Manchester United find hope in Højlund despite Kane’s efficiency

<span>Photograph: Alex Grimm/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Alex Grimm/Getty Images

It is a measure of where Manchester United are in this toxic early season, an early season where things just keep on happening, and where those things are divided into three distinct types, bad things, very bad things and really terrible things, that by the end a 4-3 defeat in Munich really didn’t seem like much of a disappointment.

At times it almost felt like the green shoots of something. Or at least it did when Rasmus Højlund was scoring his first goal for the club; or in the early moments when United pressed well; and then towards the end when they refused to die and kept on coming in relentless zombie waves.

Related: Harry Kane strikes as Bayern hold on to win thriller against Manchester United

It was of course a Harry Kane story too, up to a point. All of the talk around this game had been about Kane and United, a non-move that has since taken on its own independent life, part of the endlessly recycling narrative of disappointment around Old Trafford.

Should Manchester United have bought Kane? It seems odd the question is even asked, just as the explanations as to why this didn’t happen – he’s 30 years old; and Daniel Levy is annoying – are even odder. Does that really sound like ruthless executive action?

The reality is United should have signed Kane two or three years ago, simply by pulling hard enough on the string. Big clubs are supposed to actively recruit big players. United should expect to have a functioning high-class centre-forward.

Whereas by contrast the list of centre-forwards signed since Alex Ferguson left tells its own short story: Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Radamel Falcao, Edinson Cavani, Old Ronaldo; Odion Ighalo and Wout Weghorst on loan. Romelu Lukaku lasted two years. And now they have Højlund, on whose shoulders a lot rests, who has so much tender promise.

Kane scored, of course. He looks good in the Bayern shirt, looks authentically elite in those colours. His 16th touch, 10 minutes into the second half was a penalty to make the score 3-1. Kane took two steps back and spanked it with thrilling power into the corner. No disguise, no feints, just pure straight lines.

This is a more minimal Kane. Thomas Tuchel went with Serge Gnabry and Leroy Sané as the attacking entourage, with Jamal Musiala just behind, the combined effect a whirl of speed, agility, twinkling feet (and Harry Kane).

Musiala is one of Europe’s finest driving creative players, with a lovely eye for a pass. Bayern don’t need a No 10 clogging those spaces. They need a razor edge. And it is quite refreshing to see Kane no longer driven to make up the game on his own, to carry his team around the place on his shield like 10 dying comrades.

Indeed by the end it was hard to make any real case that signing Kane now, in this United team, would have been an end in itself, a fix for the holes in the midfield, or the innate cultural dopiness at the back.

Maybe in Højlund, they might have the promising, hard-pressing 20-year-old centre-forward they need at this stage, Mr Right Now in a team that has lacked that energy. He played quite well. He touched the ball eight times in the first half. There was a header he might have got on target from an excellent Diogo Dalot cross. But Højlund does also have what Erik ten Hag has wanted, the ability to press an opposition in the spaces close to goal.

And four minutes into the second half he scored, a messy, scrappy finish from exactly the right spot as the ball was slipped sideways by Marcus Rashford. These are the good moments for a No 9, things that look easy but aren’t.

So United’s season will rumble on. The familiar brittleness will remain. The squad is both injury ravaged and uneven. At 3-1 down they had Jonny Evans and Scott McTominay warming up.

Plus there was a moment of horror from André Onana for Bayern’s opening goal. This was a miserable mistake at the wrong moment on the wrong stage. Kane helped to make it, laying the ball back to Sané. He was a little too far out. He shot, but straight at Onana, who basically leapt over the ball.

Onana has had some strange moments in his short United career so far. Does he feel like an impermeable barrier? At times there is a feeling of someone jumping around impressibly quite near a football match.

But then there is an anti-energy to this club now. Sign for Manchester United as a sprightly up-and-comer with your own sense of destiny. Almost immediately you become something else: you become a Manchester United player, part of this listing ship, a place where all the trolleys have missing wheels, where everyone seems always to be losing something vital.

This was one lesson from Munich. Kane, alone, was never going to fix this team. But in Højlund United at least have some forward energy.