It was a nice idea. After the incendiary exit of Cristiano Ronaldo, Manchester United needed a striker. After a summer in which they spent £229 million, what they didn’t have was money to sign one. But after an impressive World Cup for the Netherlands, Burnley’s Wout Weghorst emerged as a possible loan target. The deal was done after some manoeuvring to get him out of a temporary spell at Besiktas.
With Ronaldo gone and Anthony Martial spending more time on the treatment table than the pitch, it was hoped that Weghorst could fill the number nine role as the Red Devils battled on four fronts. But as half time rolled around against Leeds United on Sunday, most United fans had given up on the experiment. The 30-year-old was well on his way to a fifth goalless Premier League appearance. He had been largely anonymous in many of those matches, while his only real contribution had been an important goal in the EFL Cup semi-final that helped fire United to Wembley.
But Ten Hag had a trick up his sleeve. After watching his United side outplayed for 45 minutes at Elland Road, the former Ajax manager had a new role for his misfiring forward. Weghorst was deployed deeper, in a number 10 role. The switch allowed the prolific Marcus Rashford to occupy more central areas ahead of him and also saw Weghorst link play with substitute Alejandro Garnacho.
These partnerships bore fruit, as both Rashford and Garnacho got on the scoresheet in the final 10 minutes to claim all three points. Weghorst himself also had the ball in the net, with his late strike controversially ruled out for offside. After a largely listless first half, and first few league games truth be told, Weghorst looked to have found his calling.
The bravery and tactical acumen that Ten Hag showed by switching Weghorst’s role was something his predecessor lacked. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was accused of being unable to change a game during his spell in charge. But Ten Hag’s shrewd shuffling of the deck turned a frustrating draw or perhaps even a chastening defeat into three points. In doing so, has he also created a blueprint for his attack for the rest of the season?
Perhaps Weghorst is not here to be the 'big man up top' he was initially envisaged as. Given the fact he scores fewer headers than you’d think and the fact United aren’t exactly a long-ball team, a deeper role seems like a better use of the player. The way he links play from the number 10 position favours a team with the sort of pacy wide attackers United boast. Any pairing of Rashford, Garnacho, Jadon Sancho, Antony or Anthony Elanga can thrive on the sort of service Weghorst provides. And as evidenced by his disallowed goal, he can also arrive late to apply the finish when needed.
The role of a centre forward has undergone more changes in the last decade than at any point in its history. Where once someone like Weghorst, all six-foot-six of him, would have been the quintessential Nat Lofthouse-style battering-ram, now he needs more strings to his bow. Fluid forwards like Roberto Firmino have become commonplace. While Liverpool’s Brazilian was once laughed at he is now lauded. The idea of a 'defensive striker' turned Britain’s reactionary pundits purple, but Firmino’s trophy cabinet tells its own story.
Weghorst likely won’t remain at Old Trafford long enough to match Firmino’s medal haul. But with an EFL Cup final to play and his side still in the Europa League and FA Cup, he could depart with some silverware. He could also leave with an entirely new skillset, having established himself as Erik ten Hag’s all-action deep-lying-forward.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change