The sight of Christian Eriksen as a number nine on his Manchester United debut was proof of just how desperate Erik ten Hag is for a new centre forward. Within 50 minutes, Eriksen had been dropped back into a more familiar midfield role with Cristiano Ronaldo introduced off the bench, but the damage had already been done.
Ronaldo remains one of the best natural finishers in European football, but his inability, or unwillingness, to press from the front has raised questions about his suitability in a modern, proactive system like Erik ten Hag’s. Anthony Martial showed signs of development in pre-season, but has flattered to deceive as a United before.
Sunday’s 2-1 home defeat to Brighton seemingly pushed Manchester United to target a centre forward with reports of a move for Marko Arnautovic surfacing. After a summer which has seen Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester City all spend big on superstar attackers, a 33-year-old with a mediocre scoring record at the elite level isn’t what most United fans were hoping for.
United’s need for a new long-term number nine has been clear for years. Not since the signing of Robin van Persie all the way back in 2012 have the Old Trafford club landed a top-level striker in the prime of his career. Since then, Manchester United have taken short-term measure after short-term measure in attack.
Radamel Falcao was signed after injuries ravaged him before Zlatan Ibrahimovic arrived two years later at the age of 34. Odion Ighalo was the ultimate short-term solution, signed on loan from Shanghai Shenhua to merely give United another option up front. Edinson Cavani joined six months later as a free agent. Even Ronaldo, signed from Juventus last summer, was a quick fix.
Arnautovic would be just another short-term solution, and it’s not immediately clear what problem the Austrian would actually solve. He would give Manchester United greater physicality in the centre forward position, but Arnautovic has never struck 20 league goals in a single season at any point of his career.
Ten Hag must strike the right balance between building for the long-term and guiding Manchester United through some difficult moments in the immediate term. The opening weekend defeat to Brighton made it clear ten Hag needs help in the transfer market, but United must avoid making signings that make life even tougher for their manager beyond this summer.
In the past, Manchester United have saddled themselves with overpaid players signed for a short-term purpose with no thought of their place in any long-term plan. This has made it difficult for United managers to reshape the squad. Ten Hag wants a lean squad and so any new signings must be made with careful consideration of their role in the team beyond this season.
Manchester United are a club defined by great strikers they have had over the years. Sir Alex Ferguson coached the likes of Eric Cantona, Andy Cole, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Wayne Rooney among others. His great United teams had purpose thanks to the potency provided by the strikers they had lead the line. They offered more than just goals.
At such an early stage, it’s impossible and unfair to draw any solid conclusions about ten Hag as Manchester United manager and the team he is building, but the transfer activity at Old Trafford this summer shows he is not being helped by his employers. The signing of Arnautovic, even as a quick fix to flesh out ten Hag’s squad, would proved just how short-sighted United’s vision has become.