Football players are a bit like clothes. They come in and out of fashion. For a period of time a certain type of player, fulfilling a certain role in a team becomes the main trend. Remember when it was in vogue to have a specialised defensive midfielder, or when a skillful, diminutive number 10 was the key to success?

There was also a period when a side’s attacking threat would often be built around a target man striker. A domineering, rock of a presence with a gravitational pull to the wingers, forwards, and midfielders around them. They were appreciated as vital, whether from the start or later on in matches. 

Then the trend ended. The game moved forwards and the idea of the ‘big-man’ up front became a thing of the past. The best term now used to describe these players is as a ‘traditional’ striker, with connotations of being almost out of date, archaic, or a throwback to less exciting times. 

These ‘traditional’ forwards are now effectively patronised as less aesthetically pleasing bulls in a china shop getting in the way of the classy, sophisticated skill merchants we’d rather see filling our online highlights reels. The old friend that most of the group is no longer as keen on but still invites to the reunions because they used to find him funny. 

And that brings us to the 30-year-old, 1.97 metre (6 ft 6”) Wout Weghorst. A few decades ago, his attributes wouldn’t have been sniffed at. Yet now, despite edging closer to 200 career goals and with over 50 assists, the Dutch striker is generally critiqued as not being good enough for the highest level.

This is the narrative that has followed him over to Manchester, where he has become a new loan signing demanded by Eric ten Hag at an ever-improving Manchester United. 

The sudden move for Weghorst, despite his strong performances on loan at Besiktas from Burnley and for the Netherlands at the World Cup, was undoubtedly a surprise. However, those rushing to write him off as not having the requisite ability to thrive at one of the world’s biggest clubs should slow down and look at the wider context. 

Firstly, Weghorst has largely delivered on the main requirement for his job – putting the ball in the net. Although the six months at a poor Burnley were a struggle, his strike rate in Turkey was good, with 9 in 18 for the Istanbul side. Over 3 and a half seasons for Wolfsburg, only Robert Lewandoski at Bayern Munich scored more Bundesliga goals than him. His 20 strikes in 34 appearances were crucial in Wolfsburg reaching the Champions League in 2020/21. Firing 45 goals in 86 appearances for AZ Alkmaar in the Eredivisie was also very impressive. He can score all types of goals – in the air, when the ball is played into feet and when running in behind. The intelligent movement and incisive finishing were clear in that famous second goal for the Netherlands against Argentina in the World Cup. If scoring is meant to be one of the hardest parts of football, then Weghorst merits a little more acknowledgment. 

What’s more, we shouldn’t pigeonhole Weghorst as someone to pump long balls to simply because of his height. Watch him live and you’ll witness a player who actually enjoys having the ball played into his feet. Yes, he is of course adept at challenging for the ball in the air and holding the ball up as a target player, but he also likes to drop into space to link the play as well as make runs in behind to stretch defences. Rather than being merely a big Dutch battering ram, Weghorst is an intelligent attacking option who can help teams unpick the locks of opposing defences with his movement. Bring his physical attributes together with this subtler side to his game and you have a potent attacking formula. 

If a manager uses Weghorst with a clear plan in mind, he can be very effective. Just look at how Louis van Gaal used him off the bench against Argentina.  Indeed, he is being signed by ten Hag not just as an additional goal-scoring option but as someone who can impact a game in a different way to the players currently at his disposal and bring out the best in others. His new coach has a history of doing this, such as with Sébastien Haller at Ajax.

Occupying defenders and stretching defences creates space for those around him. Providing an opportunity for a quick delivery into the box, or acting as a magnet for central, direct balls to enable others to break into the final third, can change the dynamic of a team’s attack and the challenges put to a defence. If United are chasing a game and need something different, or are up against a team sitting deeper to try to reduce the space in behind, Weghorst can step up. Just because he is not always providing the numbers does not mean he is not influencing the play. It’s the balance Weghorst provides, not just the goals, that make him appealing. 

That equilibrium also extends to what he offers defensively. It slips under the radar just how much work Weghorst does through relentless pressing. It is reported that he was one of the fittest players at Wolfsburg. He uses this physicality to put pressure on the ball and put tackles in high up the field. In the intense modern game, much is made of the importance of strikers being able to press. It is pivotal to the way ten Hag plays. With Weghorst, he has someone willing to put the hard yards in.

And that brings us to the last point – Weghorst’s selfless, determined approach to his trade is bound to provide a further boost to the positive atmosphere being built by ten Hag. He has been signed not just for his ability but his character too. He is not among Europe’s elite forwards. Yet Weghorst’s commitment can never be doubted and he is ultra-competitive, with a burning desire to keep improving. You can guarantee that he believes he can make an impact at Old Trafford, even if it ends up being just as an impact sub and a vocal presence on the training pitch and in the changing room. His new manager wants leaders in the group and Weghorst fits that mold.

It’s easy to quickly jump to an assessment of a player like Weghorst. It is understandable why those who haven’t watched much of him have already made up their minds that he won’t make the cut at United. 

However, do you remember that other fun quirk about trends? They can very quickly come back into fashion… 

Joe Baker (15 Posts)