Last January Wout Weghorst was on his way to the Premier League to replace a club talisman who could not resist the allure of Saudi Arabian money. This winter he is doing exactly the same. For Chris Wood at Burnley read Cristiano Ronaldo at Manchester Unitedand Weghorst is unlikely to suffer from imposter syndrome.
The striker, who could make his United debut at Crystal Palace on Wednesday, arrived at Turf Moor with an impressive record in the Bundesliga at Wolfsburg and in his native Netherlands, scoring at a rate of one goal every two games for much of his career. At Burnley things did not work out as he hoped. He got two goals in 20 league appearances on his way to ending the season as a Championship player, at which point he announced he wanted to leave and joined Besiktas for a successful loan.
Burnley’s coaching staff did not believe he was able to cope with the pace and physicality of the Premier League, prompting them to revert to Ashley Barnes as their No 9, despite his nonexistent scoring record, for their crucial run-in. Weghorst is back in England in a role he likes best: proving people wrong.
Joop Gall signed Weghorst for the Dutch second-division team Emmen from Willem II, who deemed him not good enough for the Eredivisie. “What I saw from him was not the technical skills, because there was a lot to improve, but his motivation, his will to win, to work hard for every minute and every second of every game,” Gall says.
“That was enough for me – I will take it. I could use him with what I saw from him. What he achieves now is very, very good. I never expected he would go to United or even the national team. What he performed in training and in games was because he was so eager to be successful. I thought he could go far, but this far? I never expected it. That is a compliment to Wout.”
Leaving out Weghorst was an easier decision for Burnley’s caretaker Mike Jackson with the striker unpopular in the dressing room because of what was perceived by some teammates as a self-centred approach. The striker is very confident in his own ability despite struggles on the pitch in England and this irked certain colleagues at Turf Moor.
The majority of Weghorst’s career has been about confounding expectations, so he will enjoy the challenge of trying to do so once more at United and playing alongside some of the continent’s elite. He was a teenager when he signed for Emmen and spent the majority of his time there on the bench because Gall felt Weghorst was not the best team player. The head coach would send him on as a pinch hitter, leaving Weghorst to regularly ask why he wasn’t starting.
In his homeland, Weghorst’s attitude – highly motivated, always seeking to improve – is seen as an asset. His compatriot Erik ten Hag has brought together a committed squad, removing those whose attitude did not align with expectations. “It is contagious what he does in training,” Gall says of Weghorst. “He puts in the maximum effort in training and games, so the other players cannot lie down; they have to do the same because Wout expects it from his teammates.”
United needed a striker and were unwilling to spend to buy someone capable of scoring the goals to help with a potential title challenge. The style under Ten Hag does not seem a natural fit for Weghorst, who thrives on crosses and lacks the pace to run in behind. He will likely play the role of plan B from the bench, making his impact in training and the dressing room important.
Weghorst proved that he can make a difference in the World Cup, scoring twice against the eventual winners Argentina to take their quarter-final to a shootout. He showed great composure for his goals and stayed calm to score from the spot under immense pressure.
“I think Ten Hag sees what I do in him: that he is incredibly motivated,” Gall says. “The rest of the players have to follow that, otherwise they will look lazy, so they have to keep up. Ten Hag will want the players to look at him, knowing he is a real pro showing he is getting the maximum from his own ability. United is at the maximum of his ability and I have to compliment him for that. He did this himself because he invested so much in improving.”
From Emmen, Weghorst has continued to improve, almost every move taking him to a better club. At Heracles Almelo, AZ Alkmaar, Wolfsburg and Besiktas he showed how effective he can be in the box. Burnley are the outlier in his career, a period of drought and dissatisfaction, leaving a question mark around his capabilities and attitude in England. Now he is back with nothing to lose but plenty he will be determined to prove.