Like many clubs searching for a striker this summer, Manchester United find themselves with limited options. Truly world-class striking options are few and far between, with most tied down to their respective clubs. Harry Kane may be available, but at 30 years of age with a long history of ankle injuries and a nearly 100 million pound valuation, his move to Old Trafford may not materialize. Victor Osimhen is coming off a sensational season at Napoli, but again, he is likely prohibitively expensive.
That leaves Man United with a host of experienced, good strikers who are not at an elite level or young prospects. Which of those prospects could eventually become elite? Which ones could consistently score 20 or more league goals a season? One player who seemingly could reach that level later in his career is 20-year-old Atalanta striker Rasmus Winther Højlund.
What stands out with Højlund is that at a young age, he shows astute movement and remarkable athletic traits that will allow him to consistently have high-quality goal-scoring opportunities. The physical attributes are, of course, impossible to coach. A player can improve their physical build, acceleration, and general athleticism, but there are sharp limits to how significant those improvements can be.
Højlund’s athletic ability already puts him ahead of many other young prospects in terms of his ceiling. Social media is rife with clips of his blistering acceleration, where his pace and power sees him barreling through opposition defences in transition.
It’s drawn comparisons to Erling Haaland, and while it’s unlikely he’ll ever hit the historic heights of the Norwegian, there is something similarly jarring about the Dane’s fierce speed. He also has a strong physical presence, allowing him to ride challenges and shield the ball well when linking play or carrying it forward. He’s also able to get shots off from difficult positions, able to contort his body to ensure he can still generate power from his shots. Højlund is not just blessed which physical advantages — he knows how to use them wisely.
There’s also something to be said about Højlund’s engine. We don’t usually focus on the stamina and energy levels of a striker as much as other positions, but it’s undeniable that the 20-year-old plays with remarkable intensity. During a game, he’s constantly making sharp, incisive runs over and over again. That speaks both to an intelligence about attacking space off the ball, and an ability to recognize where to exploit gaps in an opposition defence.
However, it also signals a remarkable intensity to his playing style, one that not all players can replicate. For a striker to consistently make those types of runs can be both mentally taxing when they don’t receive the ball and physically taxing to maintain during the course of ninety minutes. Højlund, though, is able to make it work.
Beyond the volume of his runs, the young attacker is also able to make them into good areas. When attacking in transition or when a defensive line is pushed a bit higher, he curves his runs well, ensuring he can drift away from defenders to generate momentum before he arrives at the ball. In the box, he makes more incisive, quick movements, making the most of his remarkable acceleration to dart just ahead of defenders. Again, his physical traits allow him to maximize this: he’s so fast and powerful with his runs that it’s incredibly hard for opponents to curtail his ability to get into good shooting areas.
🚨 Erik ten Hag wants Rasmus Hojlund.
Hojlund in January: “Now that you ask, I will not hide the fact that I am a HUGE Manchester United fan. So personally, it would be one of the biggest things for me.”
It’s in our hands. ✅️ pic.twitter.com/4tzSAD2WzJ
— UF (@UtdFaithfuls) June 1, 2023
For a young player, Højlund also shows impressive judgement in knowing when and when not to shoot. He rarely takes shots out of the box, instead accumulating most of them from inside the penalty area. His ball-striking is sound without being standout, and while certainly good enough to pose a threat outside the area, he’s patient about waiting for the right opportunity to strike. His non-penalty xg/shot of 0.17, ranking him in the 80th percentile, bodes well for his ability to maximize his goal-scoring from the shots he does take.
In possession, Højlund is adept at linking the play. He can be quite indecisive with the ball, dallying and inviting undue pressure from the opposition and forcing himself into situations where he has less time on the ball. His passing is also somewhat limited.
The Dane is quite comfortable when passing from the right-half space, where he can cut onto his stronger left foot and float balls into the box or drive through balls. His execution is a bit erratic but quite good from these angles. His best passes also tend to be in transition, when he has more space and has plenty of forward runners. Against a more settled defence, though, or when asked to get the ball in other areas, he’s fairly secure with his passing but much less ambitious. He also prefers to stay in the central channel or the half spaces, rarely drifting truly wide to interchange with a winger or wide forward.
While a solid passer, Højlund is a much more impressive ball carrier. He’s not one to isolate a defender in settled possession and deceive them with a host of tricks and feints. Instead, he’s at his best when carrying in transition, using his pace and strength to bulldoze through defences.
He’s good at taking multiple touches with the ball when carrying it to ensure it’s always in his control and that he can change direction when necessary. Rather than doing his out wide, he seemingly prefers to turn on the ball in the middle and carry directly. He’s an incisive, direct runner and his physical presence gives him a significant advantage when carrying the ball. Højlund can become better about using that gravity to the fullest, ceding possession to teammates at the optimal moment rather than trying to end a dribbling run with a shot for himself.
At Manchester United, Højlund would likely need to be phased into the side. With the club sorely lacking any kind of specialist striker, it’s arguable that even if he were to match his contribution with Atalanta this year of eight goals, it’d make a discernible impact on the team.
Still, though, he would need to become a much more active presser and refine his link play to get significant minutes. He’s still quite raw, but his core traits could bode well for United. His consistent ability to make runs at the last minute could unlock Bruno Fernandes’ chance creation, as the Portuguese’s tendency to make direct, ambitious creative passes would benefit from an attacker with the requisite movement to profit from them.
— UtdPlug (@UtdPlug) June 5, 2023
He’d also be the right age profile for this United team, and if he were accompanied with a more experienced forward, he could help Erik Ten Hag maintain the squad as a Champions League qualifying team for a couple of seasons before making a serious push for the Premier League title in the future. Realistically, there are too many technical deficiencies and squad gaps for this squad to be title contenders in the next 1-2 years. A player of Højlund’s age and talent ceiling is exactly the kind of player United require.
To both fill their striking needs and build towards a team that can challenge for the league in the long-term, Rasmus Winther Højlund would be a smart signing for Manchester United.