Manchester United’s Decade Of Failed Strikers Rolls On

After succumbing to a 0-2 loss to Real Madrid the question posed to Manchester United manager Erik Ten Hag was whether the game provided more evidence of the need to sign a striker.

“Absolutely,” the Dutchman responded, adding “there were two things – the pressing can be better from the start, and scoring goals.

“I think we need more players who are capable to be in the one-on-ones and we had the situations of one-on-ones.”

Addressing the club’s efforts to acquire a forward directly, Ten Hag said: “It’s always difficult to say. We are working 24/7. We do and everyone, well not everyone, but a lot in the club, and we give all the power to get this done.

“We never talk about players under contract with another club, so we have our targets in the background. We are busy with it to get the right player to sign a contract for us.”

Fans of the Red Devils could be forgiven for thinking they’ve heard this all somewhere before.

Since Robin Van Persie led Manchester United to the Premier League crown in the 2012/13 season there have been a parade of underachievers leading the line at Old Trafford.

Some, like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edison Cavani, have knowingly been acquired at the tail-end of storied careers and gave a reasonable return considering their veteran status.

Other deliberately short-term solutions, such as Wout Weghorst and Odion Ighalo, were acquired from teams of a lower level and looked it.

Big-money signings Romelu Lukaku and Anthony Martial never lived up to their price tags, while there was the forgettable appearance of the once-great Radamel Falcao and the slow-moving disaster of Cristiano Ronaldo.

In between all of that, youth product Marcus Rashford occasionally looked like blossoming into a solution and academy graduate Mason Greenwood showed glimpses of class until horrific allegations brought his career to a shuddering halt.

Earlier this year it was understood Harry Kane had been identified as the man to finally solve these longstanding woes.

In Premier League terms England’s all-time leading goalscorer is about as close as you can get to a sure thing.

But the initial confidence a deal could be done has evaporated, Bayern Munich is the team currently closest to luring Kane away from North London.

So United has turned its attention to the continent and efforts are now being made to bring Danish forward Rasmus Hojlund from Atalanta for around $90 million.

However, just as United missed out on Darwin Nunez last summer when Liverpool swiped the Uruguayan from under the club’s nose, Hojlund is also attracting late interest from Paris Saint-Germain.

If they do miss out on the Dane it will mean five summers have passed since the club last made a major transfer investment in a striker.

Critics will argue that part of the problem has been United’s tendency to make short-term purchases, choosing to buy aging forwards over exciting prospects.

Most glaring of these is the 2018 decision to pass up a move for a young Erling Harland, a striker who has gone on to be a world-beater.

A more charitable interpretation is that United is effected by the shortage of top-level striking talent which exists in world soccer.

Striker Shortage

The decline in the talent pool of top-level strikers can be traced back to the mid-2000s when the 4-3-3 formation was established as the dominant method for teams to play.

Before that development, which was ubiquitously adopted from the attacking teams of Pep Guardiola to the defensive outfits piloted by Jose Mourinho, sides played with two forwards sometimes in a 3-5-2 or, more regularly, in a 4-4-2 setup.

This shift meant at teams across the divisions there were more opportunities for midfielders, strikers, on the other hand, had only one berth to vie for.

There wasn’t any change to the number of wingers required, but the role chaser changed, they were required to provide more goals than they had done previously.

As the 2010s progressed the transformation of the inside forward position became even more substantial, surpassing the striker in its importance for many teams.

From Cristiano Ronaldo to Mohamed Salah, the most lethal weapon in the past decades’ attacks has regularly been from an off-center position.

That is a major change because, for the majority of the 20th century, strikers were always considered the most valuable.

Bar a few notable exceptions, world record fees in the previous century were predominantly spent on talent which played up front through the middle.

But, since Hernan Crespo was signed by Lazio in the year 2000, the record has only been broken by midfielders or players who play on the wing.

Of course, talents like Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar have still recorded numbers comparable to traditional strikers, but they don’t play the same role.

All of this has meant when Manchester United have gone scouting for a goalscorer to play in the middle they’ve had considerably fewer options to choose from.

It is not only the Red Devils who’ve been hit by this shift, across town at Manchester City since Sergio Aguero departed in 2021 the club has struggled to find an adequate replacement.

If you consider the Argentine was recruited nearly a decade earlier, it brings home just how few players there were for them to choose from.

Likewise, Liverpool, until it signed Darwin Nunez last summer, went a full seven seasons without buying an elite center forward, although several back-ups have been acquired.

Critics of Romelu Lukaku could also argue that the reason the Belgian marksman has continued to be offered opportunities at top Premier League sides like Chelsea is because there is such a lack of alternatives.

Perhaps Hojlund will prove to be the answer, but given the past decade, United fans won’t be holding their breath.

The truth is it’s never been harder for a Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Eric Cantona, Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole or, indeed, Ole Gunnar Solkesjaer to emerge.

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