Wout Weghorst – Age 30 – Loan
Cristiano Ronaldo – Age 37 – €17m
Edinson Cavani – Age 34 – Free
Odion Ighalo – Age 31 – Loan
These have been the players signed by Manchester United to lead their attack in the past 4 years. Currently none of them are at the club. The lack of seriousness in plugging a major starting XI gap has finally been addressed this summer. 20 year old Danish wonderkid, Rasmus Hojlund was unveiled at Old Trafford before the pre-season friendly vs Lens to an excited Old Trafford crowd.
Thanks to the deal costing €75m as a package, the hype and expectations from an excited fanbase who have been yearning for a young high ceiling line-leading CF, are quite high. In this article I break down every aspect of Hojlund’s game and point out his key strengths and the areas he needs to improve on.
Career so far
Born in Copenhagen, he joined their youth system in 2020 at the age of 17. He made his debut for them later that year and went on to feature 27 times over the next season. Sturm Graz picked him up for €1.8m in Jan 2022 and he recorded an impressive 12 goals in 21 appearances for them across 2022. That was enough for Atalanta to shell out €17m in August 2022. 22/23 was his breakout year where he bagged 10 goals and 2 assists in 21.1 90s for the Serie A club which was enough for United to come knocking. He has also started playing regularly for Denmark in the past 2 years racking up 6 goals in 6 games for his country so far.
Before we begin, let’s take a look at his stats for 22/23. I will dissect them in detail soon, but here’s a snapshot.
Excellent movement and shooting, great carrying and good passing – is how I’d summarize this chart. This already paints a good picture of the type of striker we want to lead our line. Let’s get into his traits now.
NOTE: For the match examples in this article I’ve stuck to two full games – Atalanta vs Salernitana from Serie A GW37 and Denmark vs Kazakhstan 2023 Euro qualifier. I wanted to highlight all of Rasmus’ pros and cons using two full 90s instead of cherry-picking good moments across a year.
Let me say upfront that this is Hojlund’s best trait and the one I think he’s already at par with compared to the best strikers in the world. His consistency, willingness, IQ and variety of movement are all top-class and this is one of the main reasons I’d say his profile is so attractive for a top team.
Now, let me back these positive statements with some proof.
This is how Atalanta lined up in the end-season league game vs Salernitana and generally how they’ve lined up in Serie A last season. There are some variations where they play a front 2 with an AM behind them but largely speaking they fielded 3 narrow attackers with Hojlund most central among them as a line leader.
Atalanta play a very attacking and transition-based brand of football. The wingbacks provide the width while the back 3 and pivot take care of the build up and progression. The front 3 have a lot of license to roam in the opponent half to pick spaces between the lines, on the wings or half-spaces between defenders. The 2 support strikers are usually narrow like attacking midfielders. Hojlund was usualy the line leader CF, playing on the shoulder of the last opposition defender.
Now let’s look at some movement patterns Hojlund often executes.
This is his bread-and-butter move. Hojlund curves around a defender to attack the channel or half-space between the center-back and the fullback. The support striker responsible for that halfspace usually takes Hojlund’s central spot to prepare for the cutback or offer a box target. Lookman often shared this equation with Hojlund and this is something we could see a lot with Rashford at United. When Hojlund runs the channel, he provides an immediate outlet for the team to pick out, stretches the opposition defence and creates space for his support attackers to occupy.
Let’s look at some match examples.
A bursting Hojlund run into the right channel attracts the defender towards him, which creates space for him to play the channel pass to his teammate who runs there. Notice how Hojlund also attacks the box after his pass, expecting a 1-2 or someone to find him there later. Offers the channel run but immediately wants to attack the box as well – that’s Hojlund.
Notice the sharpness of the run here. The space isn’t big and there is a narrow window to angle his run to avoid being offside and yet beat his man and receive the ball. Hojlund’s movement IQ and awareness is excellent enough to nail that window consistently all game. It’s one reason I’d put him up there with the best movers in the game already. His pass could probably have been better, which is an erratic part of his game, but the support wasn’t great too.
Once again, notice how Hojlund starts peeling away from his marker the moment his teammate is about to receive the ball on the flank. That enables the first-time pass into the right channel. His movements are so quick and sharp, they are designed to attack those short moments when the space is available. United’s players will have to be quick in noticing those moments and playing him early when he has the run on the opposition defender.
An example on the left side. Notice how good Hojlund’s control and carrying is after receiving wide. To end up with a strong shot on goal from that wide position highlights what a good dribbler and shot-creator for himself Hojlund is.
This is a great example of his movement. Notice how he tears away from his CB with the perfect angled run that not only beats the CB, but also lets him receive cleanly behind the RB.
An example from the Denmark game. Notice how he suddenly changes direction and darts towards the channel, inviting even the simplest of chips in the half space to become a great tool of progression. A hold up action and pass to winger later, Denmark are in the final 3rd.
Let’s get into his second movement pattern.
A more direct move where Hojlund stands in front of his CB marker and turns him to run into the space right behind facing the goal. This usually ends up in a shot on goal or final ball or foul won. It is one major avenue for Hojlund’s shots. The acceleration he generates from a standing start to a turn-and-run behind his man is what sets him apart from other strikers who do this.
Let’s look at some scenarios.
Classic move ahead of the CB where he turns around him for a clear path to goal with his left foot in striking position. The CB has no option but to take him down. Hojlund wins a penalty which is dispatched by Boga. In general, he’s drawn 32 fouls and won 2 penalties in his 20 90s for Atalanta this year. It’s tough to handle someone as smart and quick a mover as Hojlund. Bruno could be taking some extra penalties this coming year.
Another example where his turn-and-run leads to a foul drawn in a dangerous area.
An example from the Denmark game where he darts across the CB and uses his pace and physicality to maintain his run and emerge goalside. A random long ball punt becomes a 1-on-1 with the GK thanks to Hojlund’s run. He also has the composure to chip and earn his goal.
Let’s move to another pattern.
This is the one you all must be waiting for. The classic poacher move – Penetrative run between defenders when the ball is in wide areas. Hojlund is excellent at this and keeps making these runs often. Many of his goals are from this movement and often finished with a speedy dart and an extended leg to tap in a pure striker’s goal.
Let’s see some examples from the same games.
The Boga low cross wasn’t able to beat the CB in this case, but look at Hojlund’s acceleration and extension attempt. Would have been a poacher’s goal if not for the interception.
Another example where you can see his patience to wait for the final ball before executing the quick burt-and-stretch in front of goal.
From the same game. Hojlund is always attacking the ball across the face of the goal. This time the goalkeeper being brave prevented a tap-in.
Here,within 2 seconds, Hojlund attacks the gap between both defenders and finds himself in pole position for a 2-yard finish. A last-ditch interception prevents the shot, but Hojlund will keep making that run all day, which is a reason why he gets goals.
As you can see from the examples, there’s a good reason Hojlund is at 99 percentile for ‘Progresses passes received’ in his Serie A pizza chart. Here’s how his movement compares to attackers in Europe.
In summary, he’s an excellent mover with many various movements to receive dangerous balls in good areas. The output of these moves are usually excellent – either a shot on goal, or foul won or final ball chance or space for another attacker to finish. Movement is Hojlund’s best trait and what makes him so valuable. Especially in the context of playing ahead of progressors like Bruno Fernandes, Luke Shaw, Mason Mount, Lisandro Martinez and Casemiro, who have the passing range to pick him out regularly, It’s a finger-licking aspect of his profile.
We’ve seen how he gets into shooting positions. But how does he shoot after getting there?
These are his fbref shooting stats. What is very promising is the combination of ‘shot on target %’, ‘NPxG’ and ‘NPxG/Sh’. Together they indicate a player who gets his shots on target often and racks up high shot quality with each attempt, and this results in him accruing a healthy amount of non-penalty expected goals. It’s a very attractive shooting profile. I personally don’t mind the total shots percentile being a little low. It just indicates he’s not very trigger-happy and prefers to move or carry to get into good positions and attempt high quality shots. It meshes well with our attack since we already have shoot-heavy profiles in Bruno and Rashford. A third attacker who prefers to move or carry closer to goal and enhance chance quality is welcome.
He was 5th when it came to collecting non-penalty xG on a per 90 basis in Serie A last year. Moving with established strikers on this metric as a 20-year-old in his debut league season says a lot.
Let’s look at his shot map.
These are all his open play shots in Serie A in 22/23. What’s most satisfying is the number of shots inside the box. Only 3 shots are outside the box. He does have a slight preference to shoot from the left half-space compared to right. But his major chunk of shots being in the central zone around the penalty area is a clear signal of the kind of striker he is. 7 of his 9 goals have come from shots within the central zone and within the box – the area you want your line leader to score from, whether it’s from clever movement, a strong carry or just being in the right position after a penalty box scrimmage. An example of that last point from the Denmark Kazakhstan game:
I have a final viz to present before rounding up the shooting section.
This is another representation of what I was saying earlier – Hojlund doesn’t need too many shots to score. He roughly scores a goal every 6 shots. The only player who is in the same range and surpasses Hojlund on shots and goals per 90 is – you guessed it – Victor Osimhen. He’s the red dot on the far top-right corner. I know that we all wanted Osimhen at Manchester United, but I’m here to tell you that we’re probably getting the second-best option when it comes to shooting profile.
Carrying and dribbling
Let’s move on to another trait of Hojlund which I consider a big strength. I’m referring to dribbling as the action to try and beat a man or get into a good area and carrying as a generic ball control in any direction regardless of opponent.
These are his carrying stats from fbref. Firstly, his touches geared largely towards the penalty area and then the attacking third are a huge plus. And if you read those in combination with take-ons attempted (i.e. dribbles), we can understand that Hojlund attempts many dribbles in dangerous areas close to goal. These are not random dribbles in deeper or wide areas. They have goal scoring or assisting intent to them and are often in crowded areas where most opposition defenders are parked. This is also why his ‘Miscontrols’, ‘Dispossessed’ and ‘Times tackled’ look bad. Not only is he attempting a lot of take-ons, he’s also attempting them in areas usually swarming with defenders. So the success rates might seem low but the reward element is high, usually resulting in a game-opening move. The low percentiles make sense in that context and aren’t an issue of concern in any way.
Let’s see some match examples.
Another example of his turn-and-run move, but here he has the ball control ability to take down an awkward bouncing ball and push it in a dangerous area, beating both the men putting pressure on him. The result – he’s taken down in the box to earn another penalty.
This example is a good combination of the three traits we have discussed so far – the movement to dart between the CBs in transition, the carrying power to dribble and put distance from them and the intention to get close to goal before shooting with the knowledge that he will score – a microcosm of everything Hojlund is about.
Hold up and link up play
So far, the 3 traits I discussed are clear strengths of Hojlund, which he’s touching top attacker levels for. But from now, we’re starting to go into the territory of traits he can improve more on.
I’m referring to hold up play as the act of holding onto the ball until support arrives, often when back-to-goal and while battling a defender. I’m defining link-up play as the ability to see a pass and execute it after receiving or holding the ball.
And with that i need to say this – Hojlund’s hold up is average.
I’ve seen a lot of takes citing his hold-up as excellent, but I think a lot of it is based on an imagination of how his profile combination of physique, technique and speed will ensure that in the near future. It’s probably not a representation of what he’s shown so far.
Let me show you some examples to explain what I mean.
Hojlund tries to use his body to do a leave-and-run move on a high ball and loses possession. He often tries to use his physicality and speed on the break to tackle high balls but the results are pretty inconsistent.
Another example where Hojlund tries to push back on his man instead of going towards the ball and using his chest to control. The defender wins the ball with an outstretched leg.
Here, he’s again focused on using his physique, but judges the ball poorly again and ends up giving it away after a mistimed header.
The issue isn’t limited to aerials alone. Even on the ground, Hojlund often loses the ball with an awkward touch.
A simple pass that he fumbles and ends up losing possession.
Another comparatively straightforward pass to his legs that he’s unable to hold on to. To be fair, this is a tougher ask, but the point is to highlight how his technique when faced back to goal needs more work. He can get more consistent in trapping balls at an angle away from goal at a standing start.
Next, let’s move to link-up play. Is Hojlund a good passer? Can he find others with good vision and execution?
There isn’t much to read in his passing stats. We can conclude that hes no great creator or progressor on the ball, but all his stats also indicate that he’s above average at most passing metrics and can handle his own easily.
Let’s see some match examples.
One of those instances where Hojlund does control the ball very neatly and releases a player highlighting good vision and technique. He has it in his locker for sure, even if he’s not very consistent in all situations yet.
A smart move where Hojlund recognizes his teammate stuck in a bad spot and offers short support. A cool 1-2 flick is executed smartly. These are the touches and flicks Hojlund is better at compared to aerial ball battles with CBs.
Probably my favorite example in this section. Hojlund controls and holds the ball in time for his teammate to make the run, before executing a brilliant backheel key pass that almost led to a goal.
Pressing and defending
This is another trait which has been blown a little out of proportion. While Hojlund is a very willing defender and showcases bursts of intense pressing from time to time, his consistency and reading of the game when pressing is pretty lacking, while his success of actions is also very hit-and-miss.
His fbref section for defending stats compared to Serie A attackers doesn’t indicate much in terms of defensive actions. While this doesn’t give us any idea of his pressing numbers or reading of the press, it would have looked better if he was actually winning the ball from the front and generating turnovers for this team. It’s safe to say that he’s not great at that.
Let’s look at some match examples.
This is the kind of press you can expect from Hojlund. He can use his speed to bear down on the last CB or GK with single-minded intention. At the very least, he will offer this simple movement in the high press.
In many other games, he’s instructed to not press too much and just cover his marker. This happens a lot for Atalanta who don’t press too high, since they want to encourage the opponent to advance before hitting them in the spaces they leave behind. Hojlund often clings to the central CB to deter passes from wider players or GK to this CB. Another simplistic man-marking job that Hojlund can pull off without fuss.
In summary, we don’t have too much evidence of a great front defender. His defensive output is below average while his pressing, while intense, lacks intelligence. That said, it’s also fair to say that Atalanta’s tactics to not press too high or engage in the counter-press play a big part in these stats. It’s something that can be easily coached and I don’t think there should be an issue if he’s asked to press high and regularly.
Another aspect of Hojlund’s game that can be better. We’ve already seen some examples from the hold up section where he struggles a bit to take down the aerial ball.
His stats for aerials read average. His win rate doesn’t seem to be particularly high or low.
But there’s more to this than meets the eye. I’m going to take the help of my good friend Ben Griffis for this next viz.
These are all the passes leading to Rasmus Hojlund aerials in Serie A in 22/23. Within the box, Hojlund has received 7 aerial balls successfully from a total of 10. That’s pretty good for a striker. Many of his aerial duel losses are in the middle of the pitch where he has to contest outballs and clearances from his GK and backline.
Like this for example.
For aerial duels, I’d be a little less harsh on Hojlund, although I think he will keep getting better as his physicality improves.
If I had to summarize all of Hojlund’s traits discussed so far, I’d score them as:
With 10 being best, and 1 being worst, in the top 5 leagues at that trait.
The good news is that the first 3 traits are harder to find, have a great synergy with what we have in attack and are simply more important for a line leading CF. It’s also easier to expect a lot of the other traits to improve as Hojlund ages. Pressing is very coachable, link-up should get better as he matures and aerial and hold-up might never become a 10 but they can definitely improve to the point of being a non-issue. For a 20 year-old, this is a great set of traits to have.
If I had to predict how Hojlund’s 23/24 could go, I’d say that 15 goals in 30 games would be a great start. He will take time to settle, has a lot to perfect in his game and has just come off 1 Serie A season of 10 goals in 21 90s. Extrapolating the same form to 30 games out of a possible 60 for United in the coming season would be a good Premier League debut season at this age.
(Credits: fbref, Opta Analyst, Ben Griffis, Understat, Manchester United Twitter)