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How should Manchester United line up without Rasmus Højlund? – Man United News And Transfer News


There were many potential lessons to be learned from the disappointing opening game for Manchester United against Wolves on Monday night.

Though United secured a hard-fought three points in a 1-0 win, the performance was an alarming one. Wolves overwhelmed a porous United midfield at will and were extremely unlucky to come away with nothing for their impressive efforts.

This analysis omits a penalty shout which United were extremely fortunate to avoid in the final minutes of the game, which Premier League officials reportedly said was a clear and obvious error by the officiating team.

The midfield structure was the most worrying part of United’s performance, but issues were also present in defence and in attack. This was, however, essentially United’s strongest XI, minus the inclusion of the new Danish superstar – Rasmus Højlund – who watched on from the stands.

As such, instant improvements to the performance will be hard to implement. The issues in defence and midfield will require pre-existing options to perform more effectively, or additional reinforcements sought externally to supplement these areas.

Up front, however, a different approach can be taken in the continued absence of Højlund. The Dane is expected to be unavailable for at least a few more weeks, with Erik ten Hag describing it as “difficult” to predict his return date.

Ten Hag chose to line up against Wolves with a front three of Alejandro Garnacho, Marcus Rashford and Antony. The Brazilian winger, signed at great expense last summer, appears a certainty on the right, but the left remains a debate. The selection of Garnacho, in turn, enables Rashford to play through the middle, in Højlund’s stead.

The result was less than positive however.

Garnacho typified a 19 year-old winger, eager and enthusiastic on the ball, but wildly inconsistent with his decision-making and output. Though there were many moments where his obvious talent shone through, it was a disappointing perfromance for the Argentine.

Similarly, Marcus Rashford was largely anonymous in the centre-forward position. Indeed, his best passage of play in the entire match came after drifting out to the left, and playing an incisive through-ball to Luke Shaw who had underlapped on his inside. This relationship between the two England internationals was sorely missed on Monday evening.

The choice, therefore, to start Rashford up front with Garnacho as his deput on the left may not constitute the optimal locum tenens to tide United over while Højlund recovers. Anthony Martial is the most natural option in this position, but comes with his own mass of maladies which make him an unreliable option, despite his place on the bench against Wolves. So how should Ten Hag proceed with both of his number nines currently unfit to start, and his most effective attacking player better from the left-wing?

Jadon Sancho as a false-nine is the unlikely answer, though it was hinted at in pre-season.

Sancho came off the bench on Monday and looked bright and sharp in equal measure. His technical ability, stemming from world-class control of the ball and a proficiency in tight spaces, has never been in doubt; rather, it’s his intensity and endurance which have looked ill-suited to Premier League football.

Sancho’s best work, even at his peak at Borussia Dortmund, came close to the opposition goal. While he lacks the stereotypical explosiveness of a flashy winger, his eye for a pass and calmness in front of goal are the fundamental attributes which put him in such esteemed statistical company in Germany. The stereotypical percept United fans hold of a winger may explain, in part, the frustrations with the reality of Sancho as a player.

These attributes are, however, key to an effective false-nine – a role which requires a player to drop deep and link play while retaining a goal threat as the ball progresses up the field. Sancho displayed this goal threat consummately with his opener against Arsenal in pre-season playing as a false-nine, latching onto a mistake by Gabriel to rifle home past Aaron Ramsdale into the top corner.

The counter-argument to deploying Sancho as the centre-forward for United is an empirical one. The English forward has been largely unimpressive thus far in his Old Trafford career, with a pervading sense he may never realise the promise he demonstrated in abundance in Germany. The notion Sancho may go to a previously unseen level at United by operating in a position he has not played before could appear fanciful.

And yet it is still undoubtedly Ten Hag’s best option, because it helps everyone around him.

By playing Sancho through the middle, Rashford can return to his optimal left-wing slot. United’s number ten is far and away their most effective forward; his thirty goal season last year was the first time a Red has reached that mark since Robin van Persie. Ten Hag’s side will always be a more effective attacking unit with Rashford on the left-wing, free to cut inside and use his potent pace and power to leave defenders for dead.

Furthermore, with Rashford re-instated in this position, Garnacho can return to the bench, available for deployment at the hour mark against tired legs – the role in which he thrived last season. His last-minute winner against Fulham as a substitute was reminiscent of Cristiano Ronaldo’s iconic goal in the same stadium.

Sancho may, therefore, do nothing of value starting up front for United against Tottenham Hotspur. Yet, at a minimum, he’ll put his team mates in their best positions to succeed, even if he may not succeed himself.

The fact he may chip in with a goal like the one against Arsenal in pre-season would just be a delicious cherry on top.

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