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The making of Rasmus Hojlund: From basement football to £72m Man Utd star

Rasmus Hojlund in action for Denmark against Slovenia at Euro 2024

In the Copenhagen team of 2020 there was a core of 30-somethings and senior players who saw something different in Rasmus Hojlund, so decided to play a prank when he made his first-team debut. At Aarhus’ old stadium, players were told to “shhhh” to silence when Hojlund returned to the dressing room.

“Speech!”

Hojlund, only 17 at the time, stepped on to a chair and addressed his team-mates like the best man at a wedding before stepping down off his podium to applause. Some who witnessed it saw it as a window into the character of a person with supreme confidence.

Deliver a speech to a room full of men? No problem. Move away from Denmark to play in Austria, Italy and England in the space of two years? “A lot of transition, a lot of different leagues and a lot of different languages,” he says. The Premier League has started to see why so much has been expected of him and he will be one of the biggest threats to Gareth Southgate’s team in Frankfurt this week at Euro 2024.

Those team-mates at Copenhagen had belief in Hojlund, having seen him put extra specialised work in with academy coach and former FCK player Morten Nordstrand. So did those who saw him play for Sturm Graz and Atalanta, as did Erik ten Hag. Yet there is the feeling that Hojlund will forever be trying to justify the faith others have in him.

Two years younger than Erling Haaland, the comparisons between the Scandinavian strikers are likely to run the course of their careers. Hojlund’s start in senior football was propelled by a growth-spurt while playing for the Under-18s at Copenhagen. Suddenly the kid who played football with his twin brothers in the basement of his house – converted into a pitch by his dad – was a man, backing into centre-backs and spinning around behind them.

Rasmus Hojlund poses with a Manchester United shirt on the Old Trafford pitch
Hojlund varied his game as the season progressed and went on a run of eight goals in as many United games during an individual hot streak - Ash Donelon/Getty Images

While Copenhagen knew they had a prodigious talent on their hands, Hojlund had strikers in front of him in the pecking order. Firstly he was back-up to Jonas Wind, who he partnered up front against Slovenia last weekend. When Wind was sold to Wolfsburg, Copenhagen signed Khouma Babacar as a senior striker. So Hojlund headed to Austria.

During seven months in the Austrian Bundesliga he did not reach double figures for goals in his 32 appearances but for those sent to watch him, it was clear he was a striker who could move through the levels. It was rare to see a player of that age with aggression, running in behind with his pace and power. Background checks unearthed a player with confidence and determination to succeed.

Still, it was something of a gamble for Atalanta to put together a €20 million package to land Hojlund. Lee Congerton, who had previously held key positions at Sunderland, Celtic and Leicester, revamped the Italian club’s recruitment system and one of his targets was Hojlund.

“The reality is they destroyed me in Italy during that time,” Congerton told Telegraph Sport last season. “This foreign guy in Italian football has bought a player from Austria, born 2003, who had been a failure in Copenhagen. If you take away the World Cup, 10 months later, we sold him for €85 million [£72m].”

His time in Serie A was brief but eye-catching. He clocked a 100m time that an elite sprinter would be proud of and there was a buzz around the next Scandinavian striker to join one of Europe’s big clubs. By May of last year, Hojlund had been informed there was serious interest from Manchester United.

United was an easy choice to make for Hojlund. A lifelong fan, he grew up watching United games with his family and idolised Cristiano Ronaldo, wearing one of the club’s black away kits as his first. One of his first memories was watching the 2008 Champions League final when Chelsea were defeated in Moscow on penalties. As a 10-year-old, he had a school project where he wrote: “My goal is to play for the Danish national team and for Manchester United.”

Rasmus Hojlund wearing Manchester United's black away shirt
Hojlund grew up idolising United and the black away shirt from the 2007/08 season was one of his first - Rasmus Hojlund via TV2 Sport

Then, in the age of social media, one clip stayed in his memory – an interview with Rio Ferdinand, Anderson and Ronaldo where they are asked who the best player in the world is. Ronaldo offered up himself as the answer. “I like this mentality. He just put it out and said at least he wanted to be the best, and that’s the same mentality I go for. I want to be the best version of myself,” Hojlund said.

At United he has been waiting to fully arrive. At the start of the season he had a back injury that had to be managed carefully, even if he was able to start games from mid-September. He scored five goals in the Champions League group stages but his first Premier League goal did not arrive until a winner against Aston Villa on Boxing Day.

His season saw steady improvement and adaptation to his new surroundings. It was noticeable that his first start, against Brighton, saw him try a dart to the near post as his stock run. He varied his game as the season progressed. Back in Copenhagen when he was a teenager he studied movement, manipulating defenders and strategies on finishing. All of this had to be taken on board in the Premier League.

He was not helped by United’s roller-coaster season. During their slump in the middle of the campaign, stats showed that Hojlund received fewer passes than any other main centre-forward in the Premier League. He then went on a run of eight goals in as many games, with less touches on the ball and better movement during his streak.

One of United’s untouchable youngsters

By the time the season finished his picture sitting on the Old Trafford advertising hoardings in celebration with Kobbie Mainoo and Alejandro Garnacho was iconic. Here was the future of United. The club are willing to listen to offers for most of their players apart from a few untouchable youngsters, with Hojlund among them.

Away from the pitch he is more settled. His girlfriend moved over from Denmark around the time he found his goalscoring touch. “It gives me stability,” he previously said. When he is not training he is an avid gamer, with some of his old goal celebrations in honour of Fortnite.

Ten Hag’s signings have been questioned during his time at United and Hojlund has been one of them under the spotlight, although the United manager says his striker has done well considering three injuries that interrupted his season.

“When we decided to go for him we talked about buying a player for this season and for the future,” said Ten Hag. “He has to develop, he has to progress, he needs time, sometimes it goes up and down, before winter he struggled to get his first Premier League goal but he is a very strong character.”

United would still like a striker next season to support Hojlund, but trust is growing in him and he has felt improvement.

“When it’s in a worse period or good period it’s about improving and getting in positions where I can be a better player,” he said.