Home » Rasmus Højlund suits Manchester United more than Harry Kane

Rasmus Højlund suits Manchester United more than Harry Kane

by Darragh Fox

Manchester United appear to be a club with a clear plan this summer; one they are refusing to deviate from, despite the prospect of alluring reasons to elsewhere.

This methodical approach should represent a refreshing change for fans. Too often Old Trafford has been a hotspot of reactive profligacy over the past decade, rather than proactive prudence. The amount of money United have squandered on poor recruitment in the post-Ferguson malaise borders on unconscionable.

The manner in which the club has begun this transfer window suggests they are heeding these expensive lessons however.

A hierarchy of need for the summer was established as last season drew to a close. The priorities were; a new goalkeeper, as comfortable with the ball at his feet as in his hands; a new midfielder, capable of influencing the game in both directions; and a new striker, dependable and deadly in equal measure.

Andre Onana and Mason Mount have been signed for the first two roles, while the third, and arguably most essential, remains vacant. This may not be true for much longer however.

Rasmus Højlund has emerged as the primary target for the striker position, with a deal looking more and more likely. Ten Hag believes the young forward the “perfect fit” in his system and is unconcerned by Højlund’s relative inexperience. Instead, United’s manager considers the striker more than capable of “establishing himself quickly” in English football, given his profile and personality.

Which is why the recent development in the availability of Harry Kane has proven so illuminating to United’s new approach to the transfer market.

Tottenham Hotspur owner, Joe Lewis, has reportedly informed Daniel Levy he must convince Kane to sign a new deal this summer, or sell the striker. Lewis will not allow Kane to run down his contract, as Levy had appeared willing to do.

Kane was alleged to be United’s number one target before the summer window opened, with Ten Hag described as “obsessed” with the England captain. The club deemed the transfer unsuitable however, given their reluctance to enter negotiations with Levy.

This reticence continues to hold true, even with this recent update to Kane’s position. Simon Stone (BBC) reports United are not interested in the Spurs striker, and do not believe that will change this window, while Fabrizio Romano contends the club are pressing on with their pursuit of Højlund.

This decision continues the deliberate approach United have exercised this summer.

Onana and Mount were considered the primary targets Ten Hag wanted in goal and in midfield, and were subsequently pursued as such. Højlund emerged as the primary option up front, and has been treated in a similar vein.

Under the chaotic stewardship of Ed Woodward, the opposite would have occurred. United would likely have squandered the progress made with Atalanta for Højlund, in favour of pursuing a more high-profile, ‘sexier’ transfer, despite the obvious difficulties involved. This would ultimately have led to disappointment and a deadline-day move for Danny Ings.

United fans should therefore be encouraged, not disappointed, by the decision to continue pushing for Højlund instead of Kane, as it illustrates the evolving maturity in the club’s approach to recruitment off the pitch.

It is also, surprisingly, the correct decision for the team on the pitch as well.

In terms of their current level, Kane and Højlund are worlds apart. Thirty league goals for Kane last season in a dreadful Spurs team is as impressive, if not more so, than Haaland’s thirty-six for a rampant Manchester City. Højlund returned nine by comparison.

But the Spurs man is set to reach the thirty-year-old milestone in a few days, while Atalanta’s striker only turned twenty at the beginning of the year. It feels a reasonable expectation Kane will begin slowing down at this stage of his career, while Højlund will only continue accelerating.

Given the ages of important members of the United squad – Varane (29), Shaw (28), Casemiro (31), Eriksen (31), Fernandes (28) etc. – concerns about adding another player in this time-sensitive bracket are justified. The ages of Onana, 27 (a teenager in goalkeeping years), and Mount, 24, suggests the club are acutely aware of this.

Yet it is the profile of the two strikers which validates United’s decision most strongly.

When asked to reflect on last year, Ten Hag acknowledged the improvements his team made as the season progressed but was quick to underscore the need for further development. One particular area the Dutchman focused on was his desire to see United become the “best transition team in the world.”

While a coordinated and well-drilled approach is essential to dominate transitions, a team is left largely blunted without the requisite pace to effectively counter-attack. Speed is King.

In Marcus Rashford, United possess the quintessential transitional player from this perspective; a forward who incisively penetrates the opposition’s backline with blistering pace.

In Bruno Fernandes, United possess the perfect transitional player from a technical perspective; a midfielder capable of unlocking a defence with a perfectly-weighted through ball. Bruno is often the yin to Rashford’s yang when United counter-attack.

Without Rashford however, the picture is very different.

The supporting cast in the forward line for United do not possess the same devastating speed as United’s number ten. Martial, Sancho, Antony and Eriksen are not players capable of stretching defences without the ball; rather it is with the ball where they thrive. Garnacho offers a similar type of directness to his left-wing team mate, but the Argentinian only recently turned 19 and cannot be expected to be relied upon.

Which is why a new striker must offer the potent combination of pace and physicality that Rashford provides. United run the risk of becoming static up front without this; unable to successfully exploit transitions in the manner their manager desires.

Hojlund’s speed, relative to his size, borders on implausible. Standing an imposing 191cm, with a powerful frame, the Dane is capable of running the 100m dash in less than eleven seconds. This type of speed is extremely difficult for the majority of defenders to keep up with, let alone defend against. It serves to push opposition defences deeper, conscious of the risk leaving space behind them engenders, which, in turn, produces a larger area, in-between the lines, for creative players to operate in.

Furthermore, Højlund is comfortable operating in the channels and on the wing, creating uncertainty in the defence and even more space for his team mates to exploit. It is easy to imagine a scenario where the Dane drifts out to the right-hand side, Rashford cuts through the middle, and Mount pushes out left as Antony drives inside with the ball from the right. This type of positional versatility is fundamental to Ten Hag’s overload-based system.

Kane operates very differently.

He is more inclined to drop deep, into the number ten role, which, while hugely productive for Spurs, would infringe upon Fernandes’ territory. This type of ineffective midfield overload has been most noticeable for England, where Kane often appears to jostle for space with Mount, Bellingham, Foden or Grealish, while the centre-forward position goes unfilled.

Kane would undoubtedly strike a formidable partnership with Rashford, as he has with Son Heung-Min, but an ineffective one with Fernandes. Similarly, the comparisons between Højlund and Haaland, though extremely premature, offer a comparable template to the one which made Sancho such a dominant creative force in Dortmund. The same holds true for Antony.

United’s attackers would benefit far more from the presence of pace and power ahead of them, rather than another technically gifted player beside them. Højlund’s profile is, therefore, superior to Kane’s, despite Kane being the superior player at present. When factoring in the Dane’s age and expense (prospective transfer fee/wages) in comparison to the England captain with only a year left on his deal, it’s evident why United are sticking to their original plan.

Højlund is the better fit for the present at Old Trafford, and he may very well be the better player in the not too distant future.

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