Wout Weghorst at Manchester United: when his loan from Burnley expires in the close season, should he stay or should he go? For the 30-year-old’s naysayers there is zero debate. They characterise him as the 6ft 6in one-paced target man of stereotype, continually hoping for any given contest to slow down. That Weghorst is a kind of Dutch Peter Crouch, except with fewer goals, as he has managed two in 18 United appearances.
A lack of fleet-footedness is the prime reason Weghorst is cast as having no long-term future under Erik ten Hag, as this weakness runs counter to the manager’s blueprint, which is all about speed, The ball should be recycled quickly, with the midfield flooding forward fast and Marcus Rashford, Alejandro Garnacho, Jadon Sancho and Antony rushing in from the flanks. In Anthony Martial’s absence through injury, Weghorst was a stopgap only, the goal-sniffer who would finish the openings created by this attacking squadron.
Except Weghorst, prolific at AZ Alkmaar (45 goals in 86 games) and Wolfsburg (70 in 144), has been in the drought mode (two in 20) that caused Burnley to loan him to Besiktas. He is yet to score in the Premier League for United and his shot conversion rate is 6.1%, with two goals from 33 attempts.
Yet Ten Hag continues to trust him. The 18 appearances are starts in all of United’s games since Weghorst was registered in mid-January and he does show flashes of the football desired, with cute, off-the-front play – either from his usual No 9 berth or when fielded at 10.
Weghorst is technically astute and imaginative enough to open defences, as he did when driving at Newcastle’s in February’s Carabao Cup final to engineer the opening for Rashford’s goal in the 2-0 triumph.
Ten Hag is emphatic Weghorst does have the chance to become a permanent signing and is aware of his attributes. “He is doing a lot of elements of football really well. Pressing – he is the leader of the process in pressing, he starts the press, and is very good in backward pressing [tracking back].
“He’s taking up good positions, in his linkup play he’s doing well and is making the right movements, making space for others. And he’s also good at set plays. So he is really contributing to the team. Since Christmas we have played 25 games and lost two games and he played almost all, so he is really part of the success.”
Ten Hag as an improver of players and master coach and strategist is a key factor. Since Weghorst’s arrival there have been those two defeats – at Arsenal and Liverpool – and four draws, with 12 wins. A six-year trophy drought was ended in that Carabao Cup final and United travel to their opponents in that match on Sunday in third place, with 12 matches left to secure a Champions League berth and an FA Cup semi-final against Brighton in three weeks’ time.
Clearly Weghorst has, as his manager contends, slipped smoothly into United’s starting XI, precisely what was required as the squad hardly bursts with natural, high-class centre-forwards. These begin and end with the injury-blighted Martial. Rashford, who has the tools to operate in that central role, prefers to cut in from the left. So part of the answer to Weghorst’s close-season destination depends on who Ten Hag recruits in the summer, as well as how he judges Martial’s worth, with his contract expiring in summer 2024, albeit with an extra year’s option.
A striker is a priority in the market. Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Napoli’s Victor Osimhen are on Ten Hag’s radar. Despite being intent on signing one of them, the manager may judge Weghorst should be part of a backup plan to the first-choice striker. This would retain the serious funds Ten Hag wishes to invest on a midfielder.
In July, Weghorst will have two years left on his deal with Burnley. He cost the club £12m, so any fee would be relative chump change. No one questions his attitude or his willingness to harry from the front – and his tears at the Carabao Cup victory showed a 30-year-old grateful for a late-career bloom, hungry for more success. The two goals for the Netherlands against Argentina at the World Cup show he is able to perform when it truly counts – as he did at Wembley .
While focusing on the rest of this season Ten Hag is also considering United’s long-term renaissance. “We are building a base, but have to progress. You can do that by developing the team,” he says. “We are setting higher demands and standards for our players and for the rest: in summer we will see.”
So, too, will Weghorst. A hunch says he may continue to be in a United shirt.