MManchester United have missed out on a young Scandinavian striker, so they won’t want to let the chance slip away a second time. “I called United about six months before taking over and told them I had this striker, but they didn’t listen,” said former club manager Ole Gunnar Solskjær of Erling Haaland earlier this year. “Four million, I asked. But they never signed it. Four million!” It was 2018, Haaland was playing under Solskjær for Norwegian side Molde and, although not quite the famous goalscoring machine we see today, the young striker was still attracting watchful eyes.
Fast forward to today and, with Haaland scoring goals for Manchester City’s sake, United are looking to solidify their interest in Danish striker Rasmus Højlund. As the club close in on signing Mason Mount, a new striker is Erik ten Hag’s next priority. The Atalanta player wasn’t their main target before the summer but he’s a leader who should excite the fans.
Atalanta moved quickly to secure his services 12 months ago, paying around €17m to sign the striker from Sturm Graz, and although his record nine goals in 32 league appearances – 20 of them starts – isn’t a good read, Højlund adjusted relatively quickly to the demands of Serie A. Atalanta fans have started to see the best of him this year, with eight of his nine league goals coming in the second half of the season – only eight Serie A players have scored more in 2023. Duván Zapata gave Højlund a chance to impress, and he seized it.
Højlund’s stock really started to rise in March, when he scored five goals in his first two appearances for Denmark, against Finland and Kazakhstan. Atalanta realized they had a star in the making, and a star who will demand a hefty fee when they decide to sell. “In progress” is the key phrase here. Højlund is far from the finished article. United were linked with Harry Kane and Victor Osimhen – who scored 56 league goals between them last season – but decided against spending the most money on these strikers in their prime.
Højlund is not at the level of these attackers, but he has the potential to evolve. He has some of the attributes that made Haaland so dangerous. The Manchester City striker combines strength and speed to terrorize defences, and Højlund, at 6ft 1in, has a similar approach. He’s a powerful runner who has an acceleration that helps him get past markers. Once started, it’s hard to stop.
His pace would be useful in a United side who often look to break quickly against their opponents. United scored more counterattack goals (nine) than any other Premier League side last season. While only one of Højlund’s nine Serie A goals was deemed to come from a counter-attacking situation, the tools are there for United to use this approach.
There’s more to his game than just passing opponents or hanging on to long balls played overhand. In Erik ten Hag’s preferred 4-2-3-1 setup, the lone striker has to score goals – something he struggled to do last season – and get the others to play. Højlund does it well. His pass completion rate of 74.3% last season was a decent return for a striker and suggests he can hold the ball, lead the line and create chances for his teammates.
There are some rough edges in his game that need to be ironed out, especially his finishing. Only one United player hit double league goals last season – Marcus Rashford with 17 – so Ten Hag needs someone who can find the net. Højlund’s comeback from nine goals in 1,836 minutes was solid but unspectacular. His conversion rate was just 16.7% and he missed 11 clear chances – the eighth highest figure in Serie A, despite only being on the pitch for 54% of the campaign .
His poor finish could be improved with the right coaching and United have someone who can help him. Benni McCarthy joined the club last summer to work with their strikers and he played a key role in Rashford’s fine goal. McCarthy helped Rashford become the first United player to score 30 goals in a season for a decade. Højlund would undoubtedly benefit from working with the South African.
That being said, if United go into the new season with Højlund as their only recognized striker, they could be in trouble. Moving to a club of United’s stature brings pressure in itself and he will need to be introduced to the team gradually. They will have to be patient with Højlund, but he has the potential to take the world by storm.