Christmas challenge for Rasmus Hojlund as Man United goalless streak approaches 1000 minutes

It was the sort of moment when a forward can announce his arrival at Manchester United: racing clear at Anfield, with the chance to score a winner against Liverpool, to emulate Wayne Rooney, Robin van Persie and Carlos Tevez. But Rasmus Hojlund slammed his shot against Alisson and a stalemate ensued.

Perhaps it was an unlucky 13th, taking the Dane to 13 Premier League appearances with no goal to show for his efforts. He is up to 888 goalless minutes in the top flight: fail to find the net at West Ham on Saturday and Hojlund could crash through the 1,000-minute barrier against Aston Villa on Boxing Day. Meanwhile, Harry Kane, the striker many long thought United should sign, but for whom they ultimately did not bid, has already brought up 20 goals in the Bundesliga for Bayern Munich.

The comparison may be irrelevant, but it is also unhelpful for Hojlund. His United drought comes with a caveat: that he is the joint-top scorer in the Champions League. That his goals all came in vain – and indeed, in defeats – deprived him of some of the acclaim he would otherwise have earned: a double in a barnstorming Old Trafford display against Galatasaray became a subplot in a chastening setback.

Yet an auspicious European campaign ended with Hojlund being dominated by Dayot Upamecano in Bayern’s win at Old Trafford last week. The 20-year-old had 20 touches and was left looking like the rookie he is. Until then, he had done well in Europe.

“In the Champions League, five goals is a massive performance from a young player,” Erik ten Hag reflected last week. “I don’t think there are so many young players who can do that, so you see he has the potential.”

And United paid for potential: overpaid, perhaps, given that a fee rising to £72m was rather more than they initially hoped he would cost. It raises the question if, when the price escalated, they would have been better off switching targets to a more proven performer.

They had scouted Randal Kolo Muani but decided Hojlund was more of a No 9 and a player with a higher ceiling. They knew, too, that Paris Saint-Germain, who instead bought Kolo Muani, were bidding for Hojlund and conscious that if and when Tottenham sold Kane, they may enter the contest for coveted young strikers. So £72m it was.

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And initial impressions were positive. Hojlund’s 23-minute cameo at Arsenal was an encouraging debut. He seemed to have a first goal on his Old Trafford bow, only for it to be chalked off because, by the finest of margins, the ball had gone out before Marcus Rashford found him.

Yet since then, he has felt a victim of United’s confused thinking and poor performances. Only two players have had more shots than Hojlund in the Premier League without scoring this season – with a certain sad predictability, one of them is Antony – but the statistics can serve as an indictment of his teammates, of the supposed supply line.

It is almost Christmas and Hojlund has had fewer shots than Virgil van Dijk, fewer on target than Mario Lemina. Frank Onyeka averages more shots per 90 minutes, Matty Cash more on target per 90 minutes. It is a statement of the obvious that there should not be 65 Premier League players with more shots on target than United’s premier centre-forward.

Hojlund’s task has been rendered harder by Rashford’s loss of form, from the absence of Luke Shaw’s delivery from left-back for much of the season, from the removal of some of the more incisive passers from the midfield when Casemiro and Christian Eriksen were injured. Perhaps he was first overplayed and then, when benched for the Bournemouth game, underplayed: maybe that just means Ten Hag is damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.

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Certainly Hojlund seems to suffer from confused thinking in the construction of United’s forward line. He is an eager runner whose pressing endears him to Ten Hag. Yet he looks designed to feast on crosses and, of the 67 players to have delivered most crosses in the Premier League this season, only two are from United and neither of those – Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot – is even a winger. That 124 players have put in more crosses than Antony is a particular indictment.

Hojlund has still shown a profligacy – his expected goals suggests he should have scored at least three times – but Atalanta created him more opportunities and, in particular, more headed chances last season. The sense remains that Hojlund is a talent, the concern that United is a club where too few have realised their potential in the last decade and too many have looked overpriced.

And for Ten Hag, a Hojlund goal would be especially welcome to end a strange statistic. Because, for now, he has signed two strikers for United and neither has scored a league goal. And Hojlund probably does not want to be bracketed with Wout Weghorst.