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Is Romelu Lukaku really the answer to Man United's problems?

The Belgian striker has had a mixed time since joining the Red Devils.

Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku and Juventus' Blaise Matuidi (left) battle for the ball.
Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku and Juventus' Blaise Matuidi (left) battle for the ball.
Image: Barrington Coombs

LAST NIGHT, THE critics were united in their criticism of the Red Devils.

On RTÉ, Didi Hamann called the first-half performance in the Juventus loss “embarrassing”. Across the water, Rio Ferdinand described it as “men against boys”.

Even Man United boss Jose Mourinho admitted that Juve are “at a different level” to his team currently.

There were countless problems with the performance, and there are several long-term issues with the team, but one that particularly stood out on Tuesday night concerned their 25-year-old Belgian forward.

When the player joined the Red Devils in July 2017, the fee was reported as £75 million, plus £15 million in add-ons. Cristiano Ronaldo cost Juventus only slightly more in total, with a reported fee of £88 million, plus £10 million in add-ons, while the latter deal took place after Neymar’s game-changing €222 million move, which caused prices in the transfer market to inflate significantly.

Consequently, much was expected of the Belgian star when he joined United and to say that he has not delivered would be harsh. He scored 16 Premier League goals last season — Mo Salah managed twice as many, though only four other players scored more than Lukaku: Harry Kane (30), Sergio Aguero (21), Jamie Vardy (20) and Raheem Sterling (18).

Yet there are two common criticisms of United’s main man — that he is a flat-track bully and scores a disproportionate number of goals against the weaker teams, and that he does not do enough aside from scoring at a team with such high standards as United.

This summer’s World Cup gave credence to the flat-track bully claims — Lukaku scored four times, but all in the group stages against Tunisia and Panama, failing to find the net against Japan, Brazil, France and England.

Of his 16 goals in the Premier League last season, only one came against a team that finished in the top six (Chelsea amid a 2-1 win back in March). He failed to score against Liverpool twice, Man City twice, Tottenham twice, Arsenal twice and Chelsea twice (once in the Premier League and once in the FA Cup final). He did at least score in the Champions League last year, but the same cannot be said this season, with Lukaku failing to find the target in any of his club’s three matches so far, despite completing 90 minutes on each occasion.

The former Chelsea youngster has scored just four times in total for United this season, and again, all of those have come against relatively weak opposition (Burnley twice, Brighton and Watford). By contrast, last season, he scored 11 in his first 12 games, but has since stagnated badly as others have stuttered around him.

There are caveats, of course. Jose Mourinho’s system is not always perfectly designed to get the best out of attacking players, while Lukaku has often been short of service and left looking a little isolated — he touched the ball just eight times in the first half against Chelsea at the weekend.

And versus Juventus, in particular, he looked short of confidence and sluggish in stark contrast with the sharp and intelligent play of the visitors’ attackers. The clip below is an example of his ineptitude.

Lukaku is not as poor as player as some of his current form suggests. For Everton, he was rightly thought of as one of the best strikers in the league, scoring 87 goals 166 appearances in total during his time at Goodison Park.

Yet for the Toffees, he had more space to exploit on the counter-attack and was not so accustomed to coming up against sides who stick 11 men behind the ball.

There is also a sense that for all his talent, Lukaku will never belong in the elite category of attackers and turn into the kind of player Man United desperately need right now.

Once Juventus took a 17th-minute lead last night, their immaculate defence comprising of Giorgio Chiellini and Leonardo Bonucci seldom looked like surrendering this advantage, as they dealt with Lukaku and others all too comfortably.

As talented as the United forward can look at his best, even good Premier League players can be exposed at the highest level. Belgian team-mate Dries Mertens gave an interview earlier this year stating the attacker had “improved a lot,” while admitting that colleagues used to laugh at his poor first touch.

The star recently admitted things were not “clicking” for him at Old Trafford. In addition, after last night’s loss, his boss, Mourinho, agreed.

“No critics at all, a complete understanding the player is a fantastic professional that wants to give everything for the team but I have to agree his moment is not sweet,” the Portuguese manager told reporters.

Not just with the goals that he is not scoring but also in his confidence, in his movement, in his touch, he is not linking the game well with the team. But he’s our striker and a good striker and a striker we believe in.

“Could I play Rashford there? But then I don’t have a winger because in this moment we are in this difficult situation. He (Lukaku) is a hard-working guy, is a good professional, but one day the goal will arrive and the confidence will be back.”

When you look at the top sides in Europe currently, many have small, speedy and skilful players up front — the likes of Man City, Barcelona, Liverpool and PSG play without a conventional target man in the Lukaku mode.

Players such as Harry Kane and Robert Lewandowski are arguably benchmarks for Lukaku to follow, but whether he is actually capable of hitting those heights is looking increasingly uncertain.

At the moment, as last night’s performance epitomised, Man United look way off the elite sides, and striker is one area where they are patently and consistently falling short against the very best teams.

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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