“We will do everything in our power to get it done,” Erik ten Hag says.

“We need (it) as soon as possible. Ideally, he’d be here — we need to integrate — but you don’t always get ideal situations as a manager. We have to deal with that.”

Manchester United’s need for a striker couldn’t be more obvious.

After a 2022-23 season in which Anthony Martial’s injuries and the makeshift Wout Weghorst ‘solution’ in January following Cristiano Ronaldo’s November exit left them handicapped in the centre-forward role, signing one was high on their priority list entering this summer’s transfer window.

United’s budgetary constraints mean they are not able to realistically pursue the highly coveted options of Harry Kane or Victor Osimhen — who both have a price tag close to £100million ($128.3m) — meaning their search has pivoted towards a more affordable option; one that might come with less financial risk.



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This week, The Athletic reported that United have made a verbal offer of €50million (£42.8m; $55m) plus €10million in add-ons to Italian club Atalanta for 20-year-old Rasmus Hojlund, with optimism that a deal will be struck soon after already agreeing preliminary personal terms with the Denmark international, although French champions Paris Saint-Germain are also reported to be interested in him.



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While Hojlund’s nine league goals last season in 32 appearances did not set Serie A alight in numbers terms, his raw attributes (he only left his teens in February) align closely with the profile of striker Ten Hag is looking for — that of a player who is willing to run in behind, link the attack, work hard out of possession and, of course, have a strong penalty-box presence.

Last season, one of United’s main issues was simply scoring enough goals.

Their 7.5 non-penalty goals below expectation was the fourth-worst in the Premier League, better than only 14th-placed West Ham United, an Everton side who were almost relegated, and Chelsea, who got through four managers while finishing, for them, a dismal 12th. And their 58 league goals was the lowest total in the top six and only seven more than relegated Leicester City.

It is an issue that has seeped into this pre-season, with Marcus Rashford, Scott McTominay, new signing Mason Mount and Alejandro Garnacho all squandering chances during a 2-0 loss to Real Madrid on Wednesday in the United States — something which did not escape criticism from their manager.

“I think we need more players who are capable in the one-on-ones,” Ten Hag said after the game in Houston, Texas. “We need to be more clinical and we should score goals from those situations”.

On this front, Hojlund appears to be a useful answer to such issues.

His 0.47 non-penalty expected goals (xG) per 90 number for last season was fifth among Serie A players to see at least 900 minutes of game time – and he nearly matched expectation by scoring 0.44 non-penalty goals per 90.

Quite simply, Hojlund scores the chances you would expect him to, on average — a trait which would be welcomed with open arms at Old Trafford. Few forwards aged under 23 in any of Europe’s top five domestic leagues (Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, Bundesliga, Ligue 1) performed better than he did last season.

Hojlund’s physical attributes are likely to make any adaptation to Premier League football smoother than most, but his speed in transitional moments will be particularly suited to Ten Hag’s side.

“He is so quick; he’s under 11 seconds over 100m — and that’s not even trying very hard. Considering his height (6ft 3in; 191cm), he has a low centre of gravity and can move his legs very fast,” Atalanta head coach Gian Piero Gasperini has said.

Last season, United’s 143 direct attacks — defined as possessions that start in a team’s own half and lead to a shot or other touch inside the penalty area within 15 seconds — were the most in the Premier League, with improved counter-attacking play being a key feature of Ten Hag’s first season.

Hojlund showed his blistering pace on multiple occasions last season, regularly accelerating beyond opposition players to get ahead of the play.

A neat example of this can be seen in February’s 2-0 win away to Lazio, where a turnover from Jose Luis Palomino releases Ademola Lookman on the Atalanta left.

Note that Hojlund is still in the centre circle at this point:

With ground to make up, he powers past several players to get himself near the penalty spot within four seconds, where he is positioned perfectly to receive the cross from Lookman…

… for a simple tap-in.

A striker with a penalty box presence who is strong on the counter-attack? That gets a double tick from Ten Hag.

That goal against Lazio is the type of move Hojlund thrives on.

Attacking low crosses is a part of his offensive skill set, which could be invaluable to United.

Last season, United’s rate of 9.7 open-play crosses per 90 was joint fourth-lowest in the Premier League, suggesting they were not willing to work the ball around the opponents’ defensive block as much as they could have.

Whether it was Rashford, Jadon Sancho or Antony, their wide forwards would often look to drift inside into congested areas of the pitch. But with Hojlund’s bulldozing, aggressive running into the penalty area, United could benefit from playing to his strengths with more crosses from the flanks.

Hojlund’s timing to attack low crosses puts him in the correct position when the ball is played across the 18-yard box.

In this example away to Monza last September, the then 19-year-old is deeper than the opposing centre-backs when Brandon Soppy finds Lookman’s run behind the defence:

Seconds later, Hojlund’s pace has him in the correct position to meet Lookman’s low cross…

… and put the ball into the net.

Fixem este nome: Rasmus Højlund 🤔

⚽⚽⚽ 𝙃𝙖𝙩-𝙩𝙧𝙞𝙘𝙠 no primeiro jogo a titular pela Dinamarca 🇩🇰#EURO2024 pic.twitter.com/1kvr6fsKLT

— UEFA.com em português (@UEFAcom_pt) March 25, 2023

Other attributes that would benefit United greatly are Hojlund’s off-ball movement and runs in behind the defence.

During last season, Ten Hag stressed to his attackers that they should maintain their runs in behind the opponents’ back line even if the pass doesn’t arrive.

“Where we emphasise a lot, and where we train on a lot, is movements when we are in the final third,” Ten Hag said after the 1-0 win at Bournemouth in May. “Movements (in terms of) who has to come from the front line, second line just behind, but also from the third line — with full-backs and Casemiro coming from there.”

This insistence on off-ball movement was clear in the data.

United’s number of such runs — defined by Opta as a “sustained off-ball movement by a player whose team is in possession, made with intensity, in order to receive a pass or create space” — into the opposition penalty area rose as Ten Hag’s debut season went on.

Hojlund constantly makes runs like this in behind the other team’s defence.

In this example against Salernitana in January, he is the Atalanta player furthest up the pitch, with centre-back colleague Giorgio Scalvini on the ball.

As Scalvini plays the ball to Teun Koopmeiners out wide, Hojlund sets off on a dash in behind the defence to offer the Dutch midfielder a progressive passing option.

Koopmeiners finds Hojlund’s run…

… which results in a penalty being awarded to Atalanta as he is brought down near the edge of the 18-yard box.

Another example is in the win away to Roma in September. After an initial run in behind the defence doesn’t find any joy, Hojlund finds himself in a deeper position when the Atalanta attack resets:

He makes another off-ball run behind the defence and this time is found by Rafael Toloi:

Hojlund calmly collects the ball before bringing it onto his left foot to tee up an arriving Scalvini…

… who curls the ball in for the only goal of the game.

Such threatening runs by Hojlund were often made into the wide channels, driving into space and often working in tandem with a strike partner in Gasperini’s 3-5-2 — or occasionally 3-4-3 — formation. With Ten Hag looking for more of a central presence from his striker, the Dane may adapt such off-ball movement towards more vertical runs, in addition to drifting into wider areas.

However, United’s dominance of the ball against weaker sides might mean there’s less space for him to attack, with the opposition setting up in a deeper block. That’s why a striker who knows how to play with his back to the goal is a much-desired feature in any new arrival at Old Trafford.

And Hojlund ticks this box, too.

He knows how to shield the ball and position himself correctly to get the better of the defender marking him. In this example against Lecce in February, he is anticipating how the attack will develop:

Once Jeremie Boga dribbles inside the pitch, Hojlund drops into his marker to pin him and uses his body to keep the Lecce man away from any incoming pass…

… which Boga now plays:

Hojlund controls with his right foot…

… before playing Lookman in on goal with his left for a shot that is ultimately flagged offside.

Hojlund’s ability with his feet is also quite useful in congested areas when the opponents sit deeper. For his size, he has good feet and can use both in tandem to dribble in small spaces. His goal away to Spezia in January is a fine testament to this.

Davide Zappacosta finds him near the edge of the penalty box…

… and he then uses his first touch to move the ball away from the defender and try to set himself up for a shot:

With no angle to go for goal, he stops the ball with his right — wrong-footing the defender in the process…

… before using his left foot again to put the ball past him and into space…

… from where he scores to bring Atalanta back into a game that ended 2-2.

Hojlund’s use of his body and ability in small spaces are keys to his hold-up and link play. Crucially, it highlights how much he can offer in his all-round game to his side’s attack. While the six-cap Denmark international can play on the shoulder of the opposition defence, his ability to drop in and combine with his team-mates shows he is not just a player to finish off attacks.

As evidence of this, Hojlund’s 13 touches per shot places him 69th among forwards across Europe’s top five leagues — double that of pure poachers such as Erling Haaland (6.6 touches per shot) and Osimhen (6.0).

For all his quality when the ball is on the ground, there’s room for improvement in his game aerially. Despite being well over 6ft tall, Hojlund isn’t the type of centre-forward you can lump it towards in the hope of bypassing the pressure— his aerial win rate last season was just 37 per cent.

To further highlight Hojlund’s aerial ability, we can look at his smarterscout duel ratings — which consider the quality of the opponent faced in those duels rather than simply their win rate.

As you can see below, Hojlund’s aerial ability profiles more similarly to that of Martial, who at 181cm is just under 6ft tall, in open play, when a player of his height and stature would be expected to be above average in such situations.

However, he has the physical attributes to develop that side of the game and grow into his body as he gets older and gains more experience.

It serves as a reminder that Hojlund only turned 20 this year and there is room for improvement and enhancing various parts of his game. United are willing to give him the time needed to settle if he does make the transition to the Premier League with them.

When compiling a list of elite, well-established strikers in Europe, few people would put Hojlund in their top 10 as things stand. Should that deter United fans? No, quite the opposite.

After looking to short-term forward options for multiple seasons, United may finally now be investing in a long-term, financially responsible option for a player who is yet to reach his peak but has a truly high ceiling.

In just two and a half years, Hojlund has made a sharp ascent, going from his first start for FC Copenhagen back home to Atalanta via seven months with Austria’s Sturm Graz (21 games, 12 goals) — making light work of each league he has arrived in.

His next step is undoubtedly the biggest if it is to Old Trafford, but Hojlund has all the tools to become a success in a United shirt should the deal get done.

(Top photo: Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)