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Analysis: How Joshua Zirkzee and Matthijs de Ligt will fit in at Manchester United

The 2024 summer transfer window opened just over a week ago in England, and some big moves are already being made.

Manchester United look set to announce a couple as Joshua Zirkzee and Matthijs de Ligt should soon be on their way to Old Trafford.

Of course, the first major news of the summer for the Red Devils was that Erik ten Hag would stay on for the 2024/25 season, and the club soon triggered the clause in his contract to extend it to 2026.

Any new signings will have to work their way into his system, so let us analyse whether Zirkzee and De Ligt will be suited to the roles they will likely have to play:

Joshua Zirkzee

The more exciting signing from the fans’ perspective seems to be Joshua Zirkzee – understandably given the form he is in and the fact that he is an attacker.

The 23-year-old Dutchman has always been a very promising talent and showed a good glimpse of his potential on loan at Anderlecht in 2021/22, but he never had a great season at senior level for his parent club.

He finally moved on from Bayern Munich in 2022, joining Serie A club Bologna. His first season was not great either as he made just five league starts, but he really got into gear under Thiago Motta in 2023/24.

Zirkzee returned with an impressive 11 goals and four assists, but he offered much more than just that.

He was a central hub in Bologna’s exciting attacking play, regularly dropping off to receive the ball between the lines and then turning to play a forward pass into one of his fellow attackers or even dribbling past a couple of defenders himself.

As a result, he saw plenty of the ball and put up quite impressive passing and progression numbers.

If anything, Zirkzee’s goalscoring instincts left a little bit more to be desired. So, he profiles almost as well as a false nine:

The young Dutch striker is something of a hybrid between a true number nine and a false nine. That specificity of his profile is why he struggled to break out at the senior level for such a long while despite his obvious talent, and that could also be a problem at Man United.

The Red Devils already have Rasmus Hojlund, who is even younger than the Dutchman and only joined last summer.

He certainly is a line-leading striker who gets into the box quite well but does not drop off the front line to link up with his teammates so much.

It would seem that Hojlund and Zirkzee are the perfect complementary profiles for a two-striker system. While that is a fair assessment, Man United play a 4-2-3-1 formation.

They cannot switch too far from it because their best player – Bruno Fernandes – is an attacking midfielder.

On that basis, Zirkzee will be in a direct contest with Hojlund for the starting striker position. The Danish international seems to have a better profile as he would allow Fernandes freedom between the lines and occupy the box instead.

Zirkzee’s tendency to drop may see him getting in the way of the Portuguese midfielder. If that does not prove to be a problem, they would be playing the same role of feeding forward passes to their fellow attackers.

In so doing, they would both be taking a runner away from each other, making their jobs harder.

Zirkzee is not a bad player by any stretch of the imagination, but he just does not seem to be the right profile for Man United given their style of play and squad profiles.

He could still do a decent job at Old Trafford, but he and the club would probably be better off with a different move.

Matthijs de Ligt

De Ligt might not have had such an exciting 2023/24 season, but he should be the more slam-dunk success at Manchester United.

Following Raphaël Varane’s departure, the Red Devils need a starting centre-back and De Ligt is the perfect man for the job.

A few injuries derailed his previous season, but there is no denying that the Dutch defender is of top-class quality having played for Ajax, Juventus and Bayern Munich in his senior career.

Despite such an impressive CV, he is only 24 years old, so he has a long career ahead of him.

The right-footed centre-back can play on either side and is an excellent ball-player. He offers great progression through passing and carrying while also looking quite secure in possession.

The Dutchman does not rush into too many challenges but is dominant in the air and has the anticipation and positional discipline to make him tough to get past.

Of course, De Ligt has previously worked with Ten Hag at Ajax, so he should be very familiar with the United manager’s style of play and tactical demands.

All things considered, he should be an excellent signing as long as he manages to stay fit – something that has not been easy for numerous players at Old Trafford lately.

Stats courtesy Transfermarkt and Opta via Fbref.

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