In August 2022, Atalanta made a bold move by signing Rasmus Højlund from Sturm Graz for a reported €17m. Despite scoring in his second league appearance for La Dea, the risk seemed to be a miscalculation as Højlund only scored one goal in 11 games for Atalanta.
Any uncertainty about a potential error regarding Højlund was swiftly dispelled at the start of the new year. The budding striker began 2023 with a four-game streak of scoring goals and ultimately finished the season with nine successful shots in Serie A. Despite only starting in 20 out of 38 Serie A games, this was a commendable performance and it caught the attention of Manchester United, who made a substantial investment in him last summer.
Højlund was under pressure from the beginning. It was known that Erik ten Hag’s preferred striker was Harry Kane, but he ended up signing with Bayern Munich just before Tottenham’s season began. With a high price tag attached, there were even greater expectations for Højlund, and as he struggled to score goals, criticism of his expensive transfer grew louder with each passing week.
Manchester United’s five-goal performance in the Champions League helped alleviate worries that the team had made a significant error in the transfer market. However, their inability to consistently score in the top tier of English football raised concerns. Therefore, when Højlund scored in the 82nd minute to secure a comeback victory against Aston Villa on Boxing Day, the visible relief on his face was evident. It was the perfect Christmas gift. Since that game, he has continued to score without pause.
Højlund scored his fourth consecutive league goal on Sunday against West Ham, similar to his streak at Atalanta in the beginning of 2023. Has Højlund changed his playing style? Is there a shift in his approach that has allowed him to improve his performance as a forward for United? Well…not entirely. Before Christmas, Højlund averaged 1.7 shots per 90 minutes, which decreased to 1.5 after Boxing Day. However, his touches in the box per 90 minutes increased 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.
Furthermore, a well-established attacking line has been added to bolster the performance of the Denmark player. Under Ten Hag’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation, Marcus Rashford, Bruno Fernandes, and Alejandro Garnacho seem to be the preferred supporting players for Højlund in Manchester United’s offense. As a result, the high-priced striker has been able to develop a strong connection with the trio, leading not only to improved form for Højlund but also for the other three players.
This holds great significance for Manchester United, as they have only scored 31 goals this season, the least among the top 10 teams. However, 13 of those goals were scored after their victory over Aston Villa on Boxing Day. Although Højlund is still developing, United can find comfort in the fact that he had a slow start at Atalanta before improving in the second half of the season.
Ten Hag’s team remains eight points behind the top four following the recent Premier League matches. Villa, who they will be playing on Sunday, have reclaimed their spot in the Champions League rankings after defeating Sheffield United 5-0 on Saturday. It would be a fitting ending if Højlund were to score against Aston Villa, the team he scored his first Premier League goal against, to give United’s chances for European qualification a significant boost.
Despite his success in the Champions League, Højlund was initially considered a failure in the early stages of his time at United. However, as he has started scoring more goals, the 21-year-old has proven his critics wrong and is starting to justify the large sum that United paid for his transfer last year. With Anthony Martial leaving, Højlund is now the only forward on the Old Trafford roster.
United would greatly benefit from having a seasoned striker who could lighten the load for Højlund. However, at the moment, the young player has adapted well to English football. United hopes this trend continues.
Top-performing players from the Premier League this week.