Manchester United’s lesson? Feed Rasmus Hojlund, and he will score

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Manchester United’s lesson? Feed Rasmus Hojlund, and he will score

Bruno Fernandes will rightly get the plaudits following his captain’s performance for Manchester United on Tuesday night. 

His two goals and assist dragged United back from 1-2 down at home to Sheffield United to win 4-2, relieving some of the pressure engulfing Erik ten Hag and sparing him and his side the embarrassment of losing at home to the Premier League’s worst team.

But Rasmus Hojound, the club’s £70million striker, should be quietly pleased with his effort at Old Trafford, scoring his first goal since his brace against Luton Town in February. 

As soon as the final whistle was blown, Hojlund leapt from his seat in the dugout — he was replaced by Ethan Wheatley, who made his United debut and became the club’s 250th academy graduate to play for the first team, in the 89th minute — and immediately went to shake Ten Hag’s hand.

Due to a lack of alternatives, coupled with the squad being crippled by injuries throughout the season, Ten Hag has had little option but to stick with Holland, who has endured a difficult first season at the club.

Rasmus Hojlund celebrates ending his scoring drought (Oli Scarff/AFP via Getty Images)

The 21-year-old arrived from Italian club Atalanta injured, did not score his maiden league goal until December 26 and picked up a muscle injury in February that kept him sidelined for several weeks.

Throughout all of that turbulence, Ten Hag kept persisting with the forward who was often in the right position to score but was desperately starved of service.

But after going six games in a United shirt without a goal, Hojlund’s barren run is finally over — and now Ten Hag will be hoping for a similar run of form that saw him score seven goals in six games between January 14 and February 18.

“It is the rhythm that is broken after his injury (in February), so his goal is very important for him to return,” Ten Hag said of Hojlund’s finish.  “It will give him confidence, and that is what strikers need — they live off goals.”

Since his brace away to Luton Town and his goal on Wednesday, Hojlund had played 612 minutes in all competitions for United but managed only seven shots, with four of them being blocked and just two hitting the target.

For much of this season, he has got himself into a good position in the attacking third, yet the ball has seldom found its way to him.

During the same timeframe, he had only touched the ball in the opponent’s penalty area 23 times, and his expected goals (xG), which is a metric that measures the quality of each shot before the player shoots, was 0.49.

You can safely conclude from the graphic below that the seven shots Hojlund had taken before his goal from close range against Sheffield United were not from particularly great areas.

The one he converted was within six yards of Wes Foderingham’s goal and stemmed from a cute Fernandes pass, while the shots he missed were either half-chances or slight ones.

The majority of United’s goals have been spread out amongst Fernandes (15), Hojlund (14), Scott McTominay (10), Alejandro Garnacho (9) and Marcus Rashford (8).

The below graphic takes into account all of Hojlund’s non-penalty shots throughout the 2023-24 campaign.

Hojlund has scored a goal every 200 minutes from a total of 53 shots, of which 52.8 per cent have been on target with an average distance to goal of 11.7 yards.

Those numbers appear underwhelming compared to the leading strikers at other Premier League clubs, but one of the most significant statistics is his xG. Hojlund may have struggled for long spells this season but, according to his xG, he is is actually performing better than expected based on the quality of chances presented to him.

Hojlund’s overall xG for the campaign is 12.2, which makes his 14 goals good value for the service he’s been provided.

The Denmark international has had the backing of United’s fans, who appreciate his hard work and attitude. There is probably an acknowledgement that he has been a victim of a lack of depth up front and has had to learn English football the hard way, as well as the fact that he is still a young player learning his game.

Anthony Martial has spent most of this season injured, playing only 19 times in all competitions, meaning his team-mate has needed to play through barren spells when the burden on his shoulders was only weighing heavier.

But as his first season at United reaches its final stages, Ten Hag hopes that Hojlund will continue to make a scoring impact in the club’s final five league matches, as well as their FA Cup final against Manchester City on May 25. 

“I am happy for him and the team because in the coming weeks he will be hugely important to the goals we need as a team,” the manager said. “We need as many scoring players as possible on the pitch.”

For Hojlund to build on Wednesday’s return to scoring form, though, he needs help from his teammates.

(Top photo: Alex Livesey/Getty Images)