Comeback win offers hope for Man United’s new era


MANCHESTER, England — Manchester United’s new era began with a reminder that there are big problems at Old Trafford but ended with hope that the future might be bright after all.

In their first game since the announcement that Sir Jim Ratcliffe and Ineos have agreed a deal to buy a 25% stake in the club and assume control of all football matters, United went 2-0 down against Aston Villa before mounting a stunning comeback to win 3-2 thanks to two youngsters: Alejandro Garnacho and Rasmus Højlund.

Garnacho, 19, scored twice, and Hojlund, 20, got his first Premier League goal since his summer move from Atalanta to hand Erik ten Hag’s team their first win in five games. It was a timely boost for the Dutch manager with Ratcliffe’s sporting guru, Sir Dave Brailsford, sitting in the stands for the first time. Brailsford, director of sport at Ineos, will form part of the team tasked with transforming United’s fortunes, and Ten Hag at least proved there’s life in his managerial reign yet.

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The first question in his postmatch news conference was what he thought Brailsford would have made of his night at Old Trafford. “I don’t know,” he said. “You will have to ask them. I don’t think it has had an impact on the players. For me, I was kept informed in the whole process, so I knew what was going on.

“We’re looking forward. I think it is positive for the club that they are stepping in. They have a lot of experience in sport at the highest level, F1, a cycling team, football clubs.

“They can only help us and support us to get our targets. We are looking forward. They want to work with us and we want to work with them.”

Trailing 2-0 at half-time, Brailsford was probably thinking he would need something more substantial than his “marginal gains” philosophy to revitalise the club his boss has spent close to $1.3 billion to buy into. Brailsford’s success at British cycling, where he made his name, was all about making the most of small wins, but after 26 minutes here, it felt like he would have to order major surgery once Ratcliffe’s deal is ratified. Twice in the space of five minutes, United conceded from a set piece from the left.

First, John McGinn swung over a free kick that evaded everyone, and ended up in the far corner. McGinn was involved again moments later when his corner was put back into the box by Clément Lenglet, and Leander Dendoncker flicked in Villa’s second. It prompted boos around Old Trafford, and some United fans, who have seen their team concede the first goal in seven of their 10 home league games this season, got up to leave.

Of the many items on Brailsford’s list of priorities, he perhaps needs to look first at the mental strength of United’s players. Again and again, they concede multiple goals in short spells.

Against Villa, it was two goals in five minutes. It was two in six minutes against West Ham on Saturday and two in five minutes against Bournemouth earlier this month. Already this season there have been 10 occasions where United have conceded multiple goals in a spell of 10 minutes or less. If Ten Hag is to rescue this campaign, it’s an issue he’ll have to solve.

“I said at half-time, ‘Keep believing and we will win,'” said Ten Hag. “Already in the first half we played solid. It was a bit sloppy to give two goals away from set plays.”

It looked for a long time that United would lose a home game on Boxing Day for the first time since 1978, but eventually, they started throwing some punches of their own. With Villa manager Unai Emery determined to persist with his high defensive line, Garnacho, Højlund and Marcus Rashford began to look like players Ineos might want to build a future around.

Garnacho got the first two goals and, with the atmosphere inside Old Trafford reaching boiling point, Hojlund scored for the first time in 1,026 Premier League minutes to seal the win. “He will score more,” said Ten Hag.

“When strikers don’t score it is always a problem but he has a strong character, he has a big personality and that is what a striker needs, and when you keep investing the goals will come.”

Hojlund screamed into the Stretford End like a man who felt the weight of the world lift from his shoulders, and even though he didn’t want to admit it, his manager appeared similarly relieved after the final whistle. With Ratcliffe, Brailsford and Ineos preparing to usher in what they hope is a new age of success at a club that have floundered for a decade, Ten Hag eventually got off on the right foot.

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