Forget Kane or Haaland. Højlund shows Man Utd’s new strategy


It was as long ago as January that Manchester United knew that Harry Kane would not be the solution to their decade-long search for a reliable centre forward, but even inside Old Trafford, there is an acceptance that the club has taken a high-stakes gamble on 20-year-old Denmark international Rasmus Højlund being the answer to their problems.

But according to ESPN sources, it is a risk that United knew they had to take. Højlund, whose £64 million transfer fee from Atalanta could rise to £72m based on performance-related clauses in the deal, is promising but raw, supremely confident yet untested at the highest level.

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And with his towering physique and shock of blonde hair, and position as the focal point of United’s attacking plans, Højlund will not be able to escape instant comparisons with Manchester City‘s goal machine, Erling Haaland.

Yet the logic behind United’s decision to sign Højlund, according to ESPN sources, is that the club had to press the reset button on a flawed recruitment policy that had resulted in a succession of expensive mistakes since their last successful centre-forward signing — Robin van Persie from Arsenal in 2012.

Since Van Persie arrived to help clinch United’s most recent Premier League title with 26 goals in the 2012-13 season, the club has lurched from one bad signing to another in the attacking department.

Radamel Falcao, Odion Ighalo, Edinson Cavani, and Wout Weghorst have been and gone on loan having made little or no impact, Romelu Lukaku and Alexis Sanchez proved to be big names unable to live up to their reputations in a United shirt, while Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Cristiano Ronaldo brought goals in decent numbers, but also giant egos which did nothing to boost squad morale or offer a pathway to the future.

Anthony Martial, meanwhile, has spent eight years at Old Trafford with the jury still out on whether he is a centre forward or a player more comfortable out wide, without the pressure that comes with being the man in the middle.

With manager Erik ten Hag making it clear to football director John Murtough that a striker was an absolute priority in this summer’s recruitment plans, a strategy was drawn up with United’s scouting team to find the solution and finally acquire a reliable goal scorer.

Sources have told ESPN that Kane was quickly ruled out for two reasons. Firstly, United had no appetite for a summer-long transfer saga with Tottenham Hotspur — reports have said that Spurs chairman Daniel Levy has now flown off on holiday despite Bayern Munich wanting to complete a deal for Kane — that may have reached deadline day with no resolution.

The second factor was Ten Hag’s determination to find a striker who would press energetically and be his team’s first line of defence. As prolific as Kane has been for Spurs, he is not known for his tenacity and persistence when pressing defenders, so he did not fit the profile Ten Hag had identified.

Napoli‘s Victor Osimhen was considered, but even before club president Aurelio De Laurentiis made it clear that the Nigeria international would remain with the Italian champions, United felt he was not the solution. One source told ESPN that Lukaku’s disastrous time at Chelsea after returning to England following a productive two years with Internazionale had made the club wary of using goals in Serie A as an accurate gauge of a striker’s ability.

The immediate counter to that argument would be to question the decision to sign Højlund, who scored just nine goals in Serie A for Atalanta last season. It is a question also being asked within scouting circles, with one Premier League scout telling ESPN that, while Højlund generated glowing reports during his brief stint in Austria with Sturm Graz in 2022, the view amongst many within that fraternity is that the player is still not ready for England’s top flight, and least of all that pressure that comes with being United’s No. 9.

Others see it slightly differently, regarding Højlund as a “rough diamond” whose performances in the second half of last season showed a rapid rate of progression, at the same time as highlighting flaws — poor control, sloppy layoffs — that Ten Hag and his coach will have to work on.

United saw enough in Højlund at Atalanta, having previously noted his emergence at FC Copenhagen and Sturm Graz, to believe that he can, and will, become one of Europe’s top strikers.

Sources have said that United also accept they are not signing the finished product in Højlund and that, in an ideal scenario, he would have been left to develop for another year with Atalanta.

But with one United source telling ESPN that “we don’t have a secret box with strikers that nobody else knows about,” the choice was clear. They either throw big money at an ageing player not suited to Ten Hag’s style — i.e., Kane — or go against their judgement to attempt a headline-grabbing signing such as Osimhen.

Or they decide to skip a generation and try to identify the next big thing, despite the obvious risks involved. By signing Højlund, United have done just that. Having spent too long wasting fortunes on strikers who have enjoyed their best days elsewhere, the move for Hojlund is an attempt to back potential in the belief that United can benefit from his best days, rather than watch him doing it for somebody else.


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