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27th Dec 2023

“Happiest man alive” Rasmus Hojlund set for new challenge as United eye Joshua Zirkzee

Patrick McCarry

Rasmus Hojlund

Up and running, at last.

Rasmus Hojlund came into the Aston Villa game, on Tuesday, with six goals to his name for the season yet a world of pressure on his shoulders.

The 20-year-old had scored five Champions League goals for Manchester United and another for his country, Denmark, in a Euro 2024 qualifier. He has shown moments of promise, and the odd night when he would pull it all together and look an absolute menace, but a Premier League goal had eluded him for nigh on 1,000 minutes.

Erik ten Hag, with his back pinned to the wall, took the smart option of dropping Antony to his bench, switching Alejandro Garnacho to the right wing and reinstating Marcus Rashford to the starting XI. The idea was to provide more service to the young Dane and give Aston Villa’s defence something to think about.

After 30 minutes, it was the United defence left stewing. The hosts were 2-0 down and Old Trafford was collectively howling. A 14th defeat in 27 games was looking on the cards. For the final 15 minutes of the half, United rallied and delivered a portent of what was to come. Rashford had two stinging drives on target, Bruno Fernandes was through on goal but for a poor touch and Hojlund was inches away from connecting with a Garnacho cross, inside the six-yard box.

Hojlund carried himself like a striker short of confidence and bearing a heavy burden. Service to the Dane has been poor, in many games this season, but he was often arriving too early or too late as cross were coming in. He had a great chance against Liverpool, albeit from a narrow angle, but hit his shot into the turf before Alisson Becker repelled it.

“I had several talks with Rasmus,” ten Hag revealed after the match. “I pointed out he scored a lot for Denmark and scored in the Champions League, so that demonstrated ability. He had to believe in it.

“When strikers don’t score it is always a problem but he has a strong character and a big personality, which is what a striker needs. When he keeps investing, the goals will come and he will score more.”

In other games this season – like against West Ham when he was hooked after 55 minutes – Hojlund found himself watching the closing stages back on the bench. Sensing his team had the upper-hand, on Tuesday, ten Hag left his young striker out there. Garnacho was the one that sparked the comeback with two well-taken goals. Hojlund sealed the comeback with a super finish in the 82nd minute. After 15 Premier League games, spanning 1,027 minutes, the Dane had his moment of glory.

Rasmus HojlundRasmus Hojlund of Manchester United celebrates scoring the third and winning goal, against Aston Villa, with team mate Alejandro Garnacho. (Photo by Visionhaus/Getty Images) 

Alan Shearer on Rasmus Hojlund

On Match of the Day, following that Manchester United win over Aston Villa, former Newcastle and England striker Alan Shearer spoke well on Rasmus Hojlund.

Shearer is the top scorer in the history of the Premier League but, and it seems hard to believe now, he once went 21 months (12 games) without scoring for England. Shearer was forever indebted to Terry Venables, the England manager, for sticking with him during that lean spot – “You’re my guy”, Venables told him. Shearer repaid that faith by scoring five times in five games at Euro 96, where England reach the semi-final.

“Rasmus Hojlund has had to put up with a lot, fairly at times and unfairly at times because of the lack of service,” Shearer observed. “Going forward that could and should mean so much to him. We all talk about goals making the difference for forwards. That should be fantastic for him.

As for the young striker himself, Hojlund told Amazon Prime, “It has been a while but, yes, I am very happy. I am the happiest man alive right now. You can see from the celebrations as well. Like [Garnacho] said we believed in ourselves until the very end and got the win today.”

Ten Hag will hope Hojlund can bring that goal-scoring bounce into Saturday’s visit to the City Ground to play Nottingham Forest. If United can get more out of the Dane and Marcus Rashford for the second half of the season, they may be better placed to finish strong. For too much of this season, the defensive errors of Diogo Dalot, Raphaël Varane, André Onana & Co. have cost them dearly as chances were missed further up the pitch.

Rasmus HojlundDutch U21 striker Joshua Zirkzee has scored eight times for Bologna this season. (Credit: Getty)

Man United eye £26m Dutch striker

As we noted on December 23, Manchester United are in the market for another goalscoring option but will not be breaking the bank. They looked set to be priced out of a January move for in-form Stuttgart forward Serhou Guirassy, but Sevilla’s Youssef En-Nesyri could be picked up for between €20-25 million.

Reports in Germany note that United are also looking at Netherlands U21 striker Joshua Zirkzee as a January transfer option. The 22-year-old only scored twice in his first season in Serie A, last term, but has netted eight times in 16 games, this season. He is currently valued at £26m (€30m) by the Italians.

Bayern Munich sold Zirkzee to Bologna in August 2022 but have a £19m buy-back clause, according to Sport 1. Mid-way through their 2023/24, and driven by Harry Kane’s 25 goals, Bayern’s attacking players have contributed 51 goals, so they may not be pressed exercising that Zirkzee clause.

United, perhaps conscious of taking on another young forward from a Serie A club [Hojlund was signed from Atalanta], may opt for a loan with an option to buy. However, if they could get Zirkzee for below £25m, United could seek a permanent deal. To do so, they would need to move some players on.

Jadon Sancho’s days at the club look numbered, Varane is being linked with moves away every day – Lens in France being the latest – while Inter Milan may take a punt on Anthony Martial in the January window.

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