What does Erik ten Hag want in a striker at Manchester United?

·5 min read
Cristiano Ronaldo has expressed a desire to leave Manchester United this summer (Getty Images)
Cristiano Ronaldo has expressed a desire to leave Manchester United this summer (Getty Images)

When Marnix Kolder was playing in a side managed by Erik ten Hag, his role was fairly uncomplicated. “I was the ‘escape’,” he told The Independent earlier this year. “When the ball was pressured at the back, the long ball from the keeper or the central defender came to me. I don’t know the word in English – a coat stand? The “kapstok”. It’s a typical word in Dutch. The big person they can play the balls to, then you play to the midfielders or to the side.”

In other words, a target man. Kolder was Ten Hag’s centre forward at Go Ahead Eagles during the first year of his managerial career in 2012-13, which ended in promotion to the Eredivisie. At 6ft 2in in height, and despite being the wrong side of 30, he scored a goal every other game in his only year working under the future Manchester United manager, before Ten Hag left the “kick and rush” of the Eerste Divisie, Dutch football’s second tier, that Kolder describes to take charge of Bayern Munich II and work in the orbit of Pep Guardiola.

You do not usually associate Guardiola with a big, powerful “kapstok” – not until now, at least. But Ten Hag has always had a more pragmatic streak than Guardiola, and has not been averse to playing with a more traditional, powerful centre forward, not just when he was in the Eerste Divisie.

During Ten Hag’s two years at FC Utrecht, Sebastien Haller provided a tall, powerful focal point. Ruud Boymans, Haller’s sometime strike partner, was of a similar profile. In Amsterdam, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar was a penalty box poacher in the traditional mould. Kasper Dolberg was more technically gifted but still of a good size and frame to trouble defences. Brian Brobbey was a powerful presence to come off the bench and in Ten Hag’s final year at Ajax there came, tellingly, a reunion with Haller.

All of these centre forwards still had to be able to drop off and link play, and press and harry opponents when out of possession, much like Dusan Tadic did during Ajax’s run to the Champions League semi-finals in 2019. Tadic is the exception that proves the rule of Ten Hag’s preference for traditional centre forwards. Despite his brilliance as a central striker in the defeats of Real Madrid and Juventus that year, he played as a left winger domestically and was only seen in the position every so often from then onwards.

This all goes at least some of the way to explaining what many United supporters found unexplainable: the now-abandoned pursuit of Marko Arnautovic.

Arnautovic is a player Ten Hag worked with while on Steve McClaren’s backroom staff at FC Twente. After a two-year spell in the Chinese Super League, the 33-year-old spent last season at Bologna, where he scored a respectable if not earth-shattering 12 non-penalty goals in 33 appearances in Serie A, slightly underperforming on respectable if not earth-shattering underlying numbers.

The deal is now dead in any case after the prospective cost of any deal proved to be more than United were willing to pay for a short-term option. Widespread fan anger - not least over allegations against Arnautovic of racial abusing opponents - is thought to have also played a part. Arnautovic will not be a United player, but the reasons behind the interest may be instructive as to what, if anything, comes next.

Arnautovic was considered to offer a more physical, robust presence up front when compared to the existing alternatives in United’s squad. At a time when more and more top clubs are turning towards strikers who profile as traditional No 9s – perhaps as a response to the trend for smaller, more technically-adept centre halves – his signing would at least have given Ten Hag something he has relied on in the past and which is in short supply in his current squad.

Anthony Martial’s green shoots of recovery in pre-season suggested there may be a second act to his Old Trafford career after last year’s disastrous loan at Seville, but questions over whether he is naturally a centre forward persist, with reservations over his movement let alone his physicality. Marcus Rashford’s preferred position is wide left and he needs to be coaxed back into form. Cristiano Ronaldo is the closest fit but comes with tactical baggage, which is to say nothing of his open desire to leave.

United would not be in the market for a striker had they completed a deal for their priority target in the position much earlier this year. Darwin Nunez was identified as their first-choice centre forward as far back as February and was still top of the shortlist following Ten Hag’s appointment in April. Yet in the end, Liverpool offered not only Champions League football and a proven track record of recent success, but crucially were willing to meet Benfica’s asking price.

Since then, plans have been redrawn and Ten Hag’s influence on them is unmistakable, with United have been keen to back their new manager. Had Arnautovic joined, his arrival would have stuck to a pattern of United’s summer signings either having played under Ten Hag, for Ajax, or in the Eredivisie.

Cody Gakpo would meet the last of those criteria. The PSV Eindhoven winger is of interest to United, though talks with either the Eredivisie club or his representatives are yet to begin. Reports in Holland suggest PSV will only entertain bids for last year’s Dutch footballer of the year once they know their fate in European competition, with the first leg of their Champions League play-off against Rangers next week.

The 23-year-old has played as a central striker at points during his career but is naturally a wide player, cutting inside from the left-wing onto his right foot. If he the only addition to United’s attack between now and the transfer window closing on 1 September, Ten Hag would still be without the physical, powerful centre forward that the pursuit of Arnautovic showed that he wants, and he has often turned to in the past.