Joshua Zirkzee - Potential New Centre-Forward for Manchester United
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Who Should Manchester United Sign as a New Centre-Forward?

With the departure of Anthony Martial, Manchester United will have to take another dip into the transfer market for a new centre-forward. Last year’s purchase of Rasmus Hojlund for £64 million seems to have been a decent, yet costly, investment, with the 21-year-old showing the potential to eventually become the sort of player who could lead the line in a title-winning side.

Manchester United’s task is to find a deputy or alternative to the Dane. They do not need to spend huge amounts of money that will be required to repair central defence and midfield.

Who Should & Could Be the New Centre-Forward?

Yet, despite what many fans believe, signing a veteran forward may not be the best strategy for Manchester United. Over the last decade, this approach has repeatedly failed, leading the club to acquire forwards on large wages with no resale value. Joselu or Choupo-Moting would add little to United’s squad and most likely be added to the list of forwards who were disasters alongside Falcao & Ighalo. Even more successful acquisitions such as Cavani and Ibrahimovic had no major impact beyond one season, leading to a never-ending carousel of spending in the market.

Ideas about Hojlund learning from an ageing forward are misguided because, frankly, that is what coaches are for and neither do the veterans we are linked with have much to teach him other than where to hire an excellent agent for the twilight of his career.

The club should instead look to buy a prospect forward, who could grow into an elite player or represent a profit in years to come if things don’t work out so well. Or a cut-priced striker in their prime. Ideally, they should complement, not copy, Hojlund’s profile, but price-to-ability ratio is perhaps more key in a summer where money will be tight. 

The presence of Hojlund allows United to take a risk on an unknown, similar to how Manchester City did when they brought in Julian Alvarez (knowing Haaland would get them most of the goals they need).

Marcos Leonardo is the type of player they should be looking for. The 21-year-old moved to Benfica in January for around £15 million and has since netted 7 goals in 14 games, proving a cut-priced yet youthful backup is there if you scout and recruit effectively.

Manchester United should look to spend a modest fee (ideally around £30m) on a forward who’s age means they retain their value but who also has differing strengths to Hojlund.

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The Dream Signing: Joshua Zirkzee

Bologna have a few young players Manchester United should be viewing with envious eyes this summer and Zirkzee is the dream signing for the No. 9 spot. 

The 23-year-old Dutchman bagged 11 goals in Serie A this season, helping to propel Bologna into 3rd place. While he never quite got going while at Bayern, his £32 million release clause should make him well worth a gamble.

He could arguably supersede Hojlund in United’s pecking order; he posted superior metrics to the Dane’s last season in Italy this year, but he offers a completely different threat and profile, being closer to Anthony Martial in style. 

Zirkzee loves to drop deep and link up play yet he is more robust than the Frenchman, having a strong, tall frame which allows him to play comfortably with his back to goal and an ability to run to the near post (something Martial seemed unable to do). 

Zirkzee FBRef
Credit: FBref

His statical profile paints the picture of an elegant player who presses well and one with excellent linkup play. Zirkzee will help bring other forwards into the game and allow them to prosper. Don’t expect huge output in terms of goals, but signing the Dutchman should allow United to get the best out of players like Marcus Rashford as he will vacate the space the Englishman thrives in.

23 years old, £32 million: He is the dream signing but he may still need convincing about joining. Reports state he doesn’t want to sit on the bench even at an elite club and there are issues over a rumoured agent commission. United will need to fight off AC Milan for his signature but he should be at the top of their list.

  • Verdict: Get him if you can

Like Exploiting Release Clauses?: Maximilian Beier

If Zirkzee’s release clause excited you, then another option for a young player on a budget is Maximillian Beier, who is there for only £26 million. 

The 21-year-old had a breakout season for Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga, netting 16 goals this season.  He’s scored that tally from an xG of 11.4, which could suggest it’s an unsustainable overperformance but his xGOT is over 14.

Beier is more similar to Hojlund in skill set, being able to carry and finish. Like the Dane, he’s very quick and while this similarity might make him less ideal, his performances this season, along his low price, make him a tempting choice.

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He only has one good spell in a top league under his belt; he was out on loan in the German 2nd division last season, but he does have caps for the German national squad.

Another issue with Beier is that he has mainly been utilised in a front 2 or even on the left of a front 3, meaning he might struggle as a lone forward in Manchester United’s 4-2-3-1 (4-3-3) system. You can see from his season’s heatmap that he likes to drift to the left, a tendency that many United’s forwards already have.

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This is usually the mark of a centre forward whose back-to-goal play is weak (Rashford will often do this when asked to play up front for example). The player drifts into inside channels to allow them to receive the ball with more separation. 

It is safe to say moving to the Premier League and adapting to a system where he would be more isolated and be tasked with doing more would be a steep learning curve.

  • Verdict: Cheap yet a big gamble

Track Record of Goals: Jonathan David

Jonathan David is a proven goalscorer in France and another player on this list who offers a different profile to Hojlund. He was part of the Lille side that won Ligue 1 back in 2021 and since then, the 24-year-old has been linked with a move away. Yet, despite a good goal tally every season, no move has ever materialised. 

David loves to drop deep and link play; he is in the top 1% of forwards for pass completion and will create chances for his fellow forwards. He is in the top 5% for chances created and ranks well for progressive passes.

In addition, in France he has been a prolific goalscorer with 19 goals last season and 24 the year before, being an able finisher off both feet and generally outperforming his xG marginally (a sign of a good finisher who is scoring at a sustainable rate)

Lille had slapped a £50m price tag on him in past windows but with only a year remaining on his current deal, rumours seem to suggest £20-35m would be his price this time around. 

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The question about David remains can he make the step up? 19 goals in Ligue 1 might sound impressive but it was the same tally as Alexander Lacazette so he is no guarantee in the Premier League.

He has rarely impressed in international tournaments against better opponents, though his athleticism does seem to have improved since his lacklustre World Cup appearances. Manchester United’s scouting apartment is allegedly not keen on him, but his age and profile might make him an option if other targets are missed.

  • Verdict: Unconvincing

Premier League Option: Ivan Toney

Another man with only one year on his deal is Ivan Toney. Brentford’s frontman has returned from his gambling ban in mixed form but remains a Premier League-proven goalscorer who scored 20 goals the season before last (albeit with a healthy amount of penalties).

Again, he is very different to Hojlund, preferring the ball to feet and being a master at winning aerial duels and physical battles. His link-up play isn’t elite but he would be a target man who Ten Hag could utilise to bring his other more talented forwards into the game. 

Toney’s undoubted strengths have earned him an England call-up ahead of Dominic Solanke and he would certainly be a good fit if Manchester United continue to go long when they are pressed. 

The two question marks are price and character.

His price might have dropped due to his contract running down but the £40m price tag still seems a big fee for a 28-year-old forward who scored 4 goals last season, albeit in only 17 games.

Don’t expect that fee to come down any further either despite Toney’s insistence that he will leave.

Brentford are gambling on their Premiership status by selling Toney and that is worth far more than £40m. David Raya had a similar contract situation and Brentford managed to extract £30m for the goalkeeper. He has made his desire to leave incredibly public which has put off some suitors which might indicate he is not an easy player to manage behind the scenes.

Toney offers goals but United will probably look abroad for a younger player.

  • Verdict: Solid yet unambitious and expensive

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