Rasmus Hojlund is back from injury and is set to make his first Manchester United start this weekend.
The £70m price tag weighs heavy, with great expectation lying on the shoulders of Hojlund. The great expectation isn’t helped by his name, height, position, hair colour, nationality or key attributes (pace and strength) – they are all of a likeness to Erling Haaland, who lives on the blue side of Manchester.
Believe it or not, Rasmus Hojlund and Erling Haaland are completely different strikers and their play styles are incomparable. Rasmus Hojlund isn’t the finished article yet, and Manchester United splashed the big bucks on him for his profile, and what he could become, rather than his CV.
We’ve only seen a 20 minute cameo against Arsenal so far, so ahead of his first start for the Red Devils, so what is Ten Hag’s plan for Hojlund? What can he bring to United? How will they set up with him? Is it money well spent? Let’s try and break down the player behind the name.
Firstly, what is a ‘Ten Hag’ striker and how do you find one? The answer: take a trip down memory lane to Ajax.
Ten Hag has always favoured big centre forwards in his managerial career, Sebastien Haller (6’2”), Kasper Dolberg (6’3”), Klaas-Jan Hunterlaar (6’2”) and Brian Brobbey (6’2”) to name a few.
He also has spoken very openly about what he looks for in his perfect No 9: “It’s quite clear in my way of playing, I like the type (of player) that Anthony Martial is because he can hold the ball, he’s a target, he can link up, he can also run behind, he has speed, he can finish and he’s a good presser.”
If you study Ten Hag press conferences for long enough and you’ll see the United manager compliment attacking players who create goalscoring opportunities through their off-the-ball movement, mentioning moments where his players run behind defences.
The profile the Dutchman is in search of is a player who is tall, works hard on and off the ball, has strength to hold up the ball but pace to get in behind, someone who provides an out-ball and also creates chances, plus scoring some goals would help too. Rasmus Hojlund fits this profile, here’s why.
Rasmus Hojlund is a young, raw player with a huge price tag. He is also a human being. Fans can’t jump on his back early, as he is malleable, packed with potential and in great hands under Eric Ten Hag’s management.
Last season at Atalanta, Hojlund scored 9 goals and registered 2 assists in 32 games. He made himself available to 0.47 XG’s-worth of chances per 90 minutes last campaign, the 5th most in Serie A. He scored 0.44 goals per 90 minutes too. In short, he scored the same amount of goals as his XG would suggest, a stat which would be adored at Old Trafford.
Another thing that would be welcomed with open arms is his pace and physicality. His former coach, Gian Piero Gasperini, said: “He is so quick; he’s under 11 seconds over 100m — and that’s not even trying very hard. Considering his height (6ft 3in), he has a low centre of gravity and can move his legs very fast.”
Last season, United’s 143 direct attacks (taking the ball from their own half to a shot or touch in the opposition box within 15 seconds) a noticeable change to the Red Devil’s play since Ten Hag took over.
On multiple occasions last year, Hojlund’s blistering pace has been there to see in both the red of Denmark and blue and black of Atalanta.
He is also good at linking up the play and becoming an out-ball too. He received 11 progressive passes per game last season in an Atalanta side who averaged under 50% possession overall – proving that he is great option for counter-attacking football.
He has the skillset to drop deep and get in behind, something that didn’t work for Wout Weghorst during his short stay at Old Trafford. Weghorst found the positions to receive the ball but didn’t have the agility or pace to turn with the ball and run at the defence, and it usually resulted in backwards passes.
It is even common for Hojlund to drift out wide to take on a defender ‘one-on-one’ – watch out for his trademark ball-roll before taking on a defender.
His good dribbling, link-up play and transitional play is supported by simple ‘one-two’ sequences and punchy passing to unlock defences.
With direct, quick and technical wingers Marcus Rashford, Antony and Alejandro Garnacho driving inside to attack, and with Bruno Fernandes and Mason Mount as chance creators and attacking threats from midfield, Manchester United’s squad on paper looks like the perfect fit for Hojlund.
He most definitely will get compared to Erling Haaland throughout this season, and he almost certainly won’t score as many goals and the Norweigan robot either, but Ten Hag loves his strikers doing more than ‘just’ scoring.
This was proved by Sebastien Haller’s 7 assists during his last season at Ajax. What you can expect is a more free-flowing Manchester United attack on the whole, and a striker who offers more than just goals.