The endearing improbability of Wout Weghorst takes latest twist
Wout Weghorst has become the man who keeps distinguished company. There were three of them at the end, applauding the Manchester United fans: the de facto captain Bruno Fernandes, the World Cup winner Lisandro Martinez and Weghorst, his long frame in the coat of a man who had been substituted. He was joined on the scoresheet by Fernandes and Marcus Rashford, the form player in the Premier League. A month ago, he had been the Dutch answer to Lionel Messi, cancelling out the two-goal lead he had earned Argentina in a World Cup quarter-final, matching him by scoring a penalty in the subsequent shootout.
And in between, his previous goal had come with a motley crew of Premier League rejects, in a team with Arthur Masuaku, Cenk Tosun and Gedson Fernandes, with Dele Alli an unused substitute. For some, Weghorst had been out of sight and out of mind when on loan at Besiktas. Not for Erik ten Hag, however. The first striker he signed for United was borrowed from a Championship club, in Burnley. The first goal he scored for them came in a cup semi-final and was greeted with clenched fists. “I just turned to the goal hoping for a rebound and it came exactly like this,” Weghorst reflected. “It was nice.”
The improbable element was not being in position to finish, converting the rebound after Nottingham Forest goalkeeper Wayne Hennessy parried Antony’s shot. It was that he was leading the line for United. For a late developer, who did not debut in the Dutch top flight until he was 22, who was relegated in his only previous experience of English football, his last few weeks have had an endearing improbability.
It took a rare set of circumstances to bring Weghorst to Old Trafford, from United overspending on Antony last summer, depriving them of the January budget to hire a higher-calibre forward, to Cristiano Ronaldo’s hugely misguided alliance with Piers Morgan. Having duelled with Messi – and indeed been called a fool by him – he replaced Ronaldo, albeit temporarily.
Indeed, he now has as many goals in England as Ronaldo this season, even if the Portuguese’s strike at Everton was his 700th in club football and Weghorst’s effort at the City Ground was his third in this country, spread across two clubs. He only struck twice for Burnley. Ten Hag and United took the view an ill-fated spell at Turf Moor was an aberration in an otherwise prolific career. “He has a really good goalscoring record,” his manager noted.
He has one goal in three games for United. He averaged one every two in the Bundesliga. “It’s always special and you want to score goals. You prefer to have this first one as quick as possible,” Weghorst said. His account was opened in his third outing, though Ten Hag was quick to argue that he had already contributed to two other goals.
“For strikers, it’s always important [to score],” the manager said. “So it’s important for him, for his confidence as well that he scored that goal. And this is one of the ways to score goals: by being in the box, being present.
“I think he did a great job at Crystal Palace and Arsenal with pressing, with targets and movements. The goal from Bruno at Crystal Palace, he was part of it because he makes the right movement to the front post. The goal of Rashford at Arsenal, he was part of it because by dragging the centre half away but strikers are there to score goals and when they don’t score they’re not happy.”
That movement that Ten Hag likes is an illustration he offers something Ronaldo does not. Yet if Weghorst had a value as a decoy, that is part of his role: to free up space for others, to occupy defenders, to make Rashford more prolific.
Weghorst’s arrival allows the Mancunian to remain on the left, where he has found the best goalscoring form of his career; Anthony Martial’s absence would otherwise have forced him to start as the striker. Rashford can be liberated by the beanpole forward’s presence.
But Weghorst is liberated, too: from the relative backwaters of Burnley and Besiktas. With Martial missing, he is starting as Manchester United’s centre-forward. Weghorst finds himself in a star-studded side, on a path towards Wembley. After his two-goal salvo against Messi and co, it is not his first unlikely comeback.