While Wout Weghorst has divided opinion among the Manchester United fanbase, there’s no doubting how highly regarded he is by Red Devils manager Erik ten Hag.
Indeed, the fact the towering Dutchman’s started in 18 straight matches serves as a testament to how integral ten Hag sees him even though he’s only scored twice since arriving in January.
Viewed as an extremely important member of the squad and a key figure tactically within ten Hag’s framework, he’s been a major player in their quality recent form that’s seen them not only win the Carabao Cup but also shine in league action.
“That’s a lot of matches and it shows the trust in me. It also shows that I am doing a good job for the team. That was the thing I wanted when I came here – to contribute and try and help the club to be successful to win trophies,” Weghorst recently explained.
“We have one now. We have two more to go with the Europa League and FA Cup, and we want to get as high as possible in the table and definitely top four for the Champions League. So it just shows me that I am being part of it. And being part of us being successful and that appreciation, that’s a good thing.”
When ten Hag was quizzed about his impact, he was full of praise for what Weghorst brings to the table, insisting: “He’s physically capable of playing a lot of games, he’s a very fit player, he recovers very good. I expect that he’d play a lot, but obviously we have an injury to Anthony Martial so that’s the main reason he’s playing every game from start to almost finish.”
“As you can see he is often in the right position and he fails, but he keeps going and so he showed great personality and character. In this game, he could already have had his goal earlier on. He keeps focused, he keeps working, he keeps putting himself in the right position and finally he got his goal and his reward.”
Operating in a variety of roles and positions, it’s been intriguing seeing him act as a traditional centre forward, a number 10 and even as an eight in midfield, where his tactical intelligence and spatial awareness have come to the fore.
So awake to vacant spaces arising in true central midfield zones, between the lines, in the half spaces and in behind backlines from whichever role he’s given, it’s been impressive to see him adapt smoothly.
Showing his versatility and flexibility, how he’s helped connect and construct attacks with his movement to help his team build through the thirds and breathe life into attacks deserves highlighting. Timing and directing his moments wisely to target gaps all over and manufacture overloads, he constantly offers himself as an option for teammates to utilise in a range of scenarios.
The examples below illustrate his aptitude in this regard, with his prowess at exploiting vacant zones and occupying defenders being so valuable.
Another aspect of his armoury that’s stood out has been his quality hold up play with his back to goal. Always eager to receive and check towards the ball, not only does this draw out markers to create space for teammates, but it also allows him to bring others into play. A master at using his towering frame and arms to fend off opponents and keep himself between the ball and his tracker, foes have had a tough time trying to dispossess himself without fouling him.
Moreover, his long legs also add to the separation he can gain, meaning opponents can’t typically reach in to force turnovers without using excessive force to give away free-kicks.
What’s more, his neat and tidy combination play in close quarters has seen him interact coherently in tight spaces to increase United’s capacity to facilitate fast moves to unlock backlines and generate openings. Further upside can be found from some of his measured through balls, crosses, cutbacks and line breaking passes.
The physically imposing, 197 giant’s solid heading ability is beneficial as well, for it allows him to serve as a brilliant target for crosses into the box, help at set-pieces at either end and enhance his team’s chances of winning second balls following clearances or long goal kicks.
While his finishing hasn’t been at the desired level, positives can be extracted from how he regularly gets into good positions inside the box to be a nuisance and be an outlet for the ball holder.
The Dutch international’s energetic pressing has unquestionably been an endearing factor of his game too, as he’s led their harrying with gusto and intensity. Hunting down opponents fiercely while astutely using his cover shadow to block passing routes behind him, he’s set the tone wonderfully for his colleagues to follow.
A tireless worker in and out of possession and an uncomfortable foe for opponents to face off against, it’s understandable why ten Hag has shown such tremendous faith in him, for he contributes admirably in a selfless, team-first manner.
Acting as a great outlet and reference point for United, the often underrated and unheralded Weghorst’s efforts warrant praise even if his output is, and will continue to be, relentlessly scrutinised.
All the noise surrounding him won’t bother him, however, for he knows ten Hag appreciates him and respects his unique set of attributes.
Loving his football, relishing the challenge and eager to keep improving his craft, it’ll be fascinating seeing how he closes the season.
Doing precisely what is asked of him while adding some crucial experience and leadership, the signing of Weghorst should be viewed as a success all things considered based on the fact that ten Hag sees him as an absolutely crucial part of his plans.