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Misfiring Manchester United – Striker woes since the 2012/13 season

They say the hardest thing to do is put the ball in the back of the net. Goalscoring is an art and only the very best are able to master it.

Manchester United have had a history of these types of players, elite, ruthless finishers who could always be relied on to bag you a goal when needed. From Denis Law to Robin van Persie, these great centre-forwards lit up Old Trafford time and time again. The list of greats who led the line for the club is countless, lately though; these kinds of players haven’t been around the club. Not for the want of trying though. 

Robin van Persie was the last truly great centre forward to play for United. Signed for £24million from Arsenal in 2012, the Dutchman bagged 30 goals in 48 appearances for The Red Devils, leading the club to their 20th Premier League title. It was such a delight to see Van Persie in action. Here was an absolute clinical goal scorer, who only needed one opportunity and it was in the back of the net.

The poise, composure and pure ruthlessness of Van Persie is what endeared him to the Old Trafford faithful. His spell at the club didn’t last very long; he was only at United for three seasons before moving on to Feyenoord. 

After the overwhelming success of Van Persie, the sheer lack of real quality at the centre forward position has been all too apparent. The likes of Javier Hernandez, Danny Welbeck, Alexis Sanchez, Romelu Lukaku, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have all been tried as a number nine at various points.

Some of these have had minor success in the role, but, none of them has really made it their own. None of them has come close to replicating the success that Van Persie did when he was at the club. Why is this? These are all quality players with talent and ability. When then, have none of them being able to really hit the heights at Manchester United?

Is the shirt too big for some of them? Are they not good enough or are they simply past their best? It’s a combination of all three.  Poor recruitment from the club side has left United with players not good enough to carry the burden of being the main source of goals for this mammoth of a club. Some may point to a lack of service and lack of creativity as a reason why some of these forward are misfiring. That may be true to an extent. However, the true greats only need one chance and it’s in the back of the net. 

Current manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer alluded to this when speaking of Anthony Martial in February. A lot of these players don’t have the killer instinct of a truly great number nine. Do they know where to be and when? Perhaps not, if they did then maybe lack of quality service would be a more valid reason as to why more goals are not being scored. 

Do they practice their off the ball movements in training? Are they aware enough to know when a potential opportunity might present itself and be alive to that? The evidence on the pitch suggests not. Too many times, we’ve seen nonexistent movement and general static play from United centre forwards. They don’t anticipate chances or when the ball will arrive in the box. While the lack of service sometimes creates a problem, the strikers not knowing when to move creates a bigger one. 

If you don’t know when to get into the penalty area, how do you ever expect to get on the end of things and bag yourself a goal? The elite strikers know how to do this like its second nature to them. They’re always in the right place, even if the ball doesn’t come in, if they keep making the runs, eventually it will.

Harry Kane, Sergio Aguero and even a Mohamed Salah are all masters of this. Not surprise that Salah scores most of his goals inside the penalty box, even though be mostly plays out wide for Liverpool. He knows where to be and when to be there. 

Manchester United’s current strikers just don’t have this attribute. Robin van Persie had it, Ruud van Nistelrooy had it, Andrew Cole had it and countless others in years gone by, including Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. It’s not hard to think that the current manager could teach the strikers he has at his disposal a thing or two about proper movement. He’s been in the job six months and there’s not really been much improvement on that front. So, is it something else that’s stopping them grasping this concept? 

In general, people learn and retain information at different rates. Perhaps this current group of players are just unable to improve any further than their current level? The reason they can’t grasp new concepts is because they’re not good enough to grasp them. If that’s the case then only one logical outcome can come from that. 

Manchester United need a higher calibre of forward players. Ones who have the natural ability but are also adaptable enough to take on new concepts, learn and absorb, be flexible enough mentally so they can understand and improve the technical side of their game. The very best players don’t just rely on raw talent alone to get them through. They need to be wise enough to know their weaknesses and adjust to compensate for this. 

There has been some speculation of many of United’s current forwards leaving the club this summer. It may not be a bad thing for some of them to move on. 

This way the club can start recruiting a new breed of striker. Ones who are more in tune with what it takes to lead the line at Manchester United. Goals win you games and if United carry on with forwards who keep producing average returns, the club will struggle to return to the top of English football any time soon. 

Written by Joe Hinds

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