Manchester United seem to finally be on the right track after a rough first half of the season. Going six games unbeaten with five wins in all competitions, Erik ten Hag’s men are finally finding some level of consistency. One of the core parts of that form has been the improvement of Rasmus Hojlund.
Signed from Atalanta for a hefty £72 million fee over the summer, the price tag weighed heavily on the Denmark international. Hojlund was 20 years old when he joined, with a sole season in Serie A his only experience of a major league. But that transfer fee left many expecting an instant impact.
Hojlund was unable to meet those expectations. He did not score his first Premier League goal until Boxing Day, when he helped his side to a 3-2 comeback win over Aston Villa. The Champions League had been a happier hunting ground, with the youngster netting five goals in six group games. But observers openly wondered whether the former FC Copenhagen forward could adjust to the demands of the Premier League.
That debate looks to be over now. The striker, who recently turned 21, has scored in each of his last five Premier League games. Only Nicolas Anelka has achieved that feat at a younger age. Despite early fears that United had purchased yet another flop, Hojlund’s broader numbers have actually improved from his time in Italy. He netted 10 goals in 34 games for Atalanta across all competitions last season. This term, he has 11 goals in 29 outings and there's plenty of football ahead to build on his total.
It was widely acknowledged in the summer that a 20-year-old with a sole season in a top league was perhaps not the immediate solution to United’s striker crisis. But with PSR closing in and reinforcements needed elsewhere, it did make sense to secure a talent with considerable potential. But it certainly felt like a more experienced striker to complement Hojlund would have been ideal.
The same is true now. Anthony Martial is currently injured but has barely had an impact even when he has played. Marcus Rashford is almost exclusively a winger these days. The club opted not to go for an Odion Ighalo or Edinson Cavani-like veteran in January. Given they are out of the Champions League, such a gamble might work out this season. But next season, United need to sign another striker.
The nature of this striker must be carefully handled though. United are one of many clubs whose hat has appeared in the ring marked 'Ivan Toney'. Brentford value the striker at £100 million according to reports, though the fact he enters the final year of his contract in July could bring that down a little. But given the hot competition for his signature, it is unlikely any club is getting too much of a discount.
Is Toney the right profile of striker for United at this stage? He scores a lot of goals, with 20 in 33 league games last season. But given where Hojlund is at, should United risk unsettling him by bringing in a striker whose price tag would almost demand a starting berth? Would being stuck behind an almost mandatory starter in Toney sacrifice the confidence Hojlund is beginning to display?
United should be looking beyond Toney or any other striker who would need to be appeased with a guaranteed starting slot. They must work on the assumption they already have their number nine in the building. Ten Hag must work to get the best out of him rather than to replace him wholesale. That means bringing in a striker who is older, more experienced and preferably with some wisdom to impart to Hojlund.
They need someone slightly different to Cavani or Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who were the best forwards United had during their respective spells. A player who is happy to pick up a Best Supporting Actor nomination alongside Old Trafford’s leading man.
Unlike Cristiano Ronaldo’s ill-fated return, they need a veteran who isn’t coming to run the show. But rather one who is coming to play a reduced, yet vital, role within it. A top striker can bring the best out of United. Bringing the best out of Hojlund could demonstrate that they already have that top striker within their ranks.
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