Erik ten Hag is not the first Dutch manager to use Wout Weghorst as an unfashionable Plan B. If Lionel Messi finally winning the World Cup at the fifth attempt and in such extraordinary circumstances was one of football’s great stories, it was nearly snuffed out by a lesser-known figure.
When Louis van Gaal introduced Weghorst, the Netherlands were trailing Argentina 2-0 in the quarterfinals. The 6ft 6in striker made his mark five minutes later, heading in Steven Berghuis’ cross. His equalizer in the 101st minute, courtesy of a brilliantly worked free kᎥck by Teun Koopmeiners, demonstrated that this big man has good feet. Weghorst completed his hat trᎥck in the shootout by converting his penalty.
In the World Cup quarterfinals, Wout Weghorst scores an equalizer against Argentina (EPA)
It was a valiant effort in vain, but it demonstrated Weghorst’s fondness for unlikely comebacks. He exited the Premier League through the back door, relegated with Burnley, with only two goals in 20 games, the ostensible upgrade for Chris Wood, who was dropped for Ashley Barnes and whose miss at Villa Park sealed the Clarets’ fate. He returns to Manchester United to replace Cristiano Ronaldo.
At least, kind of. With United having overspent last summer and thus unable to sign Cody Gakpo, a loan-only budget, and Joao Felix appearing to be too expensive, the candidates were those who were available and interested. If Weghorst was eager to leave, waving goodbye to Besiktas fans, he is the compromise candidate, the tall figure for the short-term task.
Van Gaal’s reinvention of Weghorst as an impact substitute may be useful to Ten Hag. A nearly entirely starting career at Heracles, AZ Alkmaar, Wolfsburg, Burnley, and Besiktas. United are now short on strikers, having lost Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani, and Mason Greenwood in the last year, and have a first-choice striker, Anthony Martial, who is not yet fit to play 90 minutes. Weghorst believes he is guaranteed games but is unsure if he will start them.
When compared to Odion Ighalo, another unglamorous loanee who joined at 30, never started a Premier League game for United, never scored in the top flight but contributed goals against inferior opponents in the cups, Weghorst may have more potency and offer more class, given a best return of 20 goals in a Bundesliga season. One of the few highlights of his time at Burnley, perhaps surpassed by a starring performance in a win over Brighton, came in a draw with United with a defence-splitting pass for Jay Rodriguez to score.
His assist totals have consistently been high. He is particularly skilled at link-up play. Wood’s desire to have the ball on his feet may have hurt him at Burnley, where he was used more as a large runner who frequently strayed offside than as a focal point to bring others into play. Weghorst’s pressing statistics have received the most attention, with his 57 pressures against Wolves last season being the most by anyone in a Premier League game. Ten Hag may appreciate it if it makes him the anti-Ronaldo.
His chance conversion rate, which has been between 14 and 20 percent in every season since his dᎥsastrous spell at Burnley, could be useful for a United team that has been outscored in the Premier League by Fulham, Brighton, and Brentford.
Wout Weghorst of Burnley struggled to make an impact (PA Wire)
Ten Hag, like Van Gaal before him, may be able to represent both sides of the Dutch debate. Rewind four years, and Dusan Tadic was his 38-goal false nine, a Cruyffian concept flourishing at Ajax, and the current United manager has increased Marcus Rashford’s production. Sebastien Haller, a more traditional No 9, scored 34 goals for Ajax last season, and Weghorst resembles him more.
He’s taken one of the longer and more unusual routes to Old Trafford. His desperation for the transfer could have reflected the fɑct that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity created in unusual circumstances. He would have attracted a higher caliber of suitor if he had not been vocal in his opposition to Covid-19 vaccination when he left Wolfsburg. Burnley had only recently been relegated when he claimed he had agreed not to play in the Championship with them. He was proven right, and Ronaldo’s explosive exit paved the way to Old Trafford.
His career path is complicated, but his tactics could be. Van Gaal’s backup plan at Old Trafford was to throw long balls at Marouane Fellaini. It worked to a point, but it didn’t earn him many aesthetic points. Back in 1991-92, Sir Alex Ferguson believed that if he had signed target man Mick Harford in the winter, United would have won the league. Sometimes a big club necessitates a big man.