Is Rasmus Højlund Manchester United’s last hope?
The Danish striker may already have the weight of the club on his shoulders.
The Danish striker may already have the weight of the club on his shoulders.
Manchester United fans are going through hell.
Both on and off the pitch, nothing has gone to plan this season at Old Trafford. Most of it, frankly, has been the club’s fault.
It all started with the Mason Greenwood situation. Greenwood, an academy graduate who had flashed high potential in the first team and even earned an England cap as a 19-year-old, was arrested on suspicions of rape and assault, missing a season and a half while on suspension by the club. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges against him after a witness dropped out, so the club planned to reintegrate him with the first team until an exposé from The Athletic and widespread social media backlash foiled those plans.
Then, in quick succession, Brazilian winger Antony received a domestic abuse accusation, and English winger Jadon Sancho had a public disagreement with manager Erik ten Hag that led to Sancho’s temporary dismissal from the squad. To make matters worse, the team had an injury bug, with this summer’s marquee signing Mason Mount out for a few weeks alongside centerback Raphaël Varane and full backs Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Luke Shaw and Tyrell Malacia. Another new signing, Sofyan Amrabat, has yet to make an appearance due to a back problem.
Unsurprisingly for a team with this many off-field issues, the on-field results haven’t been good either. Through five matches, United has won two and lost three, currently sitting in 13th place in the Premier League. The two teams United did defeat, Wolves and Nottingham Forest, finished in 13th and 16th place last season. The team has an easier run of fixtures to find a rhythm before the Manchester Derby against Manchester City on October 29, but it certainly hasn’t gone to plan so far.
Enter stage left: Rasmus Højlund, United fans’ one remaining source of hope.
The 20-year-old Danish striker arrived in August from Atalanta for about $80 million. For fans who didn’t follow Højlund closely in Italy, the fee United paid makes it sound like the club received an already-star striker, a polished player in the prime of his career. Højlund is not yet a bona-fide star, but he has all the tools to become one.
Due to his size, blond hair, last name and Scandinavian origin, Højlund has received understandable comparisons to Erling Haaland, Manchester City’s star Norwegian striker who led the league with 35 goals in the 2022-23 season.
While any comparison to Haaland sets unreasonably high expectations, from a stylistic perspective, Højlund has shades of Haaland’s game. His rapid in-behind runs and the power with which he strikes the ball certainly evoke the Norwegian superstar. Højlund even looks more comfortable with the ball at his feet than Haaland on occasion, showing the ability to dribble past a defender or play a final pass in a way that Haaland just doesn’t do that often.
But when it comes to a Haaland vs. Højlund debate, United fans shouldn’t get too excited too soon. Last season, Haaland scored twice as many goals just in the Premier League (36) as Højlund has scored in his entire professional career in league play (18).
Højlund would have to mature rapidly to “save” Manchester United’s season — if we can even use that word five games in — but if he adjusts, he’ll fit perfectly in Erik ten Hag’s team.
At Ajax, ten Hag typically preferred a taller, reasonably physical striker. For two seasons, that was Sébastien Haller: Standing at 191 centimeters, he scored 47 goals and had 16 assists in 66 matches for de Godenzonen. Højlund, conveniently, is 192 centimeters tall, an attribute that surely made him more attractive to the Dutch coach.
The similarities don’t stop there. In his two seasons at Ajax, Haller averaged 1.39 shots on target per 90, while Højlund had 1.37 per 90 last season at Atalanta. In his first season at Ajax, Haller played 1.32 key passes per 90, while Højlund posted a respectable 1.18. Also in his first season at Ajax, Haller received 10.52 progressive passes per 90 — defined as a completed pass that moves the ball forward 10 yards or into the penalty area. Højlund just edged Haller’s figure at Atalanta, with 10.98 received per 90.
In fact, when you narrow Højlund’s progressive passes received average to the past 365 days, you see an even higher 11.16 per 90 — in the 99th percentile among strikers in Europe’s top five leagues. That makes him a tremendous asset to creative, forward-passing midfielders, like the kind of player United currently specializes in, between Mount, Christian Eriksen and Bruno Fernandes.
Those stats don’t describe Højlund in his entirety, of course. You can’t boil down a player to his numbers. But they show that ten Hag has the exact archetype of player that his teams have thrived with in the past — it’s just a matter of getting Højlund going in Manchester.
Højlund and Mount have only made two appearances each so far for United due to injury issues. For Højlund, United found a stress response hotspot in his back, so they rested him for the first few matches of the season to avoid further injury. If the back issue persists, it doesn’t bode well for Højlund’s dependability, but United fans shouldn’t concern themselves too heavily yet.
But expect the Red Devils to become a different beast when the attack is humming at full health. Ultimately, they could reach scary heights for the rest of the league, regardless of their rough start to the 2023-24 season.
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