The warning turned out to be more urgent than Erik ten Hag would have liked. Three days earlier, he had mentioned the need for someone to ease Marcus Rashford’s burden. It looked like a target for the summer transfer market, until it got a bit more pressing. The man Ten Hag often called “unstoppable” has been arrested; by an injury that could make Manchester United fear the worst. Even a two-week absence could cost United three competitions, with an FA Cup semi-final after a Europa League double-header against Sevilla. Four days later comes the first four shootout against Tottenham. The immediate concern is that Rashford could miss that as well.
In the meantime, United look likely to enter their 50th game of the season without an available player who has more than 10 goals in all competitions and he, Bruno Fernandes, operated as a midfielder on Saturday. United have one of the Premier League’s 34 top scorers, only one player with more than five. It highlights the extent of their Rashford Dependency; he has 28 goals in all competitions, including 13 winners and 20 of United’s 55 since the World Cup. Take away his strikes in the Premier League and United are 14 points down. Take them out and they’re 10th, below Brentford. And if it’s not that simple, Ten Hag’s revival has been largely fueled by a single player. The Dutchman is only too aware of this.
“What you want as a team is to have two players who can score more than 12 or 15 goals per season,” Ten Hag said last week. Then he was looking for a second goalscorer; now he needs a first, with progress on three fronts jeopardized by injury. It is an immediate issue which reflects a summer priority: to sign a striker. Harry Kane and Victor Osimhen represent compelling candidates: get one or the other and Rashford could become second goalscorer again. It offers the possibility for two players to score 30 goals in a campaign. “Manchester United need outstanding players, that’s clear,” Ten Hag said last week.
We can say that they have only had one outstanding striker this season. Rashford’s impact is shown by the fact that they are fourth and, while he is seen as essentially a winger now, their first league goal from a hardcore centre-forward in 2023 came at Easter. Even then, Anthony Martial’s open goal was provided by Rashford. This was a brief outline of Ten Hag’s vision; indeed, Rashford was only left on the pitch, leading to his injury, as the manager wanted to give the pair time.
This has pushed Martial ahead of Rashford in one respect: he has a goal every 135 minutes in the league this season, compared to the Englishman’s one every 159; the problem is that there were only 540 minutes out of 2610 possible. On Friday, it will be three months since his last departure. Given the Frenchman’s frailty and Ten Hag’s reluctance to pitch him, he can’t be counted on to serve as the main man.
Martial reflects a reason why Rashford has been overworked, making 47 out of a possible 49 appearances, and why no one else has proven prolific from a distance. Only the equally busy Fernandes of the potential goalscorers has also enjoyed a full season. Martial and Jadon Sancho had long absences; Cristiano Ronaldo and Wout Weghorst have had half-seasons each at Old Trafford, despite having just five goals between them, and just one in the league.
While many talks at United somehow come back but inevitably to Weghorst, the striker who went unscored with no goals and three shots on target in the Premier League, his drought mattered less when Rashford was fit. ; it could be accommodated more easily in the winter than in the spring, when the games have a larger scale. Then there’s Antony, a goalscorer in his first three league games but none since. He delivered spectacular goals, but not enough.
This left United short of firepower; Ralf Rangnick seemed to have a similar complaint at this time last year, despite starting the season overloaded with potential goalscorers, and yet scoring too few goals. They had Ronaldo, Rashford, Fernandes, Martial, Sancho, Mason Greenwood and Edinson Cavani. They finished ninth among the Premier League’s top scorers with their third-lowest tally since 1990. In all competitions, Fernandes’ tally of 10 was the second-highest; Ronaldo’s 24 was, according to some interpretations, a fine individual achievement or, as Ten Hag may have concluded, proof that he limited others’ opportunities and made them less powerful.
But perhaps Ten Hag’s ideal is the kind of goal spread United had before Ronaldo’s return. Call it the Solskjaer role model, perhaps, because Ole Gunnar Solskjaer enjoyed two seasons where his team scored at least 110 times in total with several regular contributors. In 2020-21, Fernandes led the way with 28, backed by Rashford, with 21, and Cavani, with 17. In 2019-20, Martial and Rashford both topped 20, Greenwood got 17 and Fernandes made it four double-digit players. Which, as productive as the Portuguese has been in his first 18 months at Old Trafford, has made them less dependent on a single player. Because while Rashford’s one-man effort has been remarkable, United must now find a way without the man.
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