choice between the player and coach, it will almost certainly be the player who wins.

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