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Joshua Zirkzee has all the attributes of a traditional No 9. Tall and strong, he’d tick a lot of boxes for Manchester United – and Erik ten Hag. But there is more than meets the eye to the Netherlands’ latest star.

He is technically superior to other strikers that have his height and he thinks and acts quicker than the players around him. He has his early years honing his skills inside steel cages to thank for that.

The Bologna star, born in Schiedam, grew up in Spijkenisse, South Holland in the west of the Netherlands and spent much of his childhood playing on enclosed football pitches named after the greatest Dutch football icon – Johan Cruyff – which encourage players to keep the ball and be intelligent with their movement.

Of this upbringing in the game, Zirkzee said: ‘It makes you tough, you have to be smarter, you have to find a way to keep up with the bigger and stronger guys. I learned on the streets.’

Those experiences have helped mould Zirkzee into a rare breed of striker, and has piqued the attention of his national side. He earned his first cap for the Netherlands in the dramatic 2-1 win over Turkey on Saturday. 

Bologna striker Joshua Zirkzee has been heavily linked with a move to Manchester United 

Manchester United have been linked with a £34m move for the striker in the summer window

Manchester United have been linked with a £34m move for the striker in the summer window

His unorthadox style is perhaps makes more sense when you study Zirkzee’s footballing heroes. He grew up idolising Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Argentine striker Gabriel Batistuta. There is a flicker of both in his own unique style of forward play.

Not that his path to the top was always straightforward. His first loan away from Bayern Munich – who he joined at the age of 16 in 2017 – was a frustrating falst start as he picked up an inner ligament injury and only managed four appearances at Parma in the latter half of 2020-21. 

But after a difficult start to his professional career another temporary switch, this time out to Anderlecht in Belgium, finally saw his game spark into life.

Zirkzee recorded 16 goals and provided nine assists in 38 games under Vincent Kompany, which on the surface looks impressive but was even more special for the viewers.

By the end of the season Kompany’s assistant admitted: ‘Training was too easy for him and that he needs the next step.’

This reflects the thoughts of many people that observed his season at Anderlecht as his footballing brain and ball playing ability was clear to see as he dominated the Belgium Pro League.

In August 2022 he received the next step with an £8.5million transfer to Bologna where he was told he would be playing in a front two alongside former Premier League star Marko Arnautovic.

However, due to a change in management and the appointment of Thiago Motta – who only wanted to play one striker – Zirkzee’s progress was halted as he only started five games and scored two goals in Serie A.

Zirkzee earned his first cap for the Netherlands on Saturday as Ronald Koeman's side sunk Turkey

Zirkzee earned his first cap for the Netherlands on Saturday as Ronald Koeman’s side sunk Turkey 

Zirkzee admits he idolised Zlatan Ibrahimovic (pictured) and Gabriel Batistuta in his youth

Zirkzee admits he idolised Zlatan Ibrahimovic (pictured) and Gabriel Batistuta in his youth

After a rocky start to his playing career, he began to thrive in Bologna under Thiago Motta

After a rocky start to his playing career, he began to thrive in Bologna under Thiago Motta

The Dutch forward admitted that he was ‘not mentally ready’ for the step up and as a result struggled to hit the ground running.

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Step up £42m De Ligt, £34m Zirkzee and Ugarte deals and sell the flops: What’s next up at Man United

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But with Arnautovic later sold to Inter Milan, Zirkzee changed his mentality and Motta reported that he was consistently the first player into training.

Motta and Zirkzee had a meeting before the 2023-24 season in which Zirkzee said that he saw himself as more of a second striker. Motta disagreed and told him that he should play as a nine-and-a-half, a hybrid between a striker and a No 10.

The 6ft 4in frontman thrived in a position that allowed him to both drop into midfield and run in behind to combine his physicality and technical ability.

He ended his second season at Bologna with 11 goals and five assists, without a doubt at last stamping his impression on Serie A.

Yet, Motta had completely fallen in love with him and even compared him to the great Ronaldinho, a former team-mate of his. This comparison reflects the sheer quality that Zirkzee holds on the ball.

‘Seeing him day to day, he reminds me of the Ronaldinho I played with at Barcelona, but I cannot compare him to anyone,’ said Motta.

‘He is Joshua, he is special, he enjoys his football and above all works very hard in training. 

Motta has compared the player to his former Barcelona team-mate, and Brazil legend, Ronaldinho

Motta has compared the player to his former Barcelona team-mate, and Brazil legend, Ronaldinho

In 2023-24 Zirkzee scored a total of 12 goals and seven assists across all competitions at Bologna

In 2023-24 Zirkzee scored a total of 12 goals and seven assists across all competitions at Bologna

That being said, Zirkzee still has work to do to truly be considered the complete No 9; his aerial ability is still wanting, while he is not yet the most clinical of finishers. 

He has a conversion rate of 13 per cent which is the same as Darwin Nunez, five per cent lower than Nicholas Jackson and 13 per cent lower than his possible future team-mate Rasmus Hojlund.

Zirkzee is currently heavily linked with Manchester United after the player, club and agent agreed on terms but the Red Devils are facing a dilemma whether to pay the £34m release clause or negotiate a lower fee with add-ons included.

So what would Zirkzee bring to Manchester United?

He would bring the movement across the front line which they lack with Hojlund up top, while the Dutchman would also hold the ball up better than any other options at the club.

The main question is whether both Hojlund and Zirkzee could play together as they are both inexperienced and new to the premier league.

It is very possible that the two could be rotated next season as Red Devils fans were very vocal about the problems caused by having such a reliance on Hojlund, particularly with the Danes issues in front of goal – though it would appear that Zirkzee is not necessarily the miracle cure in this regard either. 

That being said, the addition to the club’s coaching staff of one of the greatest finishers in the Premier League era – Ruud van Nistelrooy – could prove the perfect hire to cure this ailment. 

The concern for United fans will of course be the numbers – Zirkzee isn’t exactly ripping up any trees right now. 12 goals and seven assists in 37 games in all competitions last term is hardly the sign of a striker that come straight in the team an earn them Champions League football. 

Zirkzee's aerial game isn't his strong suit, while he boasts a shot conversion rate of just 12 per cent

Zirkzee’s aerial game isn’t his strong suit, while he boasts a shot conversion rate of just 12 per cent

He could feature against England for The Netherlands in their crunch European Championship semi-final on Wednesday evening

He could feature against England for The Netherlands in their crunch European Championship semi-final on Wednesday evening

One could argue that he is only 23 still, and had been relegated to a bit-part role prior to this season, but he has also had muscular injury struggles – something that more often than not plagues a player throughout their career. 

Yet the price tag – £34m – is actually a pretty good deal, at less than half the £72m fee forked out for Hojlund, and with United looking to transform their recruitment under Sir Jim Ratcliffe it seems a good move on paper. 

And who knows – having made his debut against Turkey in the European Championship quarter-final on Saturday night, United fans could get another look at him on Wednesday when The Netherlands take on England. 

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