Striking the Right Chord: Discussing Solutions to United’s Issue at Centre Forward
Manchester United have a net spend of almost 700 million euros in the transfer market over the course of the last 5 years. That is more than 100 million euros more than their next closest competitor in the Premier League. Despite those two facts, United are the only club in the Premier League not to employ a striker in their senior side.
Let me explain myself: United have forwards. They even have players who fashion themselves as strikers — Anthony Martial, for one, has long fancied himself a centre forward, even if his skillset is questionably in line with that of a striker at best. Cristiano Ronaldo is the most prolific goalscorer in the history of European football. Surely a player with that distinction must have some aptitude for the position. Finally, Marcus Rashford MBE has been playing most of United’s matches recently as a nominal number 9. Most would admit, including Mr. Rashford himself, that he is no true number 9, however. All three of Martial, Ronaldo, and Rashford prefer to drift into the left hand side channel between the opposition right back and right centreback to pick up the ball — with each enjoying a drive at the opposition defence, to varying effect.
That said, stylistically, the three ‘strikers’ do have different strengths and weaknesses. Where Martial is a technically excellent shooter of the ball, Ronaldo is more of an all around finisher with a unique aerial presence relative to his competitors, and Rashford predicates his goalscoring game on his world class pace to run past defenders set up in a high line. It could fairly be claimed that Martial is the best link up and hold up option of the 3, whereas Ronaldo is the best aerial threat, and Rashford the most dangerous running in behind. However, none of these 3, at this point in their careers, have enough of the other facets to their game to claim to be truly suited to CF play.
On top of being hurt nowadays more often than not, Martial lacks the size and box movement to consistently get on the end of high end chances. Ronaldo, on the other hand, is an aerial threat who is generally unwilling to loiter in the box for long periods and selflessly drag defenders — the 37 year old Portuguese will come short when he feels under-serviced, something he no longer has the technicality nor the nous in hold-up play to do particularly productively. In turn, he at times hurts United’s attack by failing to offer the box presence they so desperately lack. Ronaldo also has taken a step back physically, and can no longer beat defenders for pace or get off shots with the same agility that he once could. Lastly, Rashford suffers from a combination of the two ailments that afflict Martial and Ronaldo: he lacks both the aerial ability of Ronaldo and the hold-up play of Martial, while not being a great box presence against sides that sit deep all the while.
This last bit may sound a bit harsh on Rashford: he’s certainly performed admirably at CF this season for United, getting on the end of the majority of United’s big chances, and scoring big goals in big moments. That said, he’s been more of a ‘moments’ player than a consistently dominant CF, and United’s attack has generally failed to create good shots with him as the striker against deeper defensive setups. Rashford is by no means a bad player — he’s simply not the long term solution at striker.
I am not the first to point out this problem. United have been linked to centre forward options since the summer, and many expect a striker to come in during the January window. A few players have been linked more than others — let’s take a look at the usual suspects, and their suitability, or lack-thereof, to playing as a striker under Erik ten Hag.
Link Number 1: Cody Gakpo, 23, PSV Eindhoven
Cody Gakpo is by far the player most strongly linked to Manchester United amongst potential options at centre forward. This season he has 15 goals and 12 assists in 24 matches played. This works out to more than a G+A per 90 minutes played, which would place him on par with players like Lionel Messi and Erling Haaland amongst the most productive creators and goalscorers in European football.
Gakpo is certainly a very talented player. There is no league in Europe where a player can put up numbers like that and not have a great deal of quality. However, the numbers don’t tell the whole story.
For starters, Gakpo is not a striker. The Eindhoven-born Dutch international has played almost every minute for PSV this season at left wing, whereas for his national team he’s been deployed as an attacking midfielder behind a front 2 of Memphis and Steven Bergwijn more often than not. This should make United fans wary — in a team full of forwards who aren’t really strikers, adding another player who isn’t really a striker is a risky maneuver at best.
There is, however, some reason to believe that Gakpo could be a centre forward. From a strengths perspective, the Brabant boy is extremely robust for a winger. Standing 6'2" (1.87M), he certainly has the frame to grow into the striker position. He’s also an excellent striker of the ball — -something that should (and has) translated very well to his ability to finish chances. Where his strengths might facilitate a move centrally, his limitations might force it: the PSVer is not an elite athlete in space. He has generally struggled to beat players from a standing start on the dribble due to a lack of top end acceleration, throwing his ability to translate to a top league as a wide player into question. This is not to say that the Dutchman is not a talented ball carrier — but rather that he struggles from a similar affliction to that of Manchester United man Jadon Sancho, in that his technicality can only take him so far in 1v1 duels.
So, given his goalscoring exploits, combined with the above traits, perhaps Gakpo truly is a centre forward? Not so fast. With some slightly closer examination this notion starts to fall apart pretty fast.
With a closer look at the numbers, we can see Gakpo isn’t truly the volume goalscorer that he’s masqueraded as this season. Our friend Cody is massively exceeding his expected goals — which is to say, he is scoring significantly more often than you’d expect him to given the quality of the chances he’s getting on the end of. This, on its own, is not a bad thing — some players can do this consistently, and Gakpo’s ball striking ability certainly makes it possible that he is one of those gifted players. However, the extent to which he is exceeding his xG is unsustainable. For a bit of perspective, where Gakpo is exceeding his xG per shot by 7%, elite finishers like Erling Haaland and Lionel Messi average around 5% and 4% per shot over their careers. Either Gakpo is by far the greatest finisher of the modern age, or he’s riding his luck a bit here. I’ll leave it up to you to decide which is the case.
Gakpo’s true gift, rather than his goalscoring prowess, is his ability as a volume creator. Where his excellent ball striking ability no doubt plays a part in his ability to cheat xG, it also has rendered him an excellent creative passer and crosser. As a result, PSV funnel the Oranje mainstay the ball in possession. Gakpo has a lot of license to gravitate to the ball, as well, to take control of a match and dictate play. This may evoke shades of Anthony Martial for many United fans, but the similarities between the two start and end with the superficial. Gakpo doesn’t receive the ball with his back to goal much, he rarely ventures into the box to get onto the end of crosses, and he just generally touches the ball, and concedes possession, far more often than is generally optimal for a centre forward. His role is not dissimilar to that of Bruno Fernandes at United in this way. Though he could certainly grow into a centre forward role, and he has shown aptitude for clever box movement in the past (see below), it would take a great deal of developmental work — and would likely not make good use of his greatest strengths.
With all of this in mind, I’d say Gakpo is not a very good option for United at centre forward. This isn’t to say that it would be impossible to make him into one — but rather that the time investment and risk of such a project is unlikely to be worth it, or at least pay off in the near future, in comparison to other options United have. Gakpo’s a stellar player, who may well succeed at United or elsewhere, but relying on him as a striker seems a risk-laden plan at best.
Suitability Score: 5/10, good player — not a striker
Link Number 2: Ivan Toney, 26, Brentford FC
Whereas United have very concrete links with Gakpo going back months, the threads connecting the Manchester giants to Brentford’s Ivan Toney are decidedly thinner and less reliable. That said, the Northampton born striker would make a lot of sense for United. Compared to Gakpo, and the forwards United have on the wage bill currently, Toney has the edge in quite a few areas. The first and most important: he’s actually a striker. Beyond that, he has Premier League experience (I’ll leave it up to you how much that matters) and he’s in the middle of his prime at 26 years old. He’s also been quite productive this season, with 8 goals and 2 assists this season in 1080 minutes of league football. That’s an excellent return for a striker on a mid table side.
Beyond his goal and assist output, Toney’s calling card has always been his ability to affect the game in other phases. The Englishman, despite standing only 5'10" (1.79M), is a major aerial threat. This is true in the box as a goalscorer, but even more true in open play as a means for skipping the buildup phase and transitioning quickly from defence to attack. Toney is contesting more than 6 aerial duels per 90, down from 9 last season, but he’s still a major outlet for the London based side. He couples his aerial presence with excellent linkup play off one touch, a deceptively strong crossing ability for a CF, and a great sense of when to release the ball to play in his teammates or retain possession. You can see a few examples of his impact in this area below.
(full video can be found here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VmeLT-aNJe0)
Toney’s holdup play is also of note, as he uses his muscular frame very effectively to hold off defenders and work the ball into pockets of space as his teammates advance up the pitch. Though he’s not a real threat on the dribble, nor is he a very ‘clever’ creative passer, the Brentford goalscorer does a lot of the ‘little stuff’ well at centre forward. Some of this ‘little stuff’ is exactly what United have been lacking from the position — none of United’s healthy striker options are proficient in holdup play, nor do any of them have true aerial prowess when it comes to progressing the ball up the pitch in buildup (Ronaldo is certainly an aerial threat, but he’s proven himself no outlet for De Gea and the centrebacks when going long under pressure). Sounds like a perfect fit, no?
I’m not entirely convinced, and I’ll tell you why:
A huge issue this season for Manchester United has been their lack of box presence, and in turn their lack of quality shot creation in the penalty box. More than anything else, this has been a personnel issue — none of United’s striker options consistently maintain their position between, against and behind the opposition centrebacks. This means United rarely have a target to cross for, but it also means their creative players have less space to work in. When a striker is willing to make selfless, non-goalscoring runs, and occupy opposing centrebacks, it in turn drags opposition defenders apart from one another, with the centrebacks forced deeper and away from their teammates to follow the striker. I’ve written about this extensively here if you’re unconvinced, or if you’re just interested in the topic, but it’s a very real and impactful phenomenon.
Erik ten Hag knows this — he’s shown a clear preference, throughout his career, for large, traditional centre forwards in matches where his sides have faced conservative, deep lying opposition defences. Players like Sébastien Haller, Brian Brobbey, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Lassina Traoré, and Kasper Dolberg ate up most of the minutes for his Ajax sides at centre forward for this very reason. The average measurements of those strikers? 6'1" (1.85M), 182 lbs (82.6 Kg). Size obviously isn’t everything, but Ivan Toney’s tendencies and measurements (5'10", 154 lbs) just don’t fit the bill here. Each of the aforementioned Ajacied strikers played the position very traditionally, largely staying within the width of the penalty box and getting on the end of goalscoring moves. It was only in the Champions League, where matches were more open and opposition defensive lines came higher up the pitch, that Ten Hag opted for a false 9 in the shape of Serbian winger/attacking midfielder Dušan Tadić.
Toney may well be an improvement on United’s current options in the box presence department, but to the extent that he is, the difference is minimal. Looking at his 31 goal campaign in the championship, this might seem unfair. However, even in a dominant attacking side Toney never managed more than middling xG totals (StatsPerform has him averaging 0.46 non-penalty xG per 90 minutes, whereas StatsBomb’s more detailed model has him on just 0.42 non-penalty xG that season). His game has always involved dropping off from the opposition back line to affect the game in other areas. Given these facts, it seems to me very unlikely that he can deliver the box presence and goal threat that either Ten Hag is looking for, or that this Manchester United side needs. The most recent rumors have Brentford slapping a January asking price of between 40 and 60 million pounds on Toney’s signature. Toney would certainly make United better, but that’s a tough bill to stomach for a striker who turns 27 in March and doesn’t address United’s biggest deficiency at the position.
Suitability Score: 6/10, good player — too expensive for what he offers
Link Numbers 3, 4, and 5: Victor Osimhen, João Félix, and Jonathan David
These last 3 I’m going to do rapid fire. My reasoning: none of them seem particularly realistic, at least in the January window.
Victor Osimhen is the best fit in terms of what he offers. He’s a lot like the strikers that Ten Hag showed a preference for at Ajax, with the caveat that he’s a far superior athlete in open space. On the other hand, he’s technically erratic at times, and one could argue that his habit of picking up random injuries is becoming more than just a habit. Mohamed Mohamed wrote in greater length about the Nigerian for The Analyst here if you’re interested in more detail. I’d be relatively happy with a move for Osimhen given his production, the age bracket he’s in, and the fact that he’s just a blast to watch play (see clip below) — however, he’s prohibitively expensive, even for a summer move, with Napoli’s 100+ million pound valuation.
Suitability Score: 7.5/10, very expensive and potentially an injury worry
João Félix, like Osimhen, would also be incredibly expensive for a January purchase. Félix, like Gakpo and Toney, is also not a real ‘box presence’ centre forward. However, what he is is super intriguing — he’s both allegedly disgruntled at Atlético Madrid and one of the most talented all around young players in European football. The argument in favor of Félix is basically that United have lacked truly elite attacking talent for a very long time — and their rivals generally have such attacking talent in spades. Given that he might be available, the thinking goes United should perhaps pounce, even if the conditions aren’t optimal.
I have to say I’m not entirely in disagreement with this line of thinking. Félix is an excellent player, and he’s not really been given the conditions to thrive under the admittedly brilliant, albeit a bit conservative, Diego Simeone. United need players of Félix’s quality and potential, and he might be willing to make the switch. However, the bottom line is this: this is a long shot, and one that would only half make sense to begin with. Best to put it out of mind for now. Maybe, if the opportunity is truly there in the summer, this is something you break the checkbook out for.
Suitability Score: 4/10, very expensive and a poor fit
Jonathan David is a bit of a neither-here-nor-there option. His production this year for Lille has been very good, rather than elite. He’s capable of creating for himself and beating a man on the dribble, but he does not do it a lot. He’s a threat in behind the opposition back line ala Marcus Rashford, but he’s not a true box presence in the vein of Osimhen. This is partially down to physicality, as Osimhen has both elite size and uses his body at a world class level to turn touches into shots, but it’s also down to how they move. David’s runs are less varied than Osimhen’s. Because of the size difference, David has less confidence in himself to get a shot off if a defender is body to body with him. As a result, David’s movement in the box focuses on getting completely free to get a shot off, as opposed to creating small openings that he can tear open into big chances with his physical gifts. This generally means fewer chances altogether. This is one of the reasons one could argue he is not a ‘true’ centre forward, though he’s certainly a lot closer to that profile than someone like Cody Gakpo is right now.
David is certainly not a bad option. Despite high profile flops like Nicolas Pépé, Ligue 1 generally has a strong track record when it comes to its players translating to the Premier League, and David is having a career year in line with those of the best non-PSG players in France. All that said, without digging in too deep, I’d say David falls below the top tier of centre forward talents that exist in a given year across Europe. He’s certainly got a good chance to be United quality — however, given his age bracket and pricetag (50+ million pounds), I fear that if United were to move for him he would be expected to play as the striker-of-the-future so to speak. While he’s certainly capable of becoming that player, I think it’s unlikely that he will ever truly elevate a side of United’s calibre. And that’s an issue when you’ve already laid out almost 200 million pounds on wingers who don’t seem likely, at least at the moment, to do that either.
Suitability Score: 5/10, the vanilla option
Overall, I think the only truly realistic options in January are Toney and Gakpo. I would lean towards Gakpo — not because he’s more suited to the position, but rather because any move for Toney would be so expensive as to prohibit the purchase of a better, younger centre forward in the near future. That said, if Toney were available for something closer to 30 million, I would certainly reconsider. At the risk of sounding like Goldilocks, each of the current options seem a bit too hot or too cold. Perhaps its best United simply wait it out until the summer to find the solution that’s just right.