Manchester United workhorse Weghorst is an upgrade on petulant Ronaldo 2.0

Manager Erik ten Hag has taken a gamble on the Dutchman ahead of critical Europa League play-off return against Barcelona

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Erik ten Hag really can do no wrong at Manchester United.

The manager's latest trick is his most outlandish yet, and could bring success against Barcelona on Thursday night. With options limited, Ten Hag has moved giant striker Wout Weghorst, the man tasked with replacing Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals, into the No 10 role, the only position on the pitch where it pays to be diminutive.

Weghorst has his detractors, with social media awash with snide jibes as the Dutchman missed chance after chance against Leicester on Sunday, but for those who can appreciate all elements to a player’s game, offensively and defensively, it is clear that United are far better off with Weghorst in the team than they ever were with Ronaldo 2.0.

The affection the rest of his teammates hold for Weghorst, seen as a back-up signing in January but one of the few to start every game for United since he joined, was palpable on Sunday, as the last 15 minutes became an exercise in creating chances for the Dutchman – and nobody else – to get on the scoresheet.

Would they have done the same for Ronaldo, the disruptive influence who stormed out of stadiums when substituted and was regularly seen berating teammates whenever they dared not give him the ball?

“I love Wout Weghorst,” former United defender Gary Neville said on Sunday. “You have to admire Erik ten Hag picking him for every single match.

“I asked Ten Hag about that before the game. He feels he brings something to the team, and I can see why. Man United last season, there was this debate about whether or not they could press with Cristiano Ronaldo.

"They couldn’t close down from the front. They couldn’t press. You have to be able to press in the modern game.”

There were times when the play did seem to go on around Weghorst against Barcelona in last week’s exhilarating Europa League play-off first leg, as if he was the maypole and ribbons were stretched off at all angles around him.

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But it is what he does off the ball and the selflessness – the antithesis of what Ronaldo offered – that makes him so useful to teammates, coaches and the greater good.

Ronaldo attempted two tackles in 10 appearances this season in the Premier League before his acrimonious departure, as many as Weghorst produced in one half against Leicester.

Ronaldo’s fiercely loyal fanbase will point to how bit-part the veteran superstar’s role was this season, but last term was no better – eight tackles in 30 appearances.

The traditionalists will point to how goals are more important than tackles as a striker, forgetting the fundamental principles behind the best two teams to have graced the Premier League in recent years – Manchester City and Liverpool.

Yes, City play some of the most free-flowing football ever witnessed, but their defensive unit, starting from the front, which in most seasons finishes with the fewest goals conceded, is paramount to their superiority. Liverpool’s inability to maintain their "gegenpress" approach is why they look a shadow of their former selves this campaign.

Weghorst leaves the goalscoring to others, with Marcus Rashford doing a fine job on that front, and is more than happy for Bruno Fernandes to remain creator-in-chief.

The Portuguese has been moved out wide to accommodate Weghorst the No 10 to devastating effect, operating in new-found space to create more chances than anyone else in a single league game against Leicester – nine.

His size will always make Weghorst a nuisance at set plays, in both boxes, but dragging defenders away from Rashford and Fernandes is one of the reasons the pair are in the form of their United lives, in unison.

Barcelona will come at United and United will come at Barcelona in the return leg at Old Trafford. Thursday promises to be a rip-roaring encounter after the 2-2 draw in the first leg. Players like Weghorst make such a spectacle possible.

He may not score the winner or have a direct hand in any goal, but his team-mates will certainly be welcoming him into any celebratory huddle – the workhorse does not always get the credit, but such characters do not necessarily need it.

Such a refreshing change from the petulance that came before.

Updated: February 23, 2023, 7:47 AM