Rasmus Hjlund Manchester United found themselves in an impossible situation. He is the striker the club would like to believe has been selected as a priority to sign this summer ahead of Harry Kane and also has the burden of measuring up against Erling Haaland across town at Manchester City.
But Kane and Haaland already clear their rivals on the Bundesliga and Premier League scoring charts respectively — Kane has 10 league goals for Bayern Munich; Haaland has 11 for City — Højlund is still waiting to score his first league goal for United after eight appearances for Erik ten Haag’s side. The 20-year-old has scored at least three goals in three Champions League appearances for United so far this season, so will face his former club FC Copenhagen on Wednesday’s trip to Denmark (and his brothers, Emil and Oscar) giving him the chance to add to his tally in a must-win game for United to maintain realistic hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages.
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Overall, the £72 million signing from Atalanta ends a nightmare start to his United career as, unlike Kane and Haaland, he has been tasked with scoring goals for a team that has consistently failed to give him the chance to do so. Had United taken a different route this summer and signed Kane from Tottenham Hotspur — although convincing him to move to Old Trafford could be a rare challenge — it’s hard to imagine the England captain being as great as he has been for so long. Bayern forced him to work with the minimal service that Højlund had.
The Denmark international’s 79th-minute substitution in Saturday’s 1-0 win at Fulham means it’s now 160 minutes since he’s had an opportunity in the Premier League. Against Fulham and last weekend against City, Hjlund didn’t have a single chance to score.
The best goal scorers can’t create chances out of nothing — just look at Kane, Haaland and Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah. Hjemlund did just that when he scored with a run from the halfway line in last month’s 3-2 defeat against Galatasaray, after which former United midfielder Paul Scholes compared him to one of the Old Trafford greats. “Wow, there’s a little [Ruud] There’s Van Nistelrooy,” Scholes told TNT Sports. “He [Højlund] Really excited me.”
But while a top striker must have the ability to conjure up a moment, they also need help around them and Ten Hague have yet to find a way to get the ball to their centre-forwards in key areas.
So far this season, the United manager has relied primarily on Marcus Rashford and Anthony as wingers, but neither has shown any signs of being able to read Højlund’s runs or even the determination to do so. Rashford, who has just one goal and one assist in the league all season, took the off-field frustrations from Hjlund by often opting to shoot instead of passing to him.
In 10 league games, Rashford has created just four big chances and delivered 13 crosses — hardly the kind of service a centre-forward needs. And Anthony has fared even worse without an assist, creating two big chances and making just nine crosses in eight games. The former Ajax winger, a left-footed player operating on the right flank, could ultimately be a better option for Hjlund if he is deployed on the left wing and called upon to deliver the crosses that aerially adept forwards traditionally thrive on.
Central midfielder Bruno Fernandes may be Ten Hague’s best hope to unlock Hjlund’s goalscoring potential. Already this season, the United captain has delivered 74 crosses and created six big chances — he just needs to find Hjlund with the ball as Kevin De Bruyne consistently did with Haaland at City.
But while Højlund can justifiably claim that he’s starved for quality service, there’s no escaping the fact that he’s also squandered good opportunities when they presented themselves. According to Premier League data, he missed six big chances despite only having 11 shots all season. Only four of these 11 targets were reached.
So after 572 minutes of Premier League action, Højlund’s stats are worryingly underwhelming and his confidence vulnerable. He still has some way to go to match Diego Forlan’s goal drought of 23 Premier League appearances — after moving to United from the Independent for £6.9m in 2002 — but paid a transfer fee that was £20m more than his £52m deal with City. For Borussia Dortmund to sign Haaland, he needs to start scoring goals in the Premier League.
Goals are important in the Champions League, and even if all three of Højlund’s goals to date have come in defeats, it is his contribution in the Premier League by which he will be measured. A goal in the win in Copenhagen could be the lift-off Højlund needs for his United career, but he needs help from team-mates who are letting him down.