In football, it is far too easy to blame a striker’s goal drought on a lack of confidence.
There was little uproar in the press room when a reporter posed that question to Manchester United manager Erik ten Hag after Rasmus Hojlund endured a ninth consecutive Premier League appearance without a goal against Luton Town on Saturday. But Ten Hag wasn’t having any of it.
“I don’t think it is a confidence thing because Rasmus Hojlund scored five goals in Champions League.” The Dutchman had a point. While continually drawing blanks domestically, Hojlund became the first player in the club’s history to score five goals in his first four Champions League games for United.
No one else in Europe’s premier club competition has found the net more often than Hojlund this term. Yet, he is being outscored in the Premier League by Neal Maupay and 156 other players.
Here are some of the numbers behind Hojlund’s slow start to England’s top flight.
When drawn on Hojlund’s domestic drought, Ten Hag has repeatedly insisted “it will come”. The statistics lend some weight to his confidence.
Expected goals (xG) puts a figure on the number of goals the average player would be expected to score based on the quality of chances falling their way. By this measure, Hojlund has been desperately unlucky.
No Premier League player has accrued a higher xG figure than Hojlund without scoring this season. When the number of shots and various attributes surrounding each effort – distance to goal, players in the way, which body part it fell to, etc. – are taken into account, Opta’s model (via FBref) suggests Hojlund’s chances have been worth between two or three goals.
Hojlund has missed eight ‘Big Chances’, which Opta define as: “A situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually in a one-on-one scenario or from very close range when the ball has a clear path to goal and there is low to moderate pressure on the shooter.” Only three players in the division have passed up more of these opportunities (per FotMob). If the ball continues to fall his way, Hojlund’s league tally won’t remain blank for much longer.
However, had Hojlund lived up to statistical expectations, a tally of three goals from nine Premier League appearances does not seem like much of a return for a player who cost an initial £72m. In fact, when comparing Hojlund’s xG per 90 minutes (0.34) to the rest of the Premier League, he only just sneaks into the division’s top 30 most productive forwards.
While the likes of Liverpool‘s Darwin Nunez (0.85) and Manchester City’s Erling Haaland (0.80) lead the way, even Everton’s midfielder Abdoulaye Doucoure (0.36) is getting on the end of more valuable chances than Manchester United’s centre-forward.
At Atalanta last season, Hojlund lined up with his xG to score nine goals from 20 Serie A starts. In the admittedly less revered Serie A, Hojlund was averaging 0.47 xG per 90 (according to FBref). Essentially, Hojlund has gone from getting on the end of chances worth one goal every two games to opportunities valued at one goal every three games.
Hojlund’s outrageous pace is one of his key assets. Gian Piero Gasperini, Hojlund’s manager at Atalanta, gushed: “He is so quick, he’s under 11 seconds over 100m and that’s not even trying very hard.”
In the Champions League, where all three of United’s opponents are the reigning champions of their respective countries and thereby more likely to try to take control of each contest, Hojlund has been afforded more space to sprint into. Three of Hojlund’s five European goals have come in transition, more than any other player in the competition.
Yet, Premier League opposition are far more wary of United’s threat on the break and have no superiority complex preventing them from camping out in their own defensive third. Hojlund is yet to be presented with a single Premier League shot in transition.