Rasmus Hojlund is the latest giant to show the big No 9 is back in fashion

Rasmus Hojlund during Manchester United's defeat at Arsenal which was his debut - Rasmus Hojlund is the latest giant to show the big No 9 is back in fashion
Rasmus Hojlund made an impressive cameo appearance off the bench in United's defeat at Arsenal - Getty Images/Robin Jones

Manchester United’s attackers have been causing plenty of headaches of late - but for their own manager, rather than opposition defences.

From the assault allegations that surround Antony, all of which he denies, to Jadon Sancho’s very public fall-out with Erik ten Hag and the enduring struggles to get a tune out of the fitful Antony Martial, United’s manager has been wrestling with problem after problem up front.

Not that it is all doom and gloom in attack. Rasmus Hojlund, as seems likely, is set for his home debut and first start for the club against Brighton at Old Trafford on Saturday in what will be some cause for cheer among the United faithful.

To date, Hojlund’s United career amounts to just 23 minutes off the bench against Arsenal almost a fortnight ago, a back injury having prevented Ten Hag from using his new £72 million signing from Atalanta in the first three games against Wolves, Spurs and Nottingham Forest.

But one of the few positives from that 3-1 defeat at the Emirates Stadium was the sharp uplift derived from Hojlund’s introduction for the listless Anthony Martial midway through the second half. The pressure on the Denmark striker to deliver for United - and deliver quickly - is obvious, all the more so given that the club opted against recruiting a second, more experienced and proven centre-forward to lighten the load.

But they were encouraging beginnings for the 20-year-old, whose power, strength, pace, hunger and height suddenly asked very different questions of the Arsenal defence. He underlined the neat touch he has for a big man with a lovely flick in the build-up to Alejandro Garnacho’s disallowed goal.

Only time will tell if Hojlund is the real deal but the strapping 6ft 3in striker’s arrival on these shores is the latest example of the Premier League’s marked shift back towards the use of a big, uncompromising No. 9 that was very much in vogue in the 1990s, and still prevalent into the mid-noughties.

For Les Ferdinand, a powerhouse centre-forward for Queens Park Rangers, Newcastle, Spurs and England in his 90s pomp, the return of the No. 9 is as welcome as he believes it was “overdue”. For years the onus in attack had shifted to the use of inverted, goalscoring wingers like Gareth Bale and Mohamed Salah and false nines but now Ferdinand sees a Premier League increasingly populated with towering centre-forwards and feels it is all the better for it.

The Brighton team that will line up against United will feature its own formidable No. 9, with the 6ft 2in Evan Ferguson, still only 18, hoping to add to the hat-trick he plundered in a 3-1 victory against Newcastle last time out. But look right across the Premier League and the big men are back in fashion, and that is despite the competition losing Harry Kane and Aleksandar Mitrovic to Germany and Saudi Arabia respectively this summer.

Evan Ferguson celebrates his hat-trick goal against Newcastle - Rasmus Hojlund is the latest giant to show the big No 9 is back in fashion
Evan Ferguson could well be the next player to leave Brighton for £100m or more - Getty Images/Steve Bardens

Alexander Isak and Callum Wilson at Newcastle, Darwin Nunez for Liverpool, Dominic Calvert-Lewin at Everton, Jean-Philippe Mateta for Crystal Palace and, when he returns from his suspension, Ivan Toney at Brentford are just some of those who fit that category. And then there is the best of the lot, Erling Haaland at Manchester City.

For Ferdinand, United’s move for Hojlund was a “direct reaction” to the Norwegian Haaland’s success down the road. Indeed, their profiles are almost identical: left footed, fast, huge, single-minded; both are even blond and Scandinavian.

“Football needed a Haaland to help bring back the No. 9,” says Ferdinand, who credits the 6ft 4in Norway striker with making clubs sit up and reevaluate the value of an out-and-out centre-forward.

“Man City did fantastically well winning the Premier League with a false nine before Haaland came in but to go on and win the Champions League like they did last season they needed an out and out No. 9.

“I think people look at that and say: ‘We need to produce No. 9s.’ I’m excited now to see what the next chapter for centre-forwards is going to be over the next four or five years. A lot of teams are starting to buck the trend.”

As head of football operations and then director of football for eight-and-a-half years at QPR, Ferdinand had witnessed first hand the paucity of centre-forwards being produced.

“Proper No. 9s had become such rarity,” he said. “Every kid in the world wanted to be Ronaldo, Messi, Bale, that guy who comes off the wing and scores loads of goals. For a period of time we didn’t have centre-forwards, no one wanted to be a No. 9.

“Now they see someone in Haaland scoring the amount of goals he has. How many kids have got Haaland shirts on now? What happens is kids want to emulate him and all of a sudden you’ve got them saying I want to be centre-forward. I think the emergence of Haaland has changed everyone’s viewpoints.”

Erling Haaland up against Fulham defender Issa Diop - Rasmus Hojlund is the latest giant to show the big No 9 is back in fashion
Erling Haaland's physical presence has given Manchester City a new dimension - Getty Images/Matt McNulty

Not that the role of the No. 9 now is necessarily the same as it was in Ferdinand’s heyday. Ferdinand recalls being told by Kevin Keegan at Newcastle to stay within the width of the penalty area. With the majority of Premier League teams playing 4-4-2 and with orthodox wingers, there was an emphasis on No. 9s like Ferdinand to get in the box and on the end of crosses. With the rise of inverted wingers, lone strikers and the thirst for accuracy, efficiency and possession play, crossing is in decline. Back in 2003-04, Premier League matches produced an average of 42 open-play crosses per game, according to Opta. Last season, that average had plummeted to 24 - a staggering 43 per cent drop.

Centre-forwards are being asked to make runs wide but Ferdinand believes the threat posed by a No. 9 who is prepared to keep running in behind - like Haaland - is hard to overstate as it naturally forces back defences, making them wary about playing a higher line and, in turn, can help create added space for the midfield.

Ferdinand likened the sight of Haaland bullying Arsenal’s Rob Holding and Gabriel last season to the former New Zealand rugby player Jonah Lomu humiliating England and said it was evidence of the value of having a giant physical presence in attack. Nor does he rule out the day coming when more top teams revert to playing two recognised centre-forwards.

“The minute someone is brave enough to say, ‘There is an outlet here for us by playing two’ is when it will change,” says Ferdinand, who recalls the havoc he and Alan Shearer briefly wreaked together at Newcastle.

“I remember talking to players who had played against us after our careers had finished and they’d say: ‘I’d look one way and it’s Alan Shearer, then I’d look the other way and say, ‘Well I’m not going over there cos it’s f------ Les Ferdinand’.

“Alan and I would be standing in the middle waiting to take kick-off and we’d say ‘Shall we go and terrorise some people?’”

Ten Hag will certainly hope Hojlund can do some terrorising on his own, and ease United’s problems in attack.