Wout Weghorst grabs his chance to take centre stage with Man United loan deal

Netherlands striker seizes opportunity late in his career after making impact at World Cup

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Global fame comes to some sporting professionals late in life, through a match-deciding moment or a brief proximity to greatness.

For Wout Weghorst, there have been three celebrated moments in the space of a few short weeks that made him, at the age of 30, much more of a household name.

Lionel Messi created one of them. The Argentinian, usually rather bland in front of a microphone, fired a tetchy remark at someone off camera after his country’s see-saw quarter-final against the Netherlands at last month’s World Cup.

“What are you looking at, you fool, get out of here!” Messi said, live on air, as a Dutch player gave him a glance that irritated Messi during a post-match interview.

The "fool"? It was Weghorst. “At least Messi knows who I am now,” joked the striker later.

Cristiano Ronaldo also now knows clearly who Weghorst is, because as of this weekend, he will be effectively replacing the Portuguese star as the impact centre-forward at Manchester United.

Those are big boots to fill, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for a footballer who has journeyed through several leagues and who barely imagined, when he leapt at the chance to join Burnley in a relegation scrap at the bottom of the English Premier League that, 12 months later, he would, by way of a stint at Besiktas, be joining an English superclub contesting four possible trophies.

United have signed Weghorst on a six-month loan, the striker having cancelled, for a fee, the second half of his year-long loan at Besiktas from Burnley. He has answered a specific request from his compatriot Erik ten Hag, the United manager, to fill a part of the gap left by the departed Ronaldo. “In our balance [of attacking players], he really fits,” explained ten Hag.

Wout Weghorst of the Netherlands scores his team's second goal in the World Cup quarter-final against Argentina at Lusail Stadium in December 2022. Getty

Weghorst will stand out in team photos, towering above even Harry Maguire. Ten Hag values him for his strength in the air, his targetman qualities and skill at using his tall, 1.97-metre frame to shield the ball.

But he is more nimble on the turn than his lankiness might suggest. The wider world knows, thanks to last month’s other big moment of fame, how cunning and agile in tight spaces he can be. None of Weghorst’s 176 goals in his senior career have gathered as much admiration as the 101st-minute finish, from a pre-rehearsed free-kick routine that confounded Argentina at the Lusail stadium.

Little wonder Messi found Weghorst an irritant. The imaginative set-piece – Weghorst neatly receiving, turning and shooting after his former AZ Alkmaar colleague Teun Koopmeiners bypassed the defensive wall with a low pass – pushed the tie into extra-time and penalties. The free-kick manoeuvre was Weghorst’s idea, germinated during his successful spell at Wolfsburg where a similarly executed free-kick had worked before.

He scored twice against Argentina, having come on as a half-time substitute, his first goal a precise glancing header, more typical of the Weghorst portfolio. “I don’t think we have his type,” said ten Hag of the United newcomer, “he can score goals from everywhere, a team player who will also do the defensive work.”

Ten Hag has been monitoring Weghorst’s ascent for a decade. United’s Dutch manager began his senior coaching career in the Netherlands in the same second division where Weghorst made his debut for Emmen. The striker would make his top-flight debut relatively late, aged 22, after joining Heracles.

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From there he moved to AZ, where he struck goals at a ratio of more than one every other game and developed a productive relationship with the Iranian winger Alireza Jahanbakhsh.

Weghorst’s presence in the penalty area should be appreciated by United’s crossers, from Luke Shaw to Jadon Sancho, when the latter returns from injury.

At Wolfsburg, who he joined from AZ, Weghorst’s goals – 70 in 144 games – were key to Champions League qualification in 2021-22. He left that January for Burnley, where his record would be mixed. The club were relegated, Weghorst scored just twice in the losing battle against the drop and last summer preferred Besiktas to a season in the Championship.

In Turkey, he has thrived again. Since the World Cup, where he was mostly used off the Netherlands' bench, he has notched the seventh, eighth and ninth goals of his loan spell.

He’d like to carry that form to United, across League and FA Cups, league and Europa League, even if in the Premier League he will begin his adventure with a role as impact substitute, doing some of what Ronaldo did in his last months at the club – only without all the complaining.

Updated: January 18, 2023, 2:35 AM