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Ten Hag's PR spin: Why Man Utd striker crisis runs deeper than Hojlund & past summer market

COMMENT: He was reaching. Late Saturday afternoon. In the media room at Old Trafford. Erik ten Hag was reaching. Playing PR man after a third defeat for his Manchester United team in their fifth league game of the season...

But there's no spinning this. And Ten Hag knows it. It's not how this club works. The culture is results. It demands it. Not courageous defeats. Not putting a positive spin on things. A third defeat in five - at any stage of the season - is a crisis. But a third loss in the opening five games of a Premier League campaign? Well that's bordering on disaster...

Can it be rescued? Of course it can. But as we say, this season start has been a disaster. The Antony accusations. The Jadon Sancho blow-up. They could've been swept aside with a positive run of results. But when the team is also losing, then everything is exposed. Examined. Exaggerated. And no amount of spin can paper things over.

Ten Hag was reaching in the aftermath. Brighton were worthy winners. Yes, United created chances. Yes, Marcus Rashford and Rasmus Hojlund both could've changed the course of the game with a bit of luck. But at this level, these are just excuses. Hollow excuses. Look a little deeper and Roberto de Zerbi's players exposed United's midfield. Defensively, the hosts were outthought and outrun in the middle of the pitch. All three of Brighton's goals came from clever late runs from deeper positions. United's players were caught napping - both physically and mentally.

At this level. For these players. It shouldn't happen, but it did. And beyond the team's failure to finish off the chances their possession are creating this season, the manner of Brighton's goals has to be a real concern.

"In the first half, we created a lot of chances but we didn't score and they scored on their second attack, their first chance and we concede a goal," reasoned Teg Hag. "The first 20 minutes was very good. I think we had the chances, in the first half, I think we played very well but we didn't score. We didn't finish."

This is broken record stuff. It's what Ten Hag said after Spurs. Just as he also stated after Arsenal. And to be fair, any neutral could only agree with his assessment. But Ten Hag isn't paid to simply observe and comment. He's there to fix these identified issues. Problem is, he hasn't done that.

As we've argued in past columns, Rasmus Hojlund is a project player. At 20. After a single year in Serie A. There's nothing to suggest he'll be an instant 25-goal striker this season. It's early doors, but all signs are United - again - will be short of options in attack.

Look, we're not going to go over old ground. Ten Hag knew this. As did John Murtough, the club's technical director. It's why going into the summer market, as we highlighted here, the pair had a two-man priority striker shortlist. Hojlund was the project. The one to bring through gradually. The other was to be Harry Kane. The instant solution. The centre-forward to transform the team. Indeed, the club. But something changed, as B- and C- options were discarded, as the transfer window ran on.

But this runs deeper than Kane, Daniel Levy and Bayern Munich. United have had issues at centre-forward since the higher ups wrote off Zlatan Ibrahimovic and his knee a good five years ago. The club do not do centre-forwards. Not at first team level. Not with the U21s. Nor the U18s. Manchester United have forgotten how to identify and bring through centre-forwards.

The current situation is screaming out for a young lad to put his hand up and stake a claim. But there's nothing there. There's not even whimper. Joe Hugill has fallen away. Charlie McNeill has failed to live up to expectations. And just the fact that the club had to go outside Carrington to bring in both strikers again suggests there's a real issue with how they approach the centre-forward role.

Even with the momentum Mateo Meija is currently garnering. Inside the club, despite his 1.88m frame, he's viewed primarily as a wide player. Which is something United actually do well. Shea Lacey. Gabriele Biancheri. Amir Ibragimov. There's hype around these teens. Justifiably so. We hear about them. Scouts across Europe are watching them. There's a buzz around all three. But in terms of centre-forwards. Of natural goalscorers. There's nothing. There's no-one who jumps out. No-one who demands attention.

And this has been going on for years. It's why Jose Mourinho almost missed Scott McTominay as he was initially filling in as a centre-forward with the U21s. The coaching staff all regarded McTominay as a midfielder, but they had no-one else to throw upfront - so Scott drew the short straw. That was six years ago and the situation is yet to change.

"You will see the game," Ten Hag, again, reacting to Saturday's defeat. "Did you see [us at] Arsenal? Did you see [us at] Spurs? They could have been the other way. We have to correct it by ourselves."

He's right. Of course he is. But this goes beyond a lack of quality finishing from his players. This problem of goalscorers runs right through the club's system. And from the seniors to the youth team, it's a problem United have failed to address since the days of Zlatan.

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Chris Beattie
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Chris Beattie

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