Manchester United are on the search for a new striker in the January transfer window as they seek a replacement for Cristiano Ronaldo and a solution to their goalscoring issues.
While United may have put three past a poor Nottingham Forest side on their return to Premier League action, they have struggled to find the net in general this season.
With 23 goals in 15 matches, at an average of 1.53 per game, 10 Premier League teams are scoring at the same or a better rate than Erik ten Hag’s side.
That means half the division are more prolific than United, including the likes of Brentford (1.56 goals per game), Fulham (1.69) and Brighton and Hove Albion (1.73).
Indeed, even in that routine victory over Forest earlier this week, United’s profligacy was clear to see prior to eventually killing off the contest with their third goal.
“We have to score more goals,” manager Ten Hag said. “We created so many chances and it takes us until just before the end to score the third goal.
“You can see Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford are goalscorers; Bruno Fernandes scores goals. We have a lot of players who can score, but we have to be ruthless.”
The Magnificent Seven
“Ruthless” is the key word there. Ten Hag has made it clear he is not after a creative player, or indeed a wide forward who chips in with, say, 10 to 15 goals a season.
What Ten Hag and United need is, as Michael Owen pointed out on Tuesday, “a Ruud van Nistelrooy, a Robin van Persie, a Wayne Rooney who scores 30-plus goals a season”.
Finding one of those players is easier said than done, of course, not least in the notoriously difficult-to-negotiate January window.
Taking all competitions into account, seven players from clubs across Europe’s top five leagues hit that magic 30 mark last season, led by Robert Lewandowski (50).
It is safe to assume United will not consider negotiating for Lewandowski in January; the same being true for Karim Benzema (44), Kylian Mbappe (39) and Mohamed Salah (31).
Christopher Nkunku (35) would have been a far more attainable target had Chelsea not got there first, with a fee reportedly having already been agreed with RB Leipzig for a future transfer to the Blues.
That leaves Wissam Ben Yedder and Ciro Immobile as Europe’s only other 30-plus-goal forwards from last term, having both scored 32 times for Monaco and Lazio respectively.
Ben Yedder and Immobile are still netting regularly this season, averaging a goal every other game, though both turn 33 next year and have no English football experience.
As stated by Ten Hag, who has been honest in his assessment of United’s squad since arriving in July, any signings must “match the sporting and financial criteria”.
Negotiating fees for under-contract duo Ben Yedder and Immobile, and tying them down to deals lasting into their mid-30s, would certainly not tick the latter box.
So what United actually need to find, then, is a prolific goalscorer who is on the right side of 30, attainable and ready to hit the ground running. What could be easier?
Who needs Vlahovic when you can have… Mitrovic?
There is one player – a surprise name on the face of it, perhaps – that ticks every possible box. Yes, that’s right – Fulham striker Aleksandar Mitrovic.
Only Erling Haaland (1.3), Lewandowski and Mbappe (both 0.95) are averaging more goals per game among Europe’s elite this season than Mitrovic (0.77).
It puts the Serbia international in a similar band to Marcus Thuram (0.76), Nkunku (0.74) and Victor Osimhen (0.71), each of whom have been regularly linked with United.
While it would be easy to dismiss those figures as misleading (he averages 0.31 goals across his Premier League career), he is a player very much for the here and now.
Mitrovic’s 10 Premier League goals have come from an expected goals (xG) return of 8.6 – only three others have a higher figure – highlighting his prolific nature.
To put that differential of 1.4 into some context, United’s leading scorer Rashford stands at 0.3 for the season – far from the ruthless finisher United crave.
That is not a slight on Rashford, who with 10 goals for the season has double the number of any other team-mate. Rashford is not the problem; a lack of centre-forward is.
Of course, for a club as big as United there is always an added onus to recruit marquee names, especially following the departure of a certain CR7.
That explains links with Enzo Fernandez, Dusan Vlahovic and Cody Gakpo, who starred at the World Cup with the Netherlands but has since agreed to join Liverpool.
A persuasive case can be put forward as to why any of those players still on the market could make the difference for United in the second half of the season.
Again, though, Ten Hag wants a “ruthless” striker. So how about the three names perhaps more synonymous with United and a January move than any other players?
The supporters’ picks
Goncalo Ramos was still relatively unknown prior to the World Cup, but his hat-trick for Portugal against Switzerland in the last 16 changed all that.
Let us not forget, either, that Ramos was propelled into the side to replace Ronaldo up top. As the Primeira Liga’s leading scorer this term, he is a young goalscorer with pedigree.
The aforementioned Osimhen has scored 10 goals in 14 games for Napoli this season, making it clear why many supporters have urged United to make a move.
Mohammed Kudus, too, is enjoying a good time of things at Ajax, and Ten Hag’s previous business suggests he favours players with links to his home country.
There are certainly options out there for United, but whether the club can be shrewd enough in landing Ten Hag’s top target, or targets, in a limited market is another question.
Yet for all the talk of chasing a star of Qatar 2022 or a possible star of the future, United may well be better off shopping closer to home to fulfil Ten Hag’s wish.