Erik ten Hag is not the first Dutch manager to turn to Wout Weghorst as an unfashionable Plan B recently. If Lionel Messi finally winning the World Cup, at the fifth attempt and in such extraordinary circumstances, ranked as one of the great footballing stories, it was almost ended by a rather less celebrated figure.
Weghorst had already been booked before Louis van Gaal brought him on as Netherlands trailed 2-0 to Argentina in the quarter-final. The 6ft 6in striker made a mark five minutes later, heading in Steven Berghuis’ cross. His 101st-minute equaliser, courtesy of a brilliantly worked free-kick by Teun Koopmeiners, was an indication that this particular big man has rather good feet. When Weghorst converted his penalty in the eventual shootout, it completed a hat-trick of sorts.
It amounted to a heroic effort in vain, but it suggested that improbable comebacks are a theme for Weghorst. He departed the Premier League by the backdoor, relegated with Burnley, a scorer of only two goals in 20 games, the supposed upgrade for Chris Wood who ended up getting dropped for Ashley Barnes and whose miss at Villa Park helped seal the Clarets’ fate. He returns to it as Cristiano Ronaldo’s replacement at Manchester United.
Sort of, anyway. With United having overspent last summer and thus unable to afford to buy Cody Gakpo, with their budget limited to loans and with Joao Felix seeming too expensive, the candidates comprised of those available and interested. If Weghorst was very interested, waving goodbye to the Besiktas supporters before his exit was finalised, he is the compromise candidate, the tall figure for the short-term task.
Van Gaal’s reinvention of Weghorst as an impact substitute may prove pertinent for Ten Hag. A career at Heracles, AZ Alkmaar, Wolfsburg, Burnley and Besiktas has almost exclusively been spent as a starter. Now United are both short of strikers, with Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani and Mason Greenwood all exiting the picture in the last 12 months, and with a first choice, in Anthony Martial, who is not deemed fit to play 90 minutes yet. Weghorst feels guaranteed games, if far less certain to start them.
If his move evokes comparisons with Odion Ighalo, another unglamorous loanee who joined at 30, who never began a Premier League game for United, who never scored in the top flight but who contributed goals against inferior opponents in the cups, Weghorst may hold a greater potential for potency, given a best return of 20 goals in a Bundesliga season, and offer more class. One of the few highlights of his time at Burnley, perhaps bettered by a starring display in victory at Brighton, came with a defence-splitting pass for Jay Rodriguez to score in a draw against United.
His assist numbers have long been healthy. He excels at link-up play. Wanting the ball to feet perhaps hindered his cause at Burnley: Wood was used more as a sizeable runner who would often stray offside than a focal point to bring others into play. The figures that have garnered most attention are Weghorst’s pressing statistics, with his 57 pressures against Wolves the most by anyone in a Premier League game last season. If it makes him the anti-Ronaldo, Ten Hag may appreciate that.
But a chance conversion rate that, apart from his ill-fated spell at Burnley, has been between 14 and 20 percent in every recent season could also be useful for a United side outscored by Fulham, Brighton and Brentford in the Premier League.
Perhaps Ten Hag, like Van Gaal before him, can reflect both sides of the Dutch school of thought. The current United manager has made Marcus Rashford more prolific: rewind four years, however, and Dusan Tadic was his 38-goal false nine, a Cruyffian concept flourishing at Ajax. But last season, Sebastien Haller, a more conventional No 9, scored 34 times for his Ajax team and Weghorst has more in common with the latter.
He has taken one of the longer and stranger journeys to Old Trafford. His desperation for the transfer perhaps reflected the way it is a one-off opportunity, fashioned in unique circumstances. When he left Wolfsburg, he probably would have attracted a higher class of suitor but for his vocal opposition to vaccination against Covid-19. Burnley had barely gone down when he claimed he had agreed with them he would not play in the Championship. He has been proved right, and Ronaldo’s explosive exit has created a trail to Old Trafford.
His career path is scarcely route one, but the tactics could be. Go back a few years and Van Gaal’s Plan B at Old Trafford was often to aim long balls at Marouane Fellaini. It worked up to a point, though earned him few points for aesthetic appeal. But rewind a little further and Sir Alex Ferguson thought United would have won the title in 1991-92 if he had signed the target man Mick Harford in winter. Sometimes a big club needs a big man.