Patience and support: how Højlund found his feet at Manchester United

In August 2022, Atalanta took a gamble on Rasmus Højlund. The Italian side signed the young Dane from Sturm Graz for a reported €17m. The risk initially appeared miscalculated. Højlund scored on his second league appearance for La Dea but that was to be his only goal in 11 outings for Atalanta after joining.

Any doubts over whether they’d made a mistake on Højlund were quickly put to rest at the turn of the year. The young striker kicked off 2023 with a four-game goal run and ultimately ended the season with nine Serie A goals. For a player that started only20 of 38 Serie A matches, that was a fairly solid return, and enough to convince Manchester United to spend big on him last summer.

The pressure was on Højlund from the outset. It’s no secret that Erik ten Hag’s first choice striker was Harry Kane, who eventually joined Bayern Munich shortly before Tottenham’s season got under way. A hefty price tag further heightened expectations and as the goalless run continued, murmurs of overspending on the youngster grew louder by the week.

A five-goal haul in the Champions League eased concerns that United had made a huge mistake in the market but the inability to consistently find the back of the net in England’s top tier was cause for concern. So when Højlund struck in the 82nd minute to complete a remarkable turnaround to beat Aston Villa on Boxing Day, the relief on the forward’s face was clear for all to see. As far as Christmas presents go, this was perfect. Since that goal against the Villans he cannot stop scoring.

His first-half strike against West Ham on Sunday was his fourth league goal in a row, mirroring his Atalanta run at the start of 2023. So is Højlund playing differently? Is there a change to his approach that has enabled the United forward to turn his fortunes around? Well …not entirely. Before Christmas, Højlund was taking 1.7 shots per 90 minutes, and that fell to 1.5 from Boxing Day onwards. This comes despite touches in the box per 90 minutes rising from 4.6 to 5.1.

What is notable is that passes per 90 minutes have increased from 14.3 to 15.6. Højlund is marginally more active in the penalty area but he’s also more willing to pick out a teammate. This points to a striker prepared to bring others into play and bide his time a little before chancing his luck on goal. A forward desperate to score that elusive first goal may pepper opponents from impossible angles as they seek to address the elephant in the room but credit to Højlund; his patience paid off.

Additionally a settled forward line to supplement the Denmark international has aided his recent good form. Indeed, in Ten Hag’s preferred 4-2-3-1 setup, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes and Alejandro Garnacho look to be the favoured support cast for Højlund in the United attack. With that, the big-money frontman has been able to strike up an understanding with the trio and it’s no coincidence that not only Højlund, but the former three too, have all seen an uptick in form.

This is particularly important for a United side that has scored the fewest goals (31) of the top 10 sides, though 13 of those have come since the Boxing Day win over Villa. While Højlund is still far from the finished product, United can take solace that he endured a similar start to life with Atalanta before a strong second half to the campaign.

Rasmus Hojlund showed utter relief after scoring his first Premier League goal against Aston Villa – he hasn’t looked back since. Photograph: Oli Scarff/AFP/Getty Images

Ten Hag’s side are still eight points off the top four after the weekend’s Premier League action with Villa, who they face on Sunday afternoon, returning to the Champions League spots after their 5-0 thrashing of relegation threatened Sheffield United on Saturday evening. It would be poetic if Højlund scored against Aston Villa – the team he opened his Premier League account against – to give United’s European hopes the perfect shot in the arm.

Many dubbed Højlund a flop in the opening months of his United career, this despite his Champions League exploits. With the goals now flowing, the 21-year-old has since silenced his early doubters as he looks to justify the hefty fee United paid to secure his services last summer. With Anthony Martial on his way out, Højlund is set to become the sole forward on the Old Trafford books.

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United could certainly benefit from the addition of an experienced frontman to ease the burden on Højlund but, for the time being, the youngster has found his feet in England. Long may it continue as far as United are concerned.

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