Man United’s tough quest for new No. 9

ESPN FC’s Steve Nicol assesses the reports of Man United possibly landing Antoine Griezmann or Harry Kane.
ESPN FC’s Paul Mariner puts a bow on Man United’s thrashing of Leicester City and breaks down the updated table.
Jose Mourinho explains why he abandoned the 4-4-2 and how it affected his team’s performance.
Man United’s comfortable away win helps them inch closer to the top four, while Leicester stay in danger of the drop zone.

Jose Mourinho will not have been fooled by Manchester United’s 3-0 victory against Leicester City on Sunday.

His team may have humiliated the reigning Premier League champions at the King Power Stadium, recording their biggest Premier League win since defeating Claudio Ranieri’s men 4-1 at Old Trafford back in September, but the centre-forward he had prioritised before the trip to the Midlands remains the focal point of United’s summer recruitment plans, regardless of the comfortable manner of the win against Leicester.

Leicester City

Manchester United

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United and Mourinho, quite simply, are desperate to find the 20-goal-a-season striker who can lift them from top-four chasers to title challengers.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who scored his 15th league goal of the campaign on Sunday, has done a remarkable job of papering over the cracks following his free transfer arrival from Paris Saint-Germain summer, but at 35, the Swede cannot go on forever and Mourinho has no intention of going into next season with the goal-scoring burden continuing to be shouldered by the veteran forward.

Sources have told ESPN FC that United will pull out all the stops to sign Antoine Griezmann from Atletico Madrid, but the 25-year-old is only one part of Mourinho’s jigsaw.

What the United manager really wants is to find a new Didier Drogba or Diego Costa, or a modern-day version of Benni McCarthy or Diego Milito.

Mourinho would give anything right now to turn back the clock to re-sign one of those forwards who served him so well at his previous clubs, but the problem facing United and their manager is that world football is currently suffering from a drought of classic No. 9s and virtually all of the big clubs are searching for the same elusive prize.

Those lucky enough to already have them are guarding them jealously, too.

Manchester United have identified Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann as their top summer target.

Bayern Munich have Robert Lewandowski and the Poland centre-forward’s value to the German champions was emphasised when they handed him a new contract last December, tying him to the Allianz Arena until 2021.

Barcelona have Luis Suarez, and the Uruguay international also signed a deal until June 2021 two months ago to keep him at the Camp Nou, while Tottenham hotspur have Harry Kane and — guess what? — the England striker has also just been tied down to a new long-term deal, until June 2022, since the beginning of December.

The rest of them are scouring the globe, looking for the next No. 9 to guarantee the goals that will either deliver silverware or take them close to it.

It is why Chelsea are determined not to lose Diego Costa, the man whose goals are propelling Antonio Conte’s team toward the Premier League title.

Real Madrid lead the chase for Borussia Dortmund’s Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang because they know that Cristiano Ronaldo’s powers are fading and that Karim Benzema has also seen better days.

Sergio Aguero may become the answer to the prayers of many leading clubs this summer if he chooses to leave Manchester City, but Pep Guardiola will only let him go if he believes that Gabriel Jesus is ready to take over from the Argentina international, who remains one of the world’s most prolific strikers.

Jesus has made a stunning start for City since arriving from Palmeiras last month, scoring three goals in two games, but the Brazilian is only 19. As United have discovered across town with Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, a bright start by a teenager is usually followed by the inevitable dip in form.

And it is the growing pains endured by Martial and Rashford that has also entered Mourinho’s thinking at Old Trafford.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic (right) has not let his advancing years diminish his strike rate in the Premier League.

Both players are capable of game-changing interventions, but Mourinho signed Ibrahimovic last summer because he believed that neither Martial nor Rashford were experienced enough to lead the line on a regular basis and his judgement appears to have been proved correct.

Ibrahimovic has been a stop-gap — a successful one, but a stop-gap nonetheless — and the search is on for a new Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney or Robin van Persie.

Whenever United have been successful, they have been driven towards glory by a prolific striker — often backed up by goals from midfield too — and they have not had a reliable scorer since Van Persie’s goals provided the platform the title win in 2012-13.

Rooney has lost his edge and Radamel Falcao, still recovering from a long-term knee injury, simply could not cope with the physicality of the English game at United.

The problem remains unsolved, despite Ibrahimovic’s contribution, with United scoring just 36 goals in 24 Premier League games this season.

In his three title-winning campaigns with Chelsea, Mourinho’s teams scored 72, 72 and 73 goals respectively to finish top of the table, but United are nowhere near being on course for that tally with almost two-thirds of the season played.

The problem has been identified, but finding the solution is proving to be less straightforward.

Perhaps the recent trend of ‘false No. 9s’ has led to centre-forwards going out of fashion, but whatever the reason, there is a distinct lack of obvious options.

The best centre-forwards are already nailed down by their clubs, with Aubameyang the only one likely to become available this summer. Moussa Dembele has been a huge success at Celtic this season, scoring 23 goals in 39 games, but at 20, can he really be judged properly in Scotland’s one-team top flight?

Look around international football and you will see the likes of Germany, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and Italy operating without classic No. 9s.

Brazil may have found the answer with Gabriel Jesus and Argentina have Aguero and Gonzalo Higuain, who Juventus broke the bank to sign from Napoli last summer.

Portugal won a European Championship without a reliable centre-forward, while Cameroon have just been crowned African champions, despite being unable to find a new Samuel Eto’o.

Junior Kabanaga, the DR Congo striker, ended the 2017 African Cup of Nations as top scorer with just three goals, so the 27-year-old Astana forward is hardly going to have Premier League scout rushing to his door.

But if a new centre-forward does emerge, it will not just be Jose Mourinho and Manchester United attempting to pay a fortune to sign him.

Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_

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