Manchester United‘s recruitment department estimated they had a database of around 1,800 strikers at the beginning of the club’s search for a new centre forward. Gradually, the list was narrowed down until manager Erik ten Hag and football director John Murtough settled on one: Rasmus Hojlund.
Inside the club, there’s an acceptance that signing a 20-year-old with fewer than 100 senior club appearances to his name represents a big risk. Ten Hag is looking for a player to score the goals that will help United bridge the gap with Manchester City in the Premier League, and Hojlund has only 27 so far, albeit in a relatively short career. He had nine for Atalanta in Serie A last season.
On the surface, United appear to have paid a high price for the Denmark international after agreeing to a deal that could end up costing £72 million, but Murtough is banking on Ten Hag helping Hojlund realise his undoubted potential. He’s a player signed for the future as much as the present; the problem is that United strikers rarely get time to prove they’re up to it.
Only when Hojlund gets going at United will it become clear whether his signing is a masterstroke or a misplaced gamble.
Ten Hag has promised to ease him in gently, and it’s likely he won’t have any choice given Hojlund is currently nursing a back injury that will prevent him from making his debut for at least a few weeks. Club sources have already been forced to refute reports that the problem is more serious than originally disclosed, and it was no coincidence that pictures of Hojlund training on the grass with a coach at Carrington were quickly distributed this week.
Regardless, Hojlund is expected to miss the Premier League opener against Wolves at Old Trafford on Monday. When he finally starts playing, one issue for both Hojlund and United is that he’s arrived during a summer when Harry Kane — a proven Premier League goalscorer for nearly a decade — was available, at least until he completed a protracted move to Bayern Munich on Friday.
According to sources, United were informed early on in the transfer window that Tottenham were under pressure to either extend Kane’s contract before the deadline or secure a sizeable fee. Ten Hag is a big fan, but was told following the end of the 2022-23 season that the numbers needed to sign the England captain “didn’t work.”
There were also concerns about getting sucked into a drawn-out negotiation with Daniel Levy and a belief that Tottenham were quoting a lower fee for clubs outside England. Wage demands made by Kane’s representatives were also viewed as prohibitive. It has been accepted within the club that Hojlund’s first season at United is likely to be set against anything Kane achieves at Bayern Munich, but Ten Hag and Murtough are convinced they’ve got the right man.
During Zoom conversations before the deal was done, Ten Hag made a point of asking Hojlund whether he understood the pressure that came with playing for United and was impressed with the confidence of his answer. It was also noted by the Dutchman that Hojlund has shown enough self-awareness to accept that, as a young player, he still has a lot to learn.
During background checks, Hojlund’s character and personality attracted Ten Hag the most, as well as his record for Denmark (six goals in six games). The 6-foot-3 Hojlund is also a strong, quick and direct player, and it was felt that he would be well suited to English football and complement the other forwards in the squad, particularly Marcus Rashford.
It was telling that after the announcement was made, Ten Hag told in-house club media “the team was waiting for a type like him” because he has a different set of skills than Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jadon Sancho. Yet Ten Hag has also been wary of saying too much about Hojlund so as not to pile on any extra pressure; regardless, there’s no escaping the fact that he’s United’s key signing in a position they were desperate to fill.
United made good progress last season, winning the Carabao Cup to end a six-year trophy drought and qualifying for the Champions League, but they were also the lowest scorers of the Premier League’s top six. Leicester City were relegated and scored only seven fewer than United’s 58 goals over the 38-game season; when finding ways to get closer to City and Arsenal, it’s an obvious area of improvement.
Hojlund won’t be expected to do it all himself — particularly because last season was the first time he reached double figures in all competitions in a single campaign — but as the fifth-most-expensive signing in the club’s history, there will be no escaping the spotlight.
It’s the type of deal that can make or break a team — one that could either turn out to be a masterstroke or an expensive mistake. Ten Hag is convinced, but only time will tell.