Man Utd move into top four but Ten Hag and Rashford need help to keep them there…

Ian Watson
Marcus Rashford celebrates scoring Manchester United's winning goal at Wolves.

It was evidenced again at Wolves that Man Utd finally have a proper manager. Now Erik ten Hag deserves to be furnished with a proper centre-forward…

An edgy win over Wolves saw Manchester United move into the top four for the first time this term. Their hopes of staying there now hinge on how serious they are about about achieving their stated aim for the season.

That a return to the Champions League is very much a possibility as we enter 2023 owes much to the work undertaken by Erik ten Hag during the back half of 2022. The United boss has barely put a foot wrong in his attempt to regain some credibility for his club, but he desperately needs the board to do their bit in the coming weeks to set the squad up for the remainder of the campaign.

United desperately need a striker. That flaw was clear at the start of the season; it was thrust into even sharper focus when Cristiano Ronaldo could no longer curb his rampant narcissism; and highlighted further in the two games since the World Cup break.

The Red Devils have beaten Nottingham Forest and now Wolves, both while keeping clean sheets with patchwork defences. But despite doing the bare minimum in attack to win both games, United cannot ignore the fact they desperately need a goalscorer to avoid undermining Ten Hag’s positive impact.

That was evident at Molineux where Marcus Rashford began the game on the bench after an ‘internal discipline’ issue. Rashford has been by far United’s biggest goalscoring threat this season but Ten Hag isn’t prepared to bend the rules for anyone. This was the latest in a series of challenges to the manager that he has handled with reassuring and calm authority.

Given the absence of cutting edge throughout the rest of his team, it must have been tempting for Ten Hag to look the other way from Rashford’s misdemeanour. In his absence throughout the first-half, United’s attack exhibited a woeful lack of ruthlessness or cutting edge.

They carved out opportunities. We know Antony, Bruno Fernandes, Christian Eriksen and Alejandro Garnacho can create. That has rarely been a major worry for Ten Hag. Finishing them off remains his greatest concern, one that could derail their prospects.

Right now, he is utterly reliant on Anthony Martial. “I like the type that Martial is because he can hold the ball, he’s a target, he can link up, he can also run behind, he has speed, he can finish and he’s a good presser,” said Ten Hag in November. Presumably because a lack of alternatives meant he had to.

Indeed, Martial can perform all those duties, just rarely, and even more occasionally does he bring them together. At Molineux, he cut the frustrating figure United fans have become accustomed to, a striker a yard off the pace, and further from the level of intensity required to lead the line at the highest level.

With Martial missing a sitter before the break, following a glaring miss from Garnacho, Ten Hag had little choice but to turn to Rashford at half-time. It was the only attacking change the manager had to hand and it was like-for-like on the left-hand side. The only alternative would have been to swap Martial for Rashford, but the England attacker has stated time and again his preference for coming off the left.

Which is what he did to devastating effect in the 76th minute. Rashford played a simple give and go with Fernandes to get into the box, but there upon shrugging off Jonny and finding the path to goal, he highlighted the difference between himself and United’s other attackers. And the contrast between a fit and confident Rashford compared to the shell of the striker we saw last season.

Assuming Ten Hag can keep Rashford fit, he will be decisive in determining what, if anything, United achieve this season. But he cannot bear the burden alone. Antony can carry more of the weight, and Garnacho, young as he is, will doubtless chip in. But Ten Hag desperately needs a centre-forward – a specialist, not another winger who can do a job – to lead his line.

Owing to fact he has eyes, the manager recognises the fact and he’s not felt obliged to shy away from it. But he has spoken of United having to be ‘creative’ in the January market. Which would be fine if he was talking from a scouting perspective, rather than a financial one.

Having got United in contention for the top four and put in place the foundation for a culture fit for purpose, Ten Hag deserves better than a January bodge job.

Read more: Ten Hag praises Rashford reaction as dropped Man Utd star reveals reason for Wolves benching