What does Bologna’s Joshua Zirkzee bring to Manchester United?

It seems as if Serie A side Bologna could soon lose two of their jewels from the iconic 2023/24 season. As Riccardo Calafiori inches close to a move to Arsenal, Joshua Zirkzee seems to be nearing a move to the Gunners’ historic rivals Manchester United.

The move, to be entirely true to Zirkzee’s playing style and Manchester United’s approach under Erik ten Hag, is going to raise eyebrows. Zirkzee himself is an eyebrow raising prospect in himself, as he always seems to carry himself with a sense of authority and swagger and plays the game as if he truly enjoys the idea of having the ball at his feet. The Dutchman, who spent loan deals from Bayern Munich at Parma and Anderlecht, has had a bit of a see-saw journey in the game and that has perhaps shaped him into a leader-like character that he is today.

The 2023/24 season was incredible for Bologna as under Thiago Motta, they qualified for the Champions League for the first time since the 1964/65 season while sticking to an approach that relies on numerical superiority in the middle and building from the back and progressing quickly through the lines. On the way, the Rossoblu picked up some huge results against the likes of Napoli, Roma, Lazio and even held the Milan clubs to draws. 

While Motta has now become known for a playing style that emphasises on numerical superiority and verticality, his previous experiences have made him versatile enough to use different formations depending on the players available and the opposition. He also showed a keen eye for identifying the right players for his system, making sure that the likes of Zirkzee, Calafiori, Jhon Lucumi, Dan Ndoye and Sam Beukema thrived. Curiously enough, all the players mentioned have gone up by a level under Motta, witnessing a surge in career momentum that was perhaps not quite expected.

That has happened because specific traits in numerous Bologna players were tailor made for Motta’s approach and vice versa (case in point: Alexis Saelemakers’ running ability being used excellently at Bologna after a bad spell at Milan).

Zirkzee perhaps recognises that, as he has expressed his gratitude to Motta for taking his career up by multiple notches. His words to Corriere della Sera recently suggested that while he sees himself as an entertainer, he is also equally focused on the team’s greater good.

“I want people to have fun when they come to see me. But more than individually, it’s better to impress the stadium as a team, in the way we play.”

In the same interview, he revealed how Motta’s tailor-made setup has allowed him to thrive and and transformed his movement. He also went onto clearly suggest that he isn’t a pure striker and sees himself as a nine-and-a-half.

“On the pitch now my movements are different. He gave me freedom, he allows me to play tailor-made football. I have a certain ability, he gives me the confidence to enhance it: a great feeling.”

“I’m not a pure centre forward. I said a year ago that I liked playing with an attacking partner. But Motta transformed me into a 9 and a half. I’m not an Arnautovic , I like to come towards, play the ball, help the team. And score goals.”

With Motta now at Juventus and Zirkzee set to play under a different manager, he would essentially embark on a completely new journey. For a player who isn’t quite the proper number nine and comes short to link-up with his teammates and has himself admitted that playing alongside another pure striker would help him out, United would want to have a setup in place that suits him.

Having said that, they simply don’t. Rasmus Højlund is a proper number nine who is in the box and while he too thrives on wide combinations and has shown signs of having excellent link-up, Zirkzee isn’t really that box presence. Having a player like that requires a major tactical shift that either sees Zirkzee operating a deep-lying forward and him operating alongside another number nine who operates inside the box.

It is vital for United that Erik ten Hag is still the manager, largely because the Dutchman has a history of using different types of number nines and he isn’t generally sticking to a specific type of centre-forward. On top of that, he has shown that he can adapt his system to the profiles of players and even United have seen that quality of his. Someone like Zirkzee would see that as a positive and it would have been a problem for him, if United’s manager was someone who used a very specific system and didn’t move away from it.

Zirkzee hasn’t quite played out wide on paper at Bologna, he certainly has the skillset to take defenders on, beat them and then supply passes into the final third. He might not be someone who can stick wide but he would always come inside and essentially operate as in inside forward and add that numerical superiority that even someone like Ten Hag would want. On top of that, the Dutchman is a bit of a rare profile because of his height and how he still boasts a supreme technical ability.

There would be limited sense in signing Zirkzee for the big fee and then using him as back-up to a striker who is of a different profile. The best outcome of the move for United would be to see Zirkzee as a profile who offers more than just goals, knows how numerical superiority works and knows how to beat a man.

It is a dilemma but Zirkzee’s unique profile will help them take the current setup forward or perhaps have a new setup altogether. Ten Hag’s system last season was often dysfunctional at best, turning even games against the worst teams in the Premier League into basketball games and United were usually very open during transitions and when a team beat their press. They often lacked control in possession but Zirkzee understands how a controlled style of play works and he adds that net positive to the squad, which desperately wants more technically blessed players of his ilk.




Kaustubh Pandey I GIFN






































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