Marcus Rashford is carrying the burden of Manchester United’s striker struggles
It is an imperfect 10 for Erik ten Hag. Tuesday marked the six-month anniversary of his first game as Manchester United manager and he has had only seen 10 goals from his specialist strikers. One was against Omonia Nicosia, two against Sheriff Tiraspol, three against Nottingham Forest. Only four were in the Premier League.
In a different era, when Sir Alex Ferguson invariably played two up front, his fearsome foursome of centre-forwards scored 76 times in 1998/99. Playing as a lone striker, Ruud van Nistelrooy got 44 on his own in 2002/03. Even last season, Cristiano Ronaldo mustered 24.
None of this is to suggest United should be nostalgic for their traumatic campaign last year: the evidence is clear they are better without the departed Ronaldo. But he only scored three times for Ten Hag before his United career ended abruptly. Thus far, Anthony Martial has six goals, new arrival Wout Weghorst one.
The tally from the men occupying the centre-forward position is greater than that. Marcus Rashford struck against Crystal Palace on Saturday, three minutes after Weghorst went off and he moved into the middle.
Given the share of his 19 goals that have come when he has assumed the central role, Rashford is United’s top-scoring striker this season while not really being a striker. He is their multi-purpose match-winner.
The problem is that he is required to lead the line too often. Martial has not completed 90 minutes in a Premier League game for two years. He is Ten Hag’s first-choice centre-forward but has only featured in 14 of their 35 matches this season. He will sit out a 22nd when Leeds visit Old Trafford on Wednesday.
If United cannot rely on the Frenchman’s fragile frame, Ten Hag argued it is not his fault. Even when not in peak condition, Martial has averaged a goal every 121 minutes and persuaded his manager he makes a difference.
“He is not always available, but also when he is available, he was never 100 per cent this season. He had a big impact every time he is available, even when he is at 80, 85, 90 per cent,” said Ten Hag. None of which makes United closer to solving the mystery of his many injuries.
“Every time in different areas,” Ten Hag said. “At the minute, he has a hip [problem]. We do everything and Anthony Martial is doing everything. I think Anthony Martial is the player who has spent the most hours at Carrington this season: to return, to recover, to get back. It is really a pity for him. He is not always available and we want him to be always available because that will improve our game and because routines can’t become routines when you are not always available.”
Weghorst has tended to be the beneficiary of late. With Antony joining Martial in the ranks of the sidelined, the Dutchman seems set to start against Leeds. He arrived at Old Trafford with a record of a goal every other game in both the German and Turkish leagues. Yet his last Premier League goal remains his second and final strike for Burnley.
In all competitions, his United career has spanned 430 minutes and included 10 shots. Three were on target; one, at Forest in the Carabao Cup semi-final, went in. But only one.
“Especially for strikers, it takes time,” countered Ten Hag. “At the start of the season, we discuss it often for Rashy and every time I say it will come. But I saw his potential, the same as I see with Wout. He will score. But in the meantime, do other stuff, do it good.”
With Rashford in a rich vein of form and United winning, he believes the loanee is having an indirect impact.
“What is definitely the case is Wout Weghorst is doing a real good job for us in pressing,” he said. “His offensive movements are very good and he is the one who makes players around him play better, to create spaces. As a team we have to work better to anticipate his movements because his movements are good. Quite a lot of times he was close [to scoring]. He had many good actions and already a lot of good contributions to our results.”
The mention of movement illustrated what Weghorst can offer and an increasingly static Ronaldo could not. The Dutchman may be the non-scoring striker who has replaced the leading scorer in the history of football but Ten Hag argued his compatriot is a team player.
“It is about not scoring individually but scoring from the team and the team has to win,” he said. “He is doing a very good job at this moment in several aspects of football.” But his forward thinking would be easier if Weghorst could find a finish and Martial could get to full fitness.