Manchester United have a striker problem. None of them are fit.
Well, Mason Greenwood is fit. But he’s also 17 years old and has precious little experience. With Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial out injured, the options for the Red Devils are either thrusting this teenager into a starting role for a fair while, or putting someone else like Juan Mata or Jesse Lingard into a false nine role.
For a side that just announced itself with world-record revenues of £627m, that is a staggering position to find themselves in. They sold Romelu Lukaku this summer, a striker who nearly always guarantees goals (he currently has three in five games for new club Inter) and threw their trust behind Rashford and Martial.
Or did they? Rumours were that Solskjaer wanted a replacement for the departed Belgian, and that makes sense. After all, how could Manchester United, a club run by ostensibly intelligent people, put their trust in two young strikers who have played a cumulative 354 games for United but haven’t even hit 100 goals between them?
Martial bagged 17 goals in his debut season but hasn’t got near that total since, although he had two goals in three games this season before getting injured. Rashford meanwhile has never topped 13 goals in a season, although he has spent a lot of his career playing wide and exhausting himself with off-the-ball runs (defensive and offensive).
The idea that these two could be relied upon to score enough goals for United was… well, it wasn’t pure fantasy. Both genuinely have the potential but Martial’s propensity to get injured throws a huge spanner in the works. That being that, it forces Rashford to play up-front.
Rashford playing in attack seems natural, after all, it’s where he broke through under Louis van Gaal and it’s where he wants to play. And when United are in full-flow on the counterattack, it works beautifully. Rashford is blisteringly quick with intelligent vertical and lateral movement and sharp technique. He can find the spaces and get into the box at speed.
Subscribe to Squawka’s Youtube channel here.
Since Solskjaer took over at Old Trafford, no one has more goals from fast breaks than Rashford’s three. He’s like the Dothraki: absolutely unbeatable in the open field. And United want to play in the open field, they want to be quick and deadly. Moving at speed from one box to the other. That’s also why Solskjaer was happy to get rid of Lukaku in the summer; the Belgian can’t run the break as Rashford does, he’s too big and all those sprints exhaust him.
But what Lukaku can do that Rashford struggles with is score against tightly packed defences. The Belgian’s movement over five yards is smarter, he can sniff out chances easier. This is a skill that Rashford never really had to learn due to being pushed out onto the wings and, so, when opponents sit back to “hide behind their high walls”, shutting down passing lanes and not offering wide open spaces for Rashford to pillage into, the Englishman suffers.
Of course, when Solskjaer was planning his squad, he didn’t take this into account because he was going to play Martial in a central role again. Now Martial, back wearing the no. 9 shirt, can run the break as Rashford can. Not as well, sure, but he’s quick and he moves just as well with the ball as he does without it (better, probably). However unlike Rashford, he is definitely capable of fighting with defenders physically. Martial can play with his back to goal, he can hold the ball up and pull off cute flicks to bring team-mates into play.
Martial is also capable of scoring those “nasty little tap-ins,” as Solskjaer called them. Simple one-touch finishes from crosses, the kind that can break down solid defences because they happen too quickly for defenders to react to; the kind of goal Lukaku excels at. His first goal this season against Chelsea was exactly that kind of finish. So he is a striker that can play both ways United would need to. But, again, Martial is injured and even if he was fit; he is just one man. United can’t go an entire season with just one man up-front, and they can’t really use Rashford up there because too many people know the cheat code to shut him down.
United were always going to struggle against packed defences this season because they didn’t sign a no. 10 to help be their guiding creative force in the final third (or a no. 8, to allow Pogba to move forward and be that force). But the absence of a true goal-getter like Lukaku, someone who knows how to score in small spaces with minimal touches, has turned what was already going to be a problem into a major roadblock that means literally any team who shows up and defends in a compact low-block will all but kill off United’s goal threat.
So, who could United turn to in order to solve their problem? Obviously, they will have to hobble along until January but it’s clear that they need another striker up there. Someone to rotate with Martial so that Rashford (and Greenwood) can stay out wide, where his skill-set works for both open opponents and ones that sit deep too.
United were linked with a late move for Mandzukic in the summer transfer window before deciding against it, probably because the striker is 33-years-old and very much past his best. Still, he is a relentless competitor, a serial winner and the kind of big target man that United’s faster strikers could play off.
Erling Haaland (or Hwang Hee-Chan)
The teenage sensation lit up the Champions League with a hat-trick for FC Salzburg. He’s tall, he’s quick and he scores goals. He’s also the son of a former Manchester City and Leeds player, so he may have some animosity for United. That said, he has played for Solskjaer before at Molde.
Of course, his hat-trick in Europe came in the open field, so given his youth and inexperience, it’s likely that he would face a lot of the same issues Rashford does. Also; no one noticed that he played off Hwang Hee-Chan, who would honestly be the better fit for United given their current needs, although he’s nowhere near as fashionable a name.
The Catalan striker works hard, pops up in the box and scores goals. He scored 16 goals for Espanyol in 2017/18 and at 27, has the experience to just come in and get on with it – adaptation to England pending, of course. His release clause is €40m, which is basically nothing for a club like United, and he could prove to be a really shrewd buy.
There’s no way Manchester United could buy Luka Jovic, he only just joined Real Madrid, but pick him up on loan? The Serbian striker doesn’t seem to have a place in Zinedine Zidane’s preferred XI right now and he has too much talent to be sitting on the bench every week. So, why not offer a cheeky loan? Madrid have no “Morientes factor” to fear here because United aren’t in the Champions League. Meanwhile, Jovic is a born goal-getter, specialising in first-time and improvisational finishes. He could be a smash at Old Trafford.
Look, Clayton Blackmore said it and now everyone is thinking about it. United let Zlatan Ibrahimovic go because his knee was gone. Well, over the past year the Swede has used MLS to successfully rehab the knee. He’s not mobile but, as said before, mobility is not what United need in a striker. They need someone to score goals. To bury chances in the box. Zlatan is supreme at that. Moreover, he is a massive dressing room presence and the kind of leader United’s young forwards could look up to.
He wouldn’t have to play every game but he could play a major role for sure. It’s worth remembering that the only time, the only time now, that Manchester United looked like Manchester United since Sir Alex Ferguson left was the season Ibrahimovic was at the club and healthy. That cocksure, swaggering genius gave United an edge and guided them to three trophies. In fact, had Mourinho better managed his minutes (instead of playing him every game), there’s a chance he would have never destroyed his ligaments and could still be at the club today.
The MLS play-offs are due to end in November and should LA Galaxy get all the way to the final, United would end up with a charged, almost perfectly match-fit Ibrahimovic at their disposal come January.
He surely wouldn’t cost much, his wages wouldn’t be that much of an issue given how much was cut from the budget this summer. Come on, Ed Woodward, authority has been given you to enable the Return of the King – so bring him back. Give him shirt no. 99 and bring him back!