Home Action Erling Haaland shadow continues to loom over Manchester United’s misfiring forwards

Erling Haaland shadow continues to loom over Manchester United’s misfiring forwards

Erling Haaland shadow continues to loom over Manchester United’s misfiring forwards

If Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had got his way, the scorer of the most famous goal in Manchester United’s history may now only be deemed the second best Norwegian striker to play for the club. He was Molde manager in 2018 and had a young centre-forward to recommend, and for a bargain price. “They didn’t listen, unfortunately,” he said in May. “They never signed him. Four million! Don’t ask [where he is now].”The answer, as Solskjaer knew all too well, is Manchester City. Perhaps, as a self-proclaimed fan of the club whose father had an altogether less prolific spell in their midfield, Erling Haaland would have always preferred the blue half of the city anyway. Maybe, like Jude Bellingham – another United target, another who found Borussia Dortmund a deluxe finishing school – he would have plotted a path to the top via places where potential tends to be realised.Whichever, Haaland scored a hat-trick in his first Manchester derby last year. He goes into his fourth with nine Premier League goals already this season. Or, to put it another way, nine times as many as United’s various forwards have between them. Admittedly, it excludes Bruno Fernandes’ sumptuous winner at Burnley, scored when he was standing in as a right winger, but even that lone goal, from Marcus Rashford at Arsenal, came in defeat. Rasmus Hojlund, Anthony Martial, Alejandro Garnacho and Antony are all yet to find the net in the league.Rashford has had 33 shots, Antony 16, Garnacho 13, Hojlund 11 and Martial three. It amounts to one goal from 76 attempts, a 1.31 per cent chance conversion rate. The law of averages suggests some will start scoring soon. “The goals will come in the Premier League,” Hojlund, who has three in the Champions League, said on Tuesday. The contrast with Haaland may be particularly jarring for him. “I don’t want to be compared to him,” the Dane said. Yet he is another Scandinavian, equipped with some of the same consonants, arriving at a cost of £72m – not the 2018 Haaland’s £4m – and also playing as a No 9. It may be both unfair and inevitable.(Getty Images)His fellow forwards’ failings have made it harder for the 20-year-old to ease into life at Old Trafford, though. “I’m convinced with the quality from our [forward] players that they will go and score more goals,” Ten Hag said. The first step is to hit the target: Hojlund has done it with just three of 11 attempts, Antony three from 16, Garnacho two from 13 and Rashford seven from 33. There are reasons why United rank third for shots, but only joint eighth for efforts on target; only 29.4 per cent of their shots have been on target, the fifth lowest average. The forwards are not the only culprits, but a quintet of attackers with a combined xG of 6.95 have one goal between them.Ten Hag was keener to cite other statistics. “The pressing is quite good,” he said. “We have the most ball regains and the most middle [third] regains in the whole Premier League. But we don’t take benefit in attacking transition moments.”(Getty Images)For him, the problem lies partly in decision-making, partly in execution. Certainly Hojlund is still trying to get to know his teammates, though there were signs against FC Copenhagen on Tuesday that he and Rashford are starting to strike up an understanding. But United, Ten Hag thinks, should have had more chances.“The cooperation has to click, but we showed this week in the week some examples where they are so many we have overload positions, going in overload position to the opponents’ goal and we don’t net or don’t even hit the target,” he rued.It has led to a disjointed feel, to a sense that United have been less than the sum of their parts. Rashford has veered between arguably the best form of his career, scoring 30 goals last season, to some of the worst. “I play him every game and so I have a strong belief he will return to scoring a lot of goals,” Ten Hag said. Rashford delivered a winner, albeit a controversial one, on City’s last trip to Old Trafford in January, but then he had also scored in his six previous games. Now he has no goals in his last eight outings for United.Rashford scored the winner in last season’s Old Trafford derby (Getty Images)Yet Rashford’s struggles have overshadowed the enduring ineffectuality of Antony. The Brazilian’s season was interrupted by a leave of absence while he addressed allegations of assault from three women, which he denied. On the pitch, however, he has been dismal: his United drought stretches back 17 matches and Ten Hag’s best option on the right against City may be Fernandes, particularly if shifting the captain into a wider role allows him to bolster his midfield.And there are other reasons to select midfielders. Casemiro is an injury doubt but remains United’s top scorer in all competitions this campaign. Their leading marksman in the Premier League, somewhat improbably, is Scott McTominay, who got more goals in injury-time against Brentford than their five main forwards – six if the absent Jadon Sancho is included – have mustered between them in the top flight all season.It is hardly a Haaland-esque haul. And while – when Hojlund was still with Atalanta, and Rashford managed 30, the quartet of the Mancunian – Antony, Martial and Garnacho equalled the Norwegian’s total of 52 goals for a Manchester club between them last season, now they are very much trailing in his wake. And whether or not Haaland would actually have joined United, they have added reasons to regret the one who got away and subsequently joined their neighbours as long as their own forwards are misfiring.