The £72m wonderkid who offers Man Utd genuine hope amid catastrophic run of form

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Manchester United may have slumped to another bad defeat in the Champions League, but Rasmus Højlund was excellent - can the Dane lift United out of the gloom?

The boos that rang out around Old Trafford after Manchester United’s second consecutive home defeat were probably still ringing in Erik ten Hag’s ears even after they’d been replaced by the raucous celebrations of the large Galatasaray contingent in the stands. After losing 4-3 in Munich a fortnight ago, United stand on the brink of an early exit from the Champions League and are faring little better in the domestic game. Whatever wheels remain seem to be coming off.

Diogo Dalot was at fault for Galatasaray’s first, caught goalside by Wilfried Zaha before being outmuscled. André Onana first gave the ball away to cause an avoidable penalty and red card for Casemiro before being sat down far too easily by Mauro Icardi for the visitors’ third, scored after Sofyan Amrabat was caught strolling back to play the Argentine onside. Once again, there were individual horror shows aplenty to complement the apparent absence of a defensive structure.

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But there was one ray of light amid the gathering gloom – Rasmus Højlund, the 20-year-old Dane signed at a steepling price of £65m over the summer, who scored his second and third Champions League goals for his new club and did so with aplomb and the promise of plenty more to come.

Rasmus Højlund dinks the ball past Fernando Muslera for his second goal of the evening.Rasmus Højlund dinks the ball past Fernando Muslera for his second goal of the evening.
Rasmus Højlund dinks the ball past Fernando Muslera for his second goal of the evening.

He did brilliantly for his first, controlling his header superbly well under pressure to turn Marcus Rashford’s powerful cross home. His second showed off his pace, bursting all the way from the halfway line and past a helpless Abdülkerim Bardakci before coolly slotting past the goalkeeper. Between the two was a wonderfully composed turn and finish which was ruled out for offside – and he could have had an assist, too, had Bruno Fernandes been able to get his feet right to meet Højlund’s excellent cross just 90 seconds into the game.

It will take some time for the young Dane to pay back the substantial investment made in his future, but he’s off to a pretty impressive start in Europe, at least, and seems to offer both the predatory instincts and physical potency that United have sorely needed up front for some time now, at least since the decline of Cristiano Ronaldo set in, an event which dates back at least a year depending on how generous you wish to be about the autumn of the Portuguese’s career.

Højlund settling into a scoring groove so swiftly should be cause for at least some optimism in Old Trafford, as tempered as it will necessarily be by events unfolding everywhere else on and off the field of play. While his talents have been obvious for a couple of years now, few judges expected him to be the kind of forward who could dominate defences at the very highest level right off the bat – and he did just that against Galatasaray, whose back line is admittedly not among the best in European competition but who still set a sufficiently high bar to make all praise of Højlund’s performance entirely justified.

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Green shoots among the wreckage, then, but how far can Højlund go this season, and will his qualities be enough to drag United back into serious top four contention, or through the Champions League group stage?

As it stands that seems unlikely, not that the former Sturm Graz and Atalanta striker can be held accountable. United’s defence is ravaged by injuries but that still provides few excuses for the abject lack of fundamental structure. The midfield is imbalanced and leaves far too much work for the makeshift back four to do. Onana, a proven goalkeeper by any measure, has had a torrid start to life in Manchester. And while Højlund and Rashford look dangerous enough up top, the return of Antony seems unlikely to solve the problem presented by the lack of strength or depth on the wide right. Højlund could score 30 goals and it might not be enough to see this beleaguered United side achieve all of their objectives.

It’s also worth noting that Højlund was somewhat streaky during his one-year tenure in Serie A last season. Prior to January he scored just one goal in the league before netting in four consecutive matches, and then he went on another tear through February and March which included scoring five goals in two games for his country, a brace in a surprise defeat to Kazakhstan preceding a hat-trick against Finland. Before and after, he ran rather dry, and in total he netted 11 goals in 36 games for Atalanta, hardly numbers which suggest someone ready to take the Premier League by storm straight away.

Erik ten Hag cuts a dejected figure in the Old Trafford rain after United’s sixth defeat of the season.Erik ten Hag cuts a dejected figure in the Old Trafford rain after United’s sixth defeat of the season.
Erik ten Hag cuts a dejected figure in the Old Trafford rain after United’s sixth defeat of the season.

That relatively unexceptional return in Italy speaks to some degree about weaknesses in his game. For all his strength and height - he’s 6’3” and change - he has had surprisingly little success in beating defenders to aerial balls and while he’s naturally happy to drop deep to link up play, his passing selection still needs plenty of work. His streaky scoring was also partly as a result of an occasional lack of composure, and he seems to be a striker whose finishing ability ebbs and flows with his confidence.

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Right now, he is clearly on an upswing, and perhaps he can maintain it. Perhaps his experience at Atalanta will help him to keep standards up when the goals dry up and stop him from snatching at his chances going forward. But United have become a team where confidence and morale can be hard to come by, and plenty of more experienced players have struggled to keep their head up at the club in recent years. From reports of dressing room disharmony to evident struggles on the pitch for plenty of United’s playing staff, there is a mounting body of evidence that the culture at Carrington is not conducive to keeping confidence high.

Maybe that’s being too bleak. Højlund was an expensive signing but one intended as a long-term project. It is unlikely that he hits 30 goals this season, by any standards, but the evidence is there on his better nights that he could well get there in the future. He has all the fundamental skills and physical attributes required to be an outstanding player – and as United hit yet another fresh low, maybe that hope for the future can be enough to sustain some fans for as long as it takes for Ten Hag, or whoever comes after him, to turn things around. That looks like a long way off, but based off his performance last night, maybe Højlund’s peak is coming much sooner than anticipated.

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