Man Utd transfer priority made clear in Leeds & Lyon friendlies as £73m man struggles

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Manchester United’s first two friendlies showed the problems have last season are yet to be addressed.

If Erik ten Hag approached pre-season with any sense of doubt around Manchester United’s summer priority, 180 minutes of football in Oslo and Edinburgh will have confirmed a truth the Dutchman already knew.

The Red Devils began the 2023/24 preparations with wins over Leeds United and Lyon in successive Wednesdays before jetting off to the USA where the first team will face Arsenal, Real Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, with a clash against Wrexham in line for the Under-21 squad. In truth, only so much can be taken from two games in which the starting XIs will be wildly different come 14 August, while the second halves were made up of mainly youth-team players, but it did underline where United are lacking.

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The biggest deficiency remains up front, with Ten Hag unable to select a senior striker for the maiden two fixtures this summer. In the absence of a recognised no.9, Jadon Sancho was deployed in an unorthodox central role, a position he’s unlikely to operate in during the season. The 23-year-old was perhaps the poorest player in both games, and his penchant for taking too many touches and slowing down the play inadvertently stunted United’s attacking momentum.

Too often Sancho seemed on a different wavelength from team-mates, a problem which has blighted the last two years since his £73m switch from Dortmund. This feels like a sink or swim season for the United’s no.25, who doesn’t appear to be brimming with confidence less than four weeks before the big kick-off. Meanwhile, the plethora of exciting wingers in reserve should alarm a player once seen as one of the world’s most up-and-coming wide attackers. Amad and Noam Emeran have impressed, while Ten Hag can also call upon Facundo Pellistri, Antony, Alejandro Garnacho and Marcus Rashford in the States.

United will hope the latter isn’t required to play as a striker for the remainder of pre-season, with the club aiming to conclude a deal for Rasmus Hojlund in the coming weeks. The Dane has been identified as the primary target this summer after Harry Kane and Victor Osimhen were deemed unattainable.

The Leeds and Lyon victories demonstrated why it remains vital for United to add a quality centre-forward in the window, followingfirst-half performances where the Red Devils defended well, controlled the tempo, moved the ball at pace and created sufficient chances, but didn’t manage to find a breakthrough.

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That United on both occasions managed to win the second 45 minutes was notable, as was the presence of a natural, yet fledgling, striker in the form of Joe Hugill. While the 19-year-old is not ready to compete for a place in the first team, Hugill’s movement and link-up play gave the team a more rounded feel.

Scoring goals remains a concern for Ten Hag, an issue which dogged performances at the back end of last season and drew regular frustration from the United manager. His comments after the Lyon win could have been a copy and paste from April and May: “First half, how we started, three massive chances from the start but that is straight, the criticism. You have to score, you have to net,” he told MUTV in Edinburgh.

“That was already our problem last year and we have to realise that, we have to be more ruthless and clinical in those situations. But we create them and from good pressing and good turnovers, so I'm happy with that.”

Erik ten Hag knows Manchester United must score goals more regularly this season.Erik ten Hag knows Manchester United must score goals more regularly this season.
Erik ten Hag knows Manchester United must score goals more regularly this season.

A sense of apprehension will remain from Ten Hag in this regard, and he will hope the solution comes in the form of a 6ft 3in 20-year-old from Copenhagen, although there will certainly be a nagging doubt that United’s fate may depend on the scoring prowess of a striker with just 27 senior club goals to his name.

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Yet, Ten Hag should take encouragement from other aspects of the friendly performances, namely the displays of the fringe and under-21 players. Kobbie Mainoo, Amad and Hannibal looked first-team ready, while youngsters Marc Jurado, Will Fish, Daniel Gore and Hugill showed the green shoots of promising careers.

Another trait from last season which re-emerged was the favourable habit of keeping clean sheets. The recently departed David de Gea had the highest number of shutouts in the Premier League last season, and United conceded few chances against Leeds and Lyon, with just one shot registered on goal over 180 minutes.

Three of the preferred back four are already up and running ahead of '23/24, and Mason Mount seems to have adjusted quickly to Ten Hag’s style of play. The tests against Arsenal, Madrid and Dortmund will give a clearer picture of where United are ahead of the new campaign, with the full squad now in America.

There’s certainly room for tentative optimism at this early stage - now United just need to get that striker sorted…

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