Manchester United have a striker problem – and there are no clear solutions

Erik ten Hag desperately needs a No 9 but the route to options like Harry Kane, Victor Osimhen and Kylian Mbappe is complicated

Richard Jolly
Senior Football Correspondent
Monday 19 June 2023 14:32 BST
Premier League transfers: Mount and Kane linked with moves this summer

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Louise Thomas

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If Mauricio Pochettino is the great lost Manchester United manager, forever tipped for the top job at Old Trafford, always seemingly suitable for it, never actually getting it, maybe Harry Kane will go down as their great lost centre-forward. There is time yet for England’s record scorer to become United’s main striker, perhaps when his Tottenham contract expires in 2024, but a move north seems unlikely this summer. United would argue they have not pulled out of the race for Kane: because they were never in it.

Which doesn’t mean he is short of admirers at Old Trafford. “A great player, a great personality as well,” said Erik ten Hag in April. The Dutchman has a belief United ought to be interested in high-class footballers; he stated last month they needed “better players” to reach the next level.

In particular, there is a glaring need for a superior No 9; it is his major priority. The argument for Anthony Martial, which Ten Hag made eloquently for much of the campaign, felt damaged by the end of it: the Frenchman only scored two goals in his last 12 games, did not start a game in February or March and then missed the FA Cup final with injury. United cannot rely on him. Marcus Rashford had a career-best season, but he needed to: United’s three, and very different, No 9s scored just seven league goals between them. Martial got six, the departed Cristiano Ronaldo one, the loanee Wout Weghorst none.

There seemed two obvious upgrades, before Kylian Mbappe informed Paris Saint-Germain he will not sign a new contract there. And yet at least two of the three – Mbappe, Kane and Victor Osimhen – can probably be discounted: partly on grounds of cost. There is a reluctance to spend all summer negotiating with Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy, who does not want to sell to a Premier League rival, risking ending up empty-handed and after other strikers have already moved. There is a consciousness that Napoli could be similarly obdurate about Osimhen, who could command a nine-figure fee, though his talent is undeniable and recognised at Old Trafford.

But it leaves a vacancy and amid a troubled backdrop. The ongoing delays about a takeover make it far less likely funds will be available from a new owner to bolster Ten Hag’s budget; the manager is frustrated by the delays. In any case, Financial Fair Play limits United’s leeway.

As it is, they overspent last summer, some of the cost of Antony coming from the 2023 pot. The impasse about David de Gea’s contract and the chances he leaves on a free transfer could make it more urgent some of the money is redirected towards a new goalkeeper. And then there is the Mason Greenwood situation, with the forward still suspended amid an ongoing investigation. If United hope for a silver bullet to resolve their dilemma, one appears unlikely: they may still be weighing up whether the footballing case to keep him outweighs the moral case to dismiss him, along with implications involving lawyers, sponsors and supporters.

The Mason Greenwood situation has left Manchester United with a dilemma
The Mason Greenwood situation has left Manchester United with a dilemma (Getty Images)

Assume Greenwood is out of the picture and the reinforcements can only come from the transfer market. That poses problems: the supply-and-demand equation for strikers counts against buyers, the resurgence of the No 9 after a period of false nines, No 10s, wingers and attacking midfielders meaning there are relatively few players who want to lead the line. Ivan Toney might have been the best candidate in the Premier League but is banned until 2024; Ollie Watkins may instead be the finest available English option.

Elsewhere, sizeable sums could be paid for potential, not proven performance. Rasmus Hojlund only scored nine Serie A goals for Atalanta last season, though the 20-year-old Dane is expected to become more prolific. Randal Kolo Muani is another on the rise, though Bayern Munich may be in pole position to secure the Eintracht Frankfurt forward. Goncalo Ramos has only been potent at club level for one season, though that was long enough for the Benfica attacker to displace Ronaldo during the World Cup.

None has a track record to compare with Kane’s. Maybe United only need to buy themselves time, to find someone who can do a job for a season if they are confident of getting Kane in 2024, when Levy would not be a factor. Yet Weghorst both did and did not prove a short-term option, helping United to third but ending with a miserable return of two goals in 31 games in all competitions.

There is a destructive striker in Manchester who United allegedly could have had for £4m; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer claimed last month he recommended Erling Haaland in 2018 and said United did not listen to him. If that was damning, it may suggest Solskjaer, Haaland’s manager for Molde, was not particularly persuasive. But while United were interested in some strikers, including Darwin Nunez, last summer and prioritised other positions, now their most pressing need is clear. The far more difficult part, with three of the best appearing distinctly unlikely, is who they can get.

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