Varela & Borthwick-Jackson impress for Manchester United in Cup

DERBY, ENGLAND - JANUARY 29: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrates his goal during the Emirates FA Cup fourth round match between Derby County and Manchester United at Pride Park Stadium on January 29, 2016 in Derby, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
DERBY, ENGLAND - JANUARY 29: Wayne Rooney of Manchester United celebrates his goal during the Emirates FA Cup fourth round match between Derby County and Manchester United at Pride Park Stadium on January 29, 2016 in Derby, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) /

For the first time in a long time, it was a genuinely tough decision to pick out Manchester United’s man of the match following a 3-1 win against Derby County in the FA Cup.

In the end, Anthony Martial probably deserved that accolade, but youngsters Guillermo Varela and Cameron Borthwick-Jackson were two standout players on the night for Manchester United.

At 22 and 18 years of age, the full-backs were United’s least experienced players in the starting XI. However, that wasn’t obvious from the way they played, with the duo both registering impressive performances.

By the time the full-time whistle blew, manager Louis van Gaal would perhaps have been feeling relaxed about needing to delve into the transfer market in order to sign another right-back or left-back.

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For Borthwick-Jackson, it was his second strong display in the last fortnight. After a fearless performance against Liverpool, where he played over 45 minutes in a tense and nervy game, he rarely looked flustered against Derby and improved United’s left flank.

The Manchester-born defender rarely wasted the ball and played a number of pinpoint passes to Martial, who terrorised Cyrus Christie throughout the game.

The most impressive aspect of his performance was that, for such an inexperienced player, he looked so assured. Whether it was his well-timed tackle when Derby counter-attacked from United’s corner-kick or his neat link-up play on the left wing with Martial, Borthwick-Jackson offered a steadiness that belied his young age.

Varela, by contrast, was playing just his fourth game of the season. After making his debut at the start of December, the Uruguayan didn’t feature during the festive period following an unconvincing display against Bournemouth. It was to his great credit, therefore, that he played so assuredly against Derby. What was most impressive was that he performed well at the back and going forward.

United have plenty of full-backs who excel in defence or attack, but not both. Varela has a nice balance between the two and put in a dominant display down the right-hand side of the pitch.

This season, Matteo Darmian, Antonio Valencia and Ashley Young have been Van Gaal’s go-to players at right-back. Varela’s bright performance against Derby ensures that United now have a fourth, genuine option in that position.

Against an admittedly unadventurous Derby side, Varela provided width that United have often missed during the first six months of the campaign. In the first half, he latched onto a Wayne Rooney pass with the freedom of Derby’s left flank in front of him. In the second half, he intercepted the ball on the halfway line and burst forward into the Derby penalty area.

On both occasions, he stuck tight to the touchline and stretched the game. Derby, who tried to stay in a compact shape, were undone by such charging runs.

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Defensively, Varela looked good in one-on-one battles against Derby’s Nick Blackman. The Uruguayan possesses great athleticism and, despite not being the tallest of players, managed to stand up to the challenge of playing against a pacy and powerful player.

For Borthwick-Jackson and Varela, tougher tests lay ahead, starting with Stoke City on Tuesday if they retain their places in the side.

Both are talented players with plenty of promise, but they face the unenviable task of learning their trade in a struggling United team. Mistakes will therefore be scrutinised, patience will wear thin quickly and chances will be limited.

With Luke Shaw unquestionably United’s first-choice left-back for the next decade, it may be the case that Borthwick-Jackson is auditioning for a back-up role in which he also provides cover in central defence.

For Varela, there is a chance to mirror Hector Bellerin’s rise at Arsenal. The young Spaniard ousted Mathieu Debuchy from the side when the Frenchman was out injured and has cemented his place in Arsene Wenger’s starting XI.

While Varela has some way to go before he can replicate that success, he will likely get chances to impress further between now and the end of the season.

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At the very least, bright performances from Borthwick-Jackson and Varela against a limited Derby side will give them a platform from which to build on during the second half of the season.

The two players are almost polar opposites of one another. Borthwick-Jackson is consistent and unflappable, whereas Varela is slightly more unpredictable and impulsive.

Against Derby, their contrasting styles worked to great effect as the two full-backs shone. It will be interesting to watch how they progress in the coming weeks.