Manchester United’s summer transfer window plumbed new depths when they began to pursue Marko Arnautovic only to abandon those plans when supporters complained directly to CEO Richard Arnold.
In the end, significant money was spent on Casemiro and Antony — two arrivals who have undoubtedly improved the squad — but Cristiano Ronaldo’s acrimonious departure has once more left them short of options up front.
Based on their recent record when it comes to signing strikers, there isn’t huge optimism about getting in a good replacement, however desperate Erik ten Hag might be to find a new player in the January transfer window.
Ever since Robin van Persie listened to his inner “little boy” and swapped Arsenal for Old Trafford, a move that heralded United’s final Premier League title under Alex Ferguson, they have had a rotten record in recruiting centre-forwards.
Indeed, transfers in that position since 2013 have summed up United rather well: while none of those players are bad — many, in fact, were among the world’s best at their peak — almost all of them were the wrong signings at the wrong time for the Red Devils.
Below, The Sporting News ranks the nine centre-forwards (No.1 being the best signing) United have signed in the past nine years (we’re focusing on those who would count as central strikers). See if you agree with our standings…
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9: Alexis Sanchez
Signed from: Arsenal
Fee: Swap deal
PL appearances: 32
Shot conversion rate: 8.33%
Sanchez arrived from Arsenal in January 2018 as Henrikh Mkhitaryan went the other way in a deal that ultimately benefited nobody.
The Chile international earned a basic wage of £390,000 ($484,000) per week and almost never played in a way to justify that expense. He scored just three league goals under Jose Mourinho and then Ole Gunnar Solskjaer before being shipped to Inter Milan on loan in August 2019, making the move permanent a year later.
8: Memphis Depay
Signed from: PSV
PL appearances: 33
Shot conversion rate: 3.51%
Perhaps more of a winger in his younger days, Depay was deployed in various positions across the United attack, including as a No.9, and thrived in none of them.
Viewed as an exciting young signing in 2015, he never seemed to settle in England despite being managed by compatriot Louis van Gaal, and there were questions about his level of dedication. He left for Lyon — where he was a far more productive player — in January 2017, having scored just twice in the Premier League at an average rate of roughly one goal for every 29 shots.
7: Radamel Falcao
Signed from: Monaco
Fee: £6m loan fee
PL appearances: 26
Shot conversion rate: 10.81%
A skilful, powerful and ruthless goalscorer for Porto, Atletico Madrid and Monaco, Falcao was none of those things as a Manchester United player.
Signed on loan ahead of Van Gaal’s first season in charge in 2014, the Colombia striker looked a shadow of his best in England and, by the following March, he was playing — and not scoring — for the Under-21s. Suffice to say that United did not take up their option to buy him for £43.5 million when his loan deal ended.
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6: Odion Ighalo
Signed from: Shanghai Greenland Shenhua
PL appearances: 12
Shot conversion rate: 0.00%
Solskjaer signed boyhood United fan Ighalo as an inexpensive squad player in January 2020 on a five-month deal that was extended by another year after the COVID-19 shutdown.
A hardworking and popular forward, Ighalo was mainly limited to cup games, and he generally performed well, scoring five goals in his first four starts for the club. He also delivered a masterclass in hold-up play as a substitute when United beat Manchester City 2-0 in their final game before the 2019/20 season was halted. Still, he never scored in the league for the Red Devils and he was only ever a short-term option — one that was never supposed to be repeated…
5: Edinson Cavani
Signed from: Free agent
PL appearances: 41
Shot conversion rate: 23.08%
Like Falcao, Cavani would have been a better United signing earlier in his career. Unlike Falcao, the Uruguay star made a good impact at Old Trafford — for a while, at least.
Signed on an initial one-year deal in October 2020 after leaving Paris Saint-Germain, Cavani was excellent in his first season in England despite difficulties settling in the country away from his family. He capped an impressive 2020/21 with a memorable long-range goal against Fulham. Solskjaer worked hard to convince him to stay for another year, but when Cristiano Ronaldo arrived and promptly took his No.7 shirt, Cavani’s desire to play for the club seemed to diminish: in 2021/22, he missed 29 matches in all competitions, sometimes ruling himself out of contention at late notice.
4: Cristiano Ronaldo
Signed from: Juventus
PL appearances: 40
Shot conversion rate: 14.07%
Ronaldo’s triumphant return to United, 12 years after his world-record departure to Real Madrid, was supposed to herald a proper title challenge at long last. Instead, it lead to Solskjaer’s sacking, the Red Devils’ worst Premier League season in history, and the tarnishing of his legacy at Old Trafford.
Okay, before you sharpen the pitchforks, that wasn’t all because United signed Ronaldo. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner produced a good individual season, scoring 24 times in all competitions and almost single-handedly keeping their Champions League campaign and top-four challenge alive until early spring. The trouble was that the team around him saw standards plummet in such an alarming way that Ronaldo spent much of June 2022 onwards trying to force his way out of the club, and he eventually got his wish when his contract was cancelled following an explosive interview.
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3: Romelu Lukaku
Signed from: Everton
PL appearances: 66
Shot conversion rate: 19.86%
Lukaku was far from a terrible player for United, but, for an initial fee of £75 million ($96.7 million), fans were entitled to expect more.
It was strange that Mourinho fought hard to secure his signing from Everton in 2017 yet seemed to use Lukaku entirely incorrectly: Belgium’s record goalscorer was usually deployed at the head of a deep-lying 4-2-3-1, leaving him far too isolated and with his back to goal, thereby exposing his limitations rather than making the most of his strengths. When Solskjaer failed to coax the best from him in a more mobile front line, he was sold to Inter, where he thrived.
2: Anthony Martial
Signed from: Monaco
PL appearances: 181
Shot conversion rate: 17.78%
It’s not a good look that the jury is still out on Martial seven years after his arrival, but his relative productivity and the prospect that he could yet become a really good player for United have bumped him up this list.
A hugely expensive teenager in 2015, Martial exploded onto the Old Trafford scene with a debut goal in a win over Liverpool, but he struggled for consistent form under four United managers. His best season came under Solskjaer in 2019/20, when he scored 23 times in all competitions and looked to be forming a formidable link-up with Marcus Rashford, but it proved a false dawn. Having struggled with more injuries at the start of 2022/23, Martial has begun to impress manager Ten Hag, and it’s hoped the Dutchman’s guidance could be the making of him.
1: Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Signed from: Free agent
PL appearances: 33
Shot conversion rate: 14.29%
The only certified success on this list, Ibrahimovic swaggered into Old Trafford and, crucially, delivered both goals and trophies — the last trophies United won.
Signed by Mourinho after leaving PSG, the Swedish sensation had a transformative effect on United’s results and mentality that was at least partly comparable to Van Persie and Eric Cantona. He scored 28 goals in all competitions in 2016/17, including twice in the EFL Cup final win over Southampton, and five times in their successful Europa League campaign. A serious knee injury in April 2017 kept him out for seven months, though, and he wasn’t quite the same player when he returned. He has since had a notable spell in MLS with LA Galaxy and won Serie A again with AC Milan.
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