Manchester United

Manchester United

Premier League • England

Why Joshua Zirkzee is the perfect No 9 for Man Utd and Ten Hag as striker transfer edges closer

Joshua Zirkzee has been linked with a move Manchester United

Joshua Zirkzee has been linked with a move Manchester United

Manchester United have been taking a long, hard look at signing Joshua Zirkzee this summer and a detailed look at the player shows exactly why he would thrive in Erik ten Hag’s system and provide a major upgrade on Anthony Martial.

Zirkzee had the season of his life for Bologna in 2023/24 and he’s rightly been attracting interest from top teams such as Bayern Munich, Arsenal, AC Milan, Inter Milan and many more.

But it’s Manchester United who are the club on the verge of signing the 6ft 4in Dutchman in the summer. So who exactly is he and does he fit in at Man Utd?

Zirkzee is at the heart of every attack for Bologn; he’s a facilitator of play, constantly creating chances for others with an ability to drop deep and spray passes wide. His spatial awareness is what makes him so effective at this as he’s always scanning to find where the space is, and his movement helps to allow other spaces to form. Such an intelligent striker.

When looking at Man Utd, the loan signing of Wout Weghorst in January 2023 raised some eyebrows, but his role as a facilitator was crucial in Marcus Rashford’s red-hot form. This type of striker is how you get the best out of an inside forward like Rashford who’s not involved in build-up play much.

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Rashford’s drop-off in form last season was massively due to the players around him. Less chances created for him and a lack of confidence.

The key to unlocking him could be signing another striker who’s able to facilitate play for him. Weghorst did this to a decent standard, but there were also a lot of limitations in his game. Weghorst’s performances left Man Utd fans thinking, “if only he was better at the other aspects of the game” such as scoring goals, and taking on players for example! Well, Zirkzee is exactly that.

He has the creative nature to a much higher level, a huge mobility and technical ability upgrade and still lots of potential at only 23. A big upgrade on his compatriot that would get goals himself whilst create for those around him such as Rashford and Bruno Fernandes.

Zirkzee would benefit McTominay, Fernandes and Rashford

One of Zirkzee’s trademark moves is to drop deep, as for the ball from midfielders/defenders in build-up play to escape the press, receive the ball on the half turn, spin a defender, then ping a pass wide out the wings for a wide player to run in behind from. A match made in heaven for a goalscoring winger like Rashford.

Despite being so tall, the 23-year-old is a very agile player, who loves a Cruyff-turn to fool his marker and create separation to shoot or progress play into space. It’s rare you see someone move so well at this height and it’s all down to the mobility in his hips. He’ll swivel in the box in such a quick motion to beat a defender and shoot on goal. Zirkzee has scored a few goals in this exact way. A quality first touch to bring the ball down and then a swift, intricate movement in the box to get a shot off.

Due to his ambipedal nature, he can do to take on a defender on either side and strike the ball cleanly with either foot. Unpredictable and therefore, hard to defend against. His excellence in his back-to-goal play is so impressive to watch. Not just turning to beat his man but also in creating for advanced runners.

At Bologna, one extremely common combination is the link-up between Zirkzee and Scotsman Lewis Ferguson. Zirkzee drops deeper to receive the ball and hence pulls the defender forward out of position creating space in behind the defender. Ferguson then sees this space and drives in behind where Zirkzee will play the ball to for Ferguson to run onto.

This exact combination is what I could see happening with the advanced runs from an attacking midfielder such as Fernandes or even Scott McTominay who’s great at box-crashing. In fact, if McTominay were to stay, the combination of him and Zirkzee would be a deadly one. A very complementary duo. A match made in heaven!

The Bologna forward’s aforementioned ambipedal ability is one of my favourite traits about him. Equally as good dribbling, passing, shooting on both feet. This creates an essence of unpredictability. For defenders it’s a nightmare. So often defenders are taught to ‘show him on his weak foot’, but what do you do when he doesn’t have one? What do you do when he’s equally as deadly taking you on either side. Even worse, he can decide to take-on you on your weaker side.

Bologna star a perfect fit for Premier League

Zirkzee’s physicality and athleticism is part of what makes me believe he’d be a good fit for the Premier League. Whether it’s his aggression and intensity in duels or it’s his ability to shield the ball when carrying it, Zirkzee loves a physical battle. He thrives off closer contact. It’s a chance for him to outsmart them. Holding the ball long enough for a teammate to run in behind or shielding the ball to bait the defender into overstretching then turning them to beat them.

When coming up against lower blocks this comes in handy. His athleticism is much more than this but also how quick he is. When on the counterattack he loves to drive into space ahead and also loves to run in behind the defence onto through balls. Another threat he possesses.

Zirkzee’s athletic ability extends to his jumping ability and range of movement in his hips. He’s able to reach high with his long legs similar to Zlatan Ibrahimović. His first assist vs Inter in a 2-1 win in the Coppa Italia showed exactly this. Not only his height and athleticism, but his agility and technical ability are why he’s been compared to Zlatan.

So much so he was linked with AC Milan a lot too until they pulled out. Despite being 6ft 4 he does need work aerially. He’s strong but doesn’t have the aggression and dominance aerially that you’d expect. He’s much more of a technician than a brute up top. But as he continues to face more physical defenders and more lower blocks, I expect his heading ability to be something he focusses on developing.

Obviously an important part of being a striker is scoring goals. For Zirkzee he’s done well in this area but not outstanding. But the biggest reason is all the other responsibilities he has. He’s Bologna’s main goal-scorer, their main creator, he has to drop really deep so often to facilitate but then also needs to be in the box to score. It’s a lot of responsibility which if altered he could become an even better goal-scorer.

Last season he had 12 goals and seven assists in 37 games (all competitions). Generally composed, he’ll take his time and even take on the keeper. But his finishing ability needs work. Sometimes he rushes his shots showing less composure in front of goal. He’s a bit hot and cold in this area, but again, I believe relieving him of some of the creative work will allow him to have more focus on getting goals himself.

Big upgrade for Anthony Martial

Add to that being surrounded by better players and he’ll succeed. Think of Harry Kane. At times at Tottenham he would drop deep so often that he wouldn’t get as many chances to score and would still score a decent amount of goals. But as he became more experienced, he learnt to get a better balance of dropping deep occasionally but also being in the box more often and his goals have skyrocketed since. This is what I see happening with Zirkzee. Especially if he gets better creators around him.

From Man Utd’s point of view, they’re in need of a striker and a different profile to one they currently have. In their current squad they only have Rasmus Højlund as their recognised striker after releasing the injury-prone and inconsistent Anthony Martial. Rashford can play there but he’s far better off the left-wing.

Højlund has been very good of late but would certainly benefit from competition. Højlund is much more of a physically dominant presence, loves to run in behind and arrive on the end of crosses.

In the 4-4-2 days, him and Zirkzee would’ve been a great combination. But with how they play right now, it’s unlikely you’d see both play together and instead one striker would play alongside a left-winger and right-winger.

Man Utd lack creativity which is where Zirkzee could be a good addition and allow more goals to come from Rashford and Garnacho. One thing I’d argue is that they could maybe do with a more experienced striker but if they’re building for the future and for a style of play that they want to maintain in the long term, then Zirkzee could be perfect for that.

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