Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

Whatever Virgil van Dijk thought of Manchester United’s efforts at Liverpool, the player who came closest to making the breakthrough was Rasmus Hojlund. Unfortunately for the young striker, his wait for a Premier League goal continues.

Liverpool had 34 shots, the most by a team in the competition without scoring in over seven years. But Hojlund’s double chance midway through the second half had a higher expected-goals value than any other player on the pitch could muster in the match.

The £72m man was on the periphery for much of it. The pass that preceded those 67th-minute chances was only his second of the afternoon. It encapsulates the Hojlund problem. This is an issue of poor finishing but also of poor service. A worrying combination.

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Gary Neville says that Rasmus Hojlund is ‘not a finisher’ after his latest miss

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FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Liverpool versus Manchester United at Anfield

Thirteen appearances in the Premier League have come and gone without a goal. Erik ten Hag will point to five in the Champions League as proof of his credentials, but four of those goals came against Galatasaray and Copenhagen, and all of them in defeats.

The Premier League is the measure against which Hojlund will be judged and, according to Opta, he has now missed nine big chances without scoring. For context, no other player in the competition has missed more than two without scoring a goal this season.

Against Liverpool, the opportunity came on his weaker right foot and he was up against Alisson, perhaps the outstanding goalkeeper in the world in one-on-one situations. But one cannot help but wonder whether the rarity of Hojlund’s touches is not helping either.

In the first half at Anfield, the Dane touched the ball just four times. It was slightly better in the second. The number rose to 17 before the close. Against Bayern Munich in his previous appearance, he had managed 18 touches. No wonder he is snatching at chances.

Hojlund is averaging the fewest touches per 90 minutes of any regular forward in the Premier League – with just one exception. It is a notable one. Erling Haaland, the Premier League’s top scorer, this season and last, is the only player to touch the ball less often.

When United signed Hojlund in the summer, Ten Hag described Hojlund as “as a player who is so determined to score goals” and painted a picture of a single-minded striker in the Haaland mould. “That is all that is in his mind. He wants to score goals.”

In that context, Haaland’s record shows that this can be a virtue. The difference is that when the Manchester City player touches the ball, those touches are usually coming inside the opposition penalty box. Hojlund’s limited involvement is coming much further from goal.

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Compare the heatmaps of Rasmus Hojlund and Erling Haaland

The fear among United fans is that Hojlund is being miscast as a target man, expected to hold the ball up and provide the platform to get his team up the field. That is a huge ask of any young striker and Hojlund has struggled to do that against quality centre-backs.

Against Bayern, he was bullied by Dayot Upamecano and Min-Jae Kim. The task did not get easier when up against Van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate at the weekend. Hojlund would prefer to be running channels, finding space with his movement, than making it stick.

Hojlund is making those runs. According to the Second Spectrum data, he averages 24.4 attacking runs per 90 minutes in the Premier League this season. That puts him among the competition’s top strikers and is actually slightly more than Haaland is registering.

It brings us to the second factor in his struggles. This is not just a finishing problem but a matter of service. It is true that he is underperforming expected goals – and by a big margin. Only Dominic Calvert-Lewin has a bigger disparity between chances and goals.

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Rasmus Hojlund is among those underperforming their expected goals

But while Calvert-Lewin has scored three times rather than six, Hojlund’s tally would only be three goals even if he were finishing as well as Haaland or any of the other top scorers in the Premier League. That is still not good enough from 888 minutes of football.

Given that his movement has been encouraging, and he is a player with impressive speed and strength, that reflects poorly on the creativity of those players around him. At the moment, this is simply not a team that is set up to service their centre-forward.

Service to Hojlund

When Rasmus Hojlund is provided with passes from wide areas in the final third, it usually results in a chance. Most of the passes that he has received as a Manchester United player have been straight balls delivered from deeper positions on the pitch.

For now, following Marcus Rashford’s dip in form, Ten Hag appears to have happened upon Alejandro Garnacho and Antony as his wide forwards. The pair are unpredictable. A challenge for full-backs but also a frustration for the man waiting in the middle.

Garnacho is having shots. Of players to have played 800 minutes or more this season, only Haaland and Darwin Nunez are shooting more often than the teenager. That paid off spectacularly at Everton. But it was an outlier. He often shoots when he should pass.

Garnacho ranks 67th out of 81 for shot quality among the players to have had 20 or more attempts in the Premier League this season. On the other flank, there is Antony. He is 77th on that list. Time and again he cuts inside to shoot but is yet to score a single goal.

At least Hojlund received three passes from the Brazilian at Anfield. In their previous five-and-a-half hours on the pitch together in the Premier League, Antony passed to his striker just twice. Hojlund has received five passes from Garnacho in seven hours of football.

Even the full-backs have been guilty of overlooking him when well-placed. United supporters will have spotted the moment, midway through the second half against Bournemouth, when Diogo Dalot could have squared it to Hojlund but shot wildly instead.

At Liverpool, Scott McTominay did play a neat pass to set him up. But the Scot is no natural No 10. His presence there sums up the paucity of creativity available to Ten Hag. All of which is exacerbating the situation, amplifying the pressure on a young player.

Is Hojlund good enough right now? It is an intriguing question. Certainly, there is much to prove. At the beginning of last season, he was still playing for Sturm Graz in Austria. His 16 Serie A appearances for Atalanta against top-half opposition yielded only two goals.

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Kris Boyd reacts on Soccer Saturday to Rasmus Hojlund’s miss against Luton

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Rasmus Hojlund’s shot map for Manchester United in his Premier League career so far

That is not to denigrate but to contextualise. These are early days for Hojlund in his journey. But the demands placed on him by an exorbitant fee and the circumstances at Old Trafford have inflated expectations beyond what is reasonable given his record to date.

Thrust into the spotlight, Hojlund has started 10 Premier League games. Compare that with Julian Alvarez’s first season at Manchester City. He was a player of promise but had to wait until May to make that many starts. He was eased in as Haaland’s deputy.

Anthony Martial’s performance when coming into the team instead of Hojlund against Bournemouth showed why Ten Hag cannot afford his new signing the same luxury. He needs Hojlund and he needs him scoring. But much more help is required if that is to happen.

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The post Rasmus Hojlund’s Man Utd form: Why has he not scored a Premier League goal? A problem of finishing and service appeared first on WorldNewsEra.

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