Manchester United striker search: Hojlund, Osimhen, Ramos and Watkins on radar

Erik ten Hag has a mantra when it comes to Manchester United’s pursuit of a striker. “No risk,” he repeats to those who ask about the qualities he wants in a new center forward.

After a season in which he was obliged to stretch his resources up front, Ten Hag wants a guarantee of goals from the focal point of his attack. Ideally, he wants Premier League proven.

Ten Hag’s focus comes after a campaign that started with Christian Eriksen as a false nine, included a striker resistant to his pressing schemes in Cristiano Ronaldo, and ended with a willing runner but wayward finisher in Wout Weghorst.

Anthony Martial appeared in 1,432 minutes out of a possible 5,640, in a ratio of 25 per cent, and is currently recovering from a hamstring tear that could keep him out of the start of pre-season. Marcus Rashford played 19 games at centre-forward but prefers to operate from the left wing.

These details are a recipe for danger when it comes to scoring, which Ten Hag is determined to avoid. He does not want to endure a repeat of last season’s numbers, when United scored 58 Premier League goals from an expected goals (xG) total of 68.74. Only Everton and Chelsea had greater discrepancies between what could be expected from chances created and what actually happened.

It goes without saying that you don’t get a surer thing than Harry Kane, and so Ten Hag’s insistence that United test Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy’s resolve over the England captain must. Kane scored 30 Premier League goals from an xG of 21.46 in 2022-23, the best ratio in the division, and Ten Hag believed United had a real chance of signing him due to his one-year deal back, despite Levy announcing he would not sell to a Premier League rival.

Director of football John Murtough explored a pursuit but concluded that Levy is serious in his stance, even in the face of losing Kane for free next summer. It was decided that United could not afford to spend the transfer window trying to persuade Levy otherwise, with every expectation that a deal would not be agreed until the end of August, if at all possible. Although Ten Hag is disappointed, he accepts the situation.

United now hope Kane, 29, does not go elsewhere before his contract expires next summer. Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain have been in contact with Spurs about Kane, but he prefers to stay in England. Chelsea have also inquired about reuniting Kane with Mauricio Pochettino due to their strong relationship with Tottenham – but Levy dealing with Chelsea is seen as impossible.

Kane would perfectly encapsulate Ten Hag’s ‘no risk’ motto (Photo: Stu Forster/Getty Images)

Real are in talks to sign Espanyol forward Joselu as a replacement for Karim Benzema, while they also maintain their long-held ambition to bring Kylian Mbappe to the Santiago Bernabeu.

Mbappe announced his intention to leave PSG when his current terms expire in 2024, although a move this summer is being explored. There have been reports of a move to Old Trafford should the Glazers accept Sheikh Jassim’s Qatar bid, but United and PSG sources both ruled out that prospect, with Mbappe’s childhood longing to play for Real well established.

So United are now looking at alternatives, with Rasmus Højlund in mind. But here, too, the picture becomes complicated. Hojlund’s agents SEG held talks with Atalanta this week and were told his fee in this market would be €100m (£85.3m; $109.4m). This is well above the €47 million that had previously been expected as Atalanta’s asking price.

Højlund, who played 92 minutes for Denmark in their 1-0 win over Northern Ireland last night, is keen to join United and further discussions on that prospect are expected in the coming days and weeks. The 20-year-old has experienced some friction with Atalanta manager Gian Piero Gasperini and feels ready for the next step. However, Atalanta have now made their position clear on how much money can be taken given his ability.

Still, Højlund does not represent the guarantee that Ten Hag insists on. He scored nine goals in 32 Serie A games last season and it would be a lot to ask him to lead the way for United every week. It has implications for United’s valuation and sources, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect their positions, insist the club will not bid close to €100m.

There are similarly high prices for Eintracht Frankfurt’s Randal Kolo Muani, Napoli’s Victor Osimhen and Benfica’s Goncalo Ramos, two strikers United have scouted who may also require an adaptation to the Premier League. There is a small pool of players who could fulfill Ten Hag’s card.

Aston Villa’s Ollie Watkins is one who has a proven record. He has scored 14, 11 and 15 goals in his three seasons in the Premier League and has been spotted by United. He has two years left on his Villa contract but is in talks over a new deal.

While sales negotiations drag on, United must adhere to budgets set by the Glazers and even in the event of a takeover there are financial fair play considerations.

They have to balance where they spend their money, so have decided to try to direct it towards Mason Mount first. Chelsea rejected a £40m bid for Mount and are demanding £70m. United says it will not meet this fee.

Then there is the goalkeeper market, which United will have to dip into if David de Gea leaves.

The international window is not yet open, but there is already a sense that restrictions could affect Ten Hag’s squad reinforcements. As far as a center-forward is concerned, the longer the wait, the greater the risk.

(Images: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images, Francesco Pecoraro/Getty Images, Octavio Passos/Getty Images, Matthew Lewis/Getty Images)

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