It seems a long time since Cristiano Ronaldo was a Manchester United player, but he actually featured for the club 16 times earlier this season before that acrimonious November exit.

His numbers across those matches, 10 of which were starts, were unremarkable: three goals, two of which came against Moldovan side Sheriff Tiraspol in the Europa League and one which was a penalty. Ronaldo’s only strike of note came in the Premier League win over Everton, his 700th career club goal.

Those figures aren’t too dissimilar to Wout Weghorst’s since his January loan to United from Burnley. The Dutchman has returned two goals from 18 appearances for Erik ten Hag’s team – all of those have come from the start.

“That’s a lot of matches and it shows the trust in me. It also shows that I am doing a good job for the team,” Weghorst told the media this week, reflecting on his role at United.

“That was the thing I wanted when I came here – to contribute and try and help the club to be successful to win trophies.

“We have one now. We have two more to go with the Europa League and FA Cup, and we want to get as high as possible in the table and definitely top four for the Champions League. So it just shows me that I am being part of it. And being part of us being successful and that appreciation, that’s a good thing.”

It’s hard to argue Weghorst hasn’t been effective, even if his outright footballing ability doesn’t begin to compare with Ronaldo’s. He slots in wherever Ten Hag wants him, playing as a No 10 against Barcelona or even deeper in midfield at times.

Weghorst is awkward to watch at times but he links the play and has lived up to his reputation as a “pressing monster”. He’s not perfect but perfection was never going to be found in January.

United’s results have certainly been better with Weghorst than with Ronaldo. And it’s entirely fair to make that comparison since the Netherlands international has directly replaced the Portuguese legend, with Anthony Martial not available to start a single match since Weghorst’s arrival on 14 January due to injury.

United lost three of the 10 matches Ronaldo started this season; with Weghorst they’ve been beaten just twice in 18.

It’s not difficult to see why, especially when you read what Ten Hag says in his glowing appraisals of Weghorst.

“He is often in the right position, then he fails [to score], but he keeps going,” said the United boss earlier this month.

“He keeps focused, he keeps working and he keeps putting himself in the right positions. I think he has intelligence, he is a very good anticipator.”

Soccer Football - Carabao Cup - Semi Final - First Leg - Nottingham Forest v Manchester United - The City Ground, Nottingham, Britain - January 25, 2023 Manchester United's Marcus Rashford shakes hands with manager Erik ten Hag after being substituted REUTERS/Molly Darlington
Weghorst has been helped by Rashford’s goals but Ten Hag is happy with his contributions. (Photo: Reuters)

And yet, Weghorst is a stop-gap and nothing more. i understands United will not consider signing him on a permanent deal this summer especially if and when they are bought by a billionaire owner.

His finishing lets him down too often for a long-term United No 9 and had it not been for Marcus Rashford’s goals this season – 26 in all competitions and counting – there would be more scrutiny on the 30-year-old. Both his goals so far have been rebounds into virtually empty nets.

So United will delve into the most difficult of transfer markets this summer and try to find themselves an elite centre-forward.

Since Manchester City got themselves the big fish in Erling Haaland last summer, while Arsenal and Liverpool made canny moves for Gabriel Jesus and Darwin Nunez respectively, the options are limited.

It may boil down to a choice between Harry Kane and Napoli’s Victor Osimhen.

Both would cost in excess of £100m, with Kane, 30, the same age as Weghorst and Osimhen the man for the future at 24. The Nigerian has plundered 25 goals in 29 games this season, a Haaland-esque rate, to make himself Europe’s hottest transfer property ahead of the summer.

Osimhen, however, is a penalty-box striker, a prime finisher who rarely gets involved in the game aside from sticking the ball in the net.

The modern-day Kane is a true all-rounder, a No 9 and No 10 hybrid, and he’d offer United an elite version of what Weghorst is currently giving them. It’s clear Ten Hag wants his striker to come deep, to pass and to press, to dovetail with the likes of Rashford, Antony and Bruno Fernandes running beyond.

It might not be Kane. Tottenham won’t let him leave without a fight.

But Weghost has provided the template for Ten Hag and the next man at No 9. He is, as he insists, doing a ‘good job’ despite all the caveats. United couldn’t have asked for much more.

By admin