It’s no secret that one of Manchester United’s errands this summer is to go out and buy a top class striker.
Marcus Rashford may be one of the best young talents in Europe and a future United great. Anthony Martial is another exciting talent, too. But Wayne Rooney’s time looks increasingly as if it’s coming to an end, and there are no guarantees that Zlatan Ibrahimovic will even sign a new contract at the club let alone return from a serious knee injury. He’ll need replacing sooner rather than later anyway.
That means United could be left with only two top strikers for next season, and even if you think Rashford is good enough to start, they simply need more numbers. In 1999, at Alex Ferguson’s peak, the club had four prolific strikers in Dwight Yorke, Andy Cole, Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. And even if it was the Yorke and Cole partnership which made itself the undisputed plan A, it was Sheringham and Solskjaer who provided arguably the most memorable goals of the season in the Camp Nou on a very famous evening.
That means bringing in a new striker this summer shouldn’t be seen as a move to stifle the development of Rashford, but a signing to improve a squad with the aims of winning the biggest trophies.
And yet, that doesn’t mean United shouldn’t think carefully about the types of striker they buy. Talk of a potential move for Antoine Griezmann, for example, would represent an undoubted upgrade on what there currently is at the club and would mean adding one of the world’s best players – clearly it would be a good move. And yet, given what the club already has, it would also create a real lack of diversity in United’s attack line, certainly if Ibrahimovic isn’t there next year. The physicality would be gone.
Another option could be Torino’s Andrea Belotti, rated at £25.5m by TransferMarkt.com.
The Italian may not be as glamorous a name as the French attacker, but he would arguably fit better into the sort of team that Jose Mourinho has at his disposal, and perhaps would be as much of an asset to the team as Griezmann would be.
For one thing, Belotti has more goals than Griezmann does this season. The comparison is perhaps unfair given their roles in their respective teams. The Italian is more of a penalty box striker than his French counterpart, and while that might explain the stats, it might also make Belotti more of a Jose Mourinho type of player.
The downside to Belotti might lie in the history of Italian strikers in the Premier League: for every Gianfranco Zola or Paolo Di Canio, there’s a Corrado Grabbi and a Rolando Bianchi. The last player Manchester United signed from Torino was Matteo Darmian, which probably isn’t considered a resounding success. More importantly, it’s unlikely Mourinho does.
But maybe Belotti is different.
He is hardly a dainty player: a hard-nosed striker, he is his club’s captain at the age of just 23, leading from the front admirably and contributing beyond just his goal and assist returns.
Indeed, one thing that stands out about him is the number of fouls he makes per game. He averages 2.4 per match in Serie A, which isn’t necessarily a positive thing any anyone’s standards, but isn’t necessarily a negative thing either. Certainly not when it comes to playing in a Jose Mourinho team, and certainly not if you’re moving from Serie A to the Premier League.
Belotti’s fouls-per-game rate is higher than any other United player this season, for example. It’s not something to put too much emphasis on, nor is it a reason to buy him, but it’s clear that Mourinho likes his players to have that sort of edge about them, especially in big games. In United’s current squad, the players with the highest rate this season are Paul Pogba, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Ander Herrera and Marouane Fellaini – all of whom are players who have played regularly this season, and all of whom are often trusted in United’s very biggest games. So it’s not too big a stretch to suggest that there’s something to it.
It’s hardly a reason to open the chequebook by itself, but if nothing else, it definitely shows that he’d fit in with the type of player Mourinho likes. And it’s just one of the areas where his stats seem to line up quite nicely with Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
The Italian’s 3.7 shots per game is only bettered in the current United team by the Swede’s 4.1, whilst both strikers have made five assists this season, only Ander Herrera has more (six).
If Mourinho is looking to replace Ibrahimovic – as he will need to in the very near future in any case – it may be smarter to do it with a player who is similar, rather than one like Griezmann, who is both very different and closer in style (though definitely not the same) to the young strikers already at the club.
And yet, the area where Belotti differs from Ibrahimovic is in his mobility.
The Swede will be 36 in October, so it should be no surprise that the 23-year-old Belotti is a more mobile forward. His fouls-per-game ratio sort of proves it: he runs around, presses, and otherwise contributes defensively.
Only three United players have more key passes per game, too, showing Belotti is more than just a goalscorer – his ability to link up with his teammates means he’s not the kind of striker who will force Mourinho to choose between him and Marcus Rashford. He’s the kind of striker who can be used with pacey players playing off him.
But the most impressive part of is probably also something that would surely excite Mourinho.
The Portuguese coach is a man who likes to know his best XI and pick it week in and week out – at least when he’s not prioritising the Europa League over the top four – and Belotti is a player who has started 31 times in Serie A; in United’s squad only David de Gea (34) has started more league games this season than that.
Impressively, though, Belotti has only been substituted off once. That was with 15 minutes to go in a 5-1 victory over Cagliari, and after scoring twice and providing an assist. He is clearly used to shouldering the pressure of being his team’s best player, and he’s proving that he can handle that pressure well.
Belotti may not be the big name that United might crave in the summer, but he might just be the best fit to bring the team to the next level.