At the risk of piling on to the laundry list of Manchester United concerns — back-to-back Champions League defeats, four defeats in seven games to open the Premier League season, no sign of the football Erik Ten Hag played at Ajax, Antony being questioned by police in two countries for assaulting women, Jadon Sancho exiled from the squad, Luke Shaw and Lisandro Martínez injured, the club being wholly or partly up for sale and nobody meeting the owners’ expectations, Harry Maguire sticking around and the Glazers, too — I wonder if it’s time to fret over Rasmus Hojlund.
It has nothing to do with his attitude or his production thus far. Despite being injured going into the season, the young center-forward has looked, sharp, motivated and gifted. He scored a fine goal against Galatasaray and was among those least to blame for the home defeat.
Rather, I’m concerned about the enormity of the task in front of him: playing center-forward at his age on a team of United’s magnitude at a time when all is not well and still living up to expectations.
Hojlund does not turn 21 until Feb. 4. He reportedly cost the club a whopping €70m ($73.5m) in transfer fees, rising to €80m ($84m) this past summer. To put this in context, according to Transfermarkt, only 42 players in the history of the game have changed clubs for bigger fees. Of those, just 11 were under the age of 21 and of those 11, none was a central striker, and none moved to a club facing the sort of turmoil currently engulfing United.
It’s not just that Hojlund moved to an enormous club for enormous money at a very young age, either; it’s that he will have to get serious playing time of the sort that center-forwards aren’t usually afforded at his age. Why? Because United are in four competitions and they only have two other realistic options up front. One is Marcus Rashford, who is arguably their best player and has been far more productive playing out wide. The other is Anthony Martial, who has scored all of 11 goals in his last 67 league appearances. He also has a poor injury record and hasn’t impressed in a long, long time, which explains why his contract expires in June and there has been no talk of extending it.
All this translates to a lot of minutes on the pitch for Hojlund, and that’s not something we see very often at that age, especially at a major club with a lot of pressure.
Clubs are more willing these days than they were in the past to put their faith in youngsters, but when they do, it’s overwhelmingly in certain positions: out on the wing, perhaps in attacking midfield, occasionally at fullback. These are roles where, rightly or wrongly, mistakes are easier to tolerate by fans, media and (crucially) teammates. Precocious center-forwards — especially ones like Hojlund — are not quite as rare as teenage keepers, but they’re not far off either.
Take the last five seasons in Europe’s Big Five leagues and a cut off of, say, 60% of a team’s minutes (2,052) as a reasonable amount for a starter. That’s 118 teams multiplied by five seasons, which is 590 times it could have happened. Well, it only happened on 21 occasions and once you whittle down the players who split their between up front and out wide — like João Félix in 2019-20 at Atletico Madrid, Christian Kouamé at Genoa in 2018-19 or Amine Gouiri at Nice in 2020-21 — and stick to proper center-forwards, you’re left with just 17 instances where this has happened.
Of those, there are just two examples in the Premier League: Armando Broja at Southampton (2021-22), and Rashford at Manchester United (2018-19). And Rashford isn’t a great comp here, since United often played a front two that season and unlike Hojlund, he’d been at the club from a young age and had 2½ years as a regular under his belt when he did it.
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Elsewhere around Europe, you have Erling Haaland, who did it twice (no surprise there), but we’re talking about a phenom and an outlier. With a few exceptions, most who did it were at small clubs with far less pressure, where it was OK to “chuck in the kid” and see what happened — I’m thinking here of guys like Jonathan Burkardt at Mainz (2021-22) or Youssef En-Nesyri at Leganes (2018-19). The biggest clubs where it occurred were Real Sociedad (Alexander Isak, 2020-21), Fiorentina (Dusan Vlahovic, 2020-21), Eintracht Frankfurt (Luka Jovic, 2018-19, though he often played in a front two with Sebastian Haller) and Lille (Victor Osimhen in 2019-20 and Jonathan David in 2020-21, though, again both often played in a front two).
You might also notice that none of those guys — except for Osimhen in 2019-20 — played Champions League football and that three of them played in empty stadiums during the pandemic, rather than in front of 70,000 at Old Trafford.
Dawson: Atmosphere at Ten Hag’s Man United disintegrating
Rob Dawson reacts to loud boos at Old Trafford after Erik ten Hag’s decision to sub Anthony Martial on for Rasmus Hojlund.
The bottom line? United appear to be asking Hojlund to do something that’s near unprecedented in Europe’s major leagues. The fact that Haaland did it, he’s also from Scandinavia and there’s a certain assonance to their names is pretty meaningless here. Using him as a benchmark is also unfair. We know United’s budget was stretched to the limit this past summer, but with hindsight, you wonder if maybe they wouldn’t have been better off picking up a veteran striker, ideally on loan, to take some of the workload off Hojlund and help him develop.
(OK, this is where some will giggle and blurt out: “What? You mean like Wout Weghorst?” Laugh all you like about Weghorst, but he cost nothing in fees, gave United some meaningful minutes and they finished third in the Premier League, won the League Cup and went on a deep Europa League run with him.)
Heck, Hojlund himself benefited from being part of an attacking corps rather than the main man last season at Atalanta, when he scored 10 goals in 34 appearances. He shared playing time with two veteran center-forwards like Luis Muriel and Duván Zapata and only made 20 starts, very rarely up front on his own. And he was the team’s third-leading scorer, after Ademola Lookman and Teun Koopmeiners. There was no European football to worry about, and the focus was squarely on his personal growth.
Hojlund has impressive tools — we can debate the transfer fee another time — and it’s entirely possible that a season of apparent hardship and turmoil at the club will only toughen him up even further and not impact his development arc one bit. But the frustrating thing is that it didn’t need to be this way. There was no reason to make his job that much more difficult and the club’s massive investment in him that much more difficult to come to fruition.