Manchester United’s aimless and muddled performance against Tottenham earlier this week reaffirmed a long-running issue for United supporters. Following the Wembley encounter, fans were once again analyzing a big game where Romelu Lukaku fails to make any degree of impact.
With the addition of Alexis Sanchez to a squad already containing Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, does United’s best eleven really still contain Lukaku?
Romelu Lukaku Fails Another Test
Speaking in May last year, Gary Neville expressed an opinion on Lukaku that many would spend the summer regurgitating.
“The question mark and frustration with Lukaku is, does he do it in the big games? That won’t go away until he moves to a big club and starts delivering.”
Later that summer, Lukaku moved to a big club. The biggest club in England perhaps, and in doing so, became their biggest signing of the summer.
Neville remained unmoved. Following confirmation of the Belgian internationals £75 million move to Old Trafford, the Sky Sports analyst reiterated his concerns.
“He’s incredibly talented and I’ve seen him destroy defences. But personally, I’ve never been his biggest fan. However, he will score goals.”
Lukaku is, plainly, a very good footballer, and at United, as he did at Everton, he has proven himself to be a prolific goal scorer.
Those who championed Jose Mourinho’s capture of Lukaku, at the time, pointed to the fact that he was exactly what United required.
Lukaku was a flat-track bully, they argued, a striker whose impressive scoring statistics were based on racking up goals against weaker opposition.
What United were crying out for last season was a striker who guaranteed goals against lesser teams.
For all his deserved plaudits, in what would now appear to be his sole full season at United, Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not that man.
Last season, Mourinho’s team drew games against Stoke City, Burnley, West Ham, Everton, Hull City, Bournemouth, West Brom, Swansea and Southampton.
This season, Lukaku has scored in wins for United against seven of those nine. One of the nine, Hull City, are no longer in the division.
Lukaku’s goals have helped United rise from last season’s sixth-place finish to what will likely be a second place finish this time around.
Wednesday night’s performance against Tottenham, however, was yet another example which draws to mind Neville’s original concerns.
At Wembley, Mourinho lined up with an attacking midfield trio of Sanchez, Jesse Lingard and Martial, behind the Belgian target man.
In the first half, the trio attempted to utilise their natural trickery, creativity and speed to unlock Tottenham’s defence.
Their target man, however, was not on the same page.
The speed shown by Sanchez, Martial and Lingard seemed to act as a counterpoint to Lukaku’s static, sluggish approach.
The trickery produced by the three in the opening stages, when United were still reasonably in the game, appeared out of sync with the more static Lukaku.
The man who cost more than any Manchester City player appeared to be a second too late to each opportunity that was put to him.
He was far from United’s worst player on the night of course. That honour was reserved for Paul Pogba. Throughout his sixty-three minutes on the pitch, Pogba resembled a man who had nonchalantly joined in a neighbourhood kick-about because he couldn’t think of anything else he had to do that day.
Lukaku’s presence and clinical finishing in front of goal is good enough most days. But making a big impact at a big club means passing the big tests. So far, Lukaku has failed all of them.
Following United’s putrid goalless draw with Liverpool at Anfield in October, Gary Neville remarked that Lukaku had failed his first test as a United player.
“I was disappointed with Lukaku. He really didn’t have any impact on the game, no influence. It’s the big matches that will define him as a Manchester United striker, not the matches where he bullies teams.”
Since that Liverpool game, United have faced top six opposition on five occasions. Lukaku has scored on none of those occasions.
Throughout his career, Mourinho has always favoured a target man. To alter his approach now would illustrate a sudden, and drastic change; the kind the Portuguese is inherently averse to.
However, given the attacking spoils at his disposal, Mourinho must surely be flirting with the idea of replacing Lukaku with any one of Martial, Rashford or Sanchez.
He may be averse to change but for Mourinho at United, it looks like sooner or later, something has to.
Considering his options, dropping Lukaku may be the change this United team need.