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A striker light, should Manchester United revisit their interest in Mario Mandzukic?

October 5, 2019

Manchester United need goals. Badly. The possibility of repeating January’s 2-0 win at Newcastle this Sunday seems remote, even though the Geordies have suffered a worse start to the season than Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side. At least Newcastle are well versed in such situations.

Thursday’s misery fest in Den Haag was the latest game in which the team struggled in front of goal. I’ll tell you about the lads I know who paid €500 each for hospitality tickets in the main stand as they couldn’t get them in the United end another day. But imagine paying €500 to see that?

United have scored only seven goals in the last nine games and haven’t managed more than one goal since the opening day of the season. The end of last season was equally poor. United didn’t score in five of the eight closing games. After a brilliant start under their new manager, they won one of the last 12 games. The form this season hasn’t picked up, with the opening day win a blip.

The 20-time English champions are four points off the relegation places after seven matches, 12 points behind leaders Liverpool who are the next team to come to Old Trafford. I’ll spare you more negative statistics from United’s worst league start in 30 years.

It doesn’t help that Anthony Martial is injured, that Marcus Rashford or Jesse Lingard don’t score. That Alexis Sanchez and Romelu Lukaku were all but cheered out of the door after failing last season. United are critically short of talent up front, but what is the solution?

Martial will return and has goals in him. Rashford may rediscover his shooting boots as he has at previous times in his career. Andreas Pereira knows he needs to score more and may strike the kind of purple patch which Jesse Lingard hit in December 2017, but it’s all wishful thinking right now. United look miles away from being a decent side – and there is the question of the service they are receiving to put them in scoring positions in the first place.

United’s priority is to sign a striker while avoiding the (fan approved) desperation of signing an Alex Sanchez complete with scandalous wages. Difficult as United will be signing from a position of weakness rather than strength. They were linked with Pablo Dybala from Juventus in August but felt he didn’t want to move to Manchester. There were more of the excessive agents’ demands which the club are trying to get away from, too.  

Solskjaer wants players who he feels want to be at the club, such as Harry Maguire, Aaron Wan Bissaka and Daniel James, players who will buy into a long-term project. United don’t want to be stung. Again.

Traditionally, signing decent players in January is problematic. Patrice Evra and Nemanja Vidic were fine buys, but they came from Moscow and Monaco. Evra pushed hard to move, Spartak were happy to cash in on Vidic. Russia is also one of the few places where there’s relative value given the weak rouble.

Clubs don’t want to sell their best players. Top players who are likely to be in the Champions League don’t want to join a club which didn’t qualify. The one advantage is that United aren't a rival to the Champions League teams since they’re spending this season labouring in the Europa League. I thought that was a competition well worth winning in 2016-17 and feel the same now, but can't see United overcoming a decent side should they meet one.

So what do United do? Pick up a discontented player – as they did Eric Cantona when they were in the midst of another goal drought in 1992? Tottenham have several, but getting players out of Tottenham was tricky enough in the days when United could still lure the Sheringhams, Carricks and Berbatovs with the prospect of trophies to be won.

Erling Haaland is flying now for Sportsdrink Salzburg The Norwegian is young, prolific and has worked with Solskjaer before at Molde. But he’s 19. United look short of experience right now, an Ibrahimovic-style figure who would strut his stuff and take control.

The club were in talks with Mario Mandzukic in July and understood the Croatian wanted to come but negotiations with Romelu Lukaku dragged on and Mandzukic was considered to be part of the deal with Dybala.

Such a player would need to be an instant hit; yet Mandzukic took time to settle at Atletico when he joined at the same time as Antoine Griezmann to replace the outgoing Diego Costa and David Villa. He became a success as he did at Juventus where he trained so hard he vomited, but it didn’t happen overnight.

Mandzukic is 33, so it would be a short term fix. The Croatian isn’t playing under new boss Maurizio Sarri. He’s not played a single minute this season be it because of a suspension for European games, being on the bench or not making the squad for league games. He had patella problems which kept him out towards the end of last season, a season in which he scored 10 in 33. He scored ten the previous season too and 11 the season before that. Four Manchester United players scored ten or more last season.

This isn’t a prolific goalscorer, more a target man. Manzukic isn't fast, he has a contract offer from Qatar and a contract at Juventus until 2021. The man who scored the goal of the season in the 2017 Champions league final has experience at the top level, he’s decent in the air and can hold the ball up and lay it off, but none of that fits into the fast attacking football which Solskjaer wants to play.

There would be very awkward comparisons if United go from signing Juventus’ best player for a world record fee in 2016 to signing a 33-year-old striker who can’t get in their team three years later. Dybala? He’s yet to score in six games this season, but he’s made three assists. 

Solskjaer has admitted that he is a striker light, but currently, he can do nothing about it. Ideally, Rashford and Martial would be supplemented by Greenwood, but the latter is 17. There should be no expectations on him. It could be a very long three months till the January window unless something begins to click or the young men up front grow into the role thrust upon them very quickly.