There will be increased scrutiny over Manchester United’s players and the team’s manager, José Mourinho, after the devastating result that all-but ended their title hopes this season. Some will be hyperbolic and unjust, but it is time to assess Romelu Lukaku’s current performances.
While the Belgian, so closely courted by Chelsea last summer, started life at Old Trafford incredibly well with 10 goals in nine games, since then, he has only found the back of the net once in the Premier League. It has been a huge drop off in goal scoring form, although he has contributed to United’s overall game in a positive manner.
Lukaku has a reputation of not being able to influence the ‘bigger games’, which is what the Manchester derby was. It was the biggest game of the season so far for the Red Devils and Lukaku had the worst game of his short United career to date.
Not only did he fail to impose himself on the game, or stretch City’s defence, he made two errors when defending his goal from set-pieces, which cost Mourinho’s men the game. It was an overall disappointing and unflattering performance from the Belgian, and is one in a long line of games that have to be addressed.
Now that Zlatan Ibrahimović has returned to the squad (again), it is time for Mourinho to sideline Lukaku and let him regroup for a few games. He has played every single minute of the Premier League season, and is now due a break on the bench. Rotation is important, even if you do cost £75m.
Continually playing a player out of form might well send them into a deeper slump after things go from bad to worse, but also it has a detrimental effect on the team, given the centre forward is going through a goal drought.
Lukaku’s last goal in the league came a month ago this weekend. While his performances have fluctuated, he has lost his ruthless edge in front of goal that he showed earlier in the season. The confidence is clearly missing and with every game that goes past without a goal, the burden becomes bigger and it is then very difficult to shake that. It is as if the Belgian international is now overcompensating and trying too hard – a very common situation to occur.
All centre forward’s go through a rough patch of form, that is not abnormal, but at that point, it is important for the player to rest up and take some time out. The reintroduction of Ibrahimović should also provide major competition for the starting spot, something that should drive the Belgian on and work harder.
The now-retired Sweden icon might be out of practice with several months in rehab after a ruptured ACL, but Ibrahimović can provide a different dynamic in the team and to penetrate opposition defences. There might be a lack of fluidity with Ibrahimović in the front line, but if they play to his strengths in the air, Manchester United should reap the rewards.
Another option might be playing Anthony Martial through the middle. The Frenchman has been in the form of his life this season and has been pleasing on the eye down the left-hand side. However, given Lukaku is firing blanks, it might be worth allowing Martial to lead the line with his ruthless attitude in front of goal.
Martial is a fantastic showman and performer, and Man United could do with his electric pace in-behind defences to test them. There has not been enough runs made in-behind their opponents’ defence, which then makes it very comfortable for that team to thwart United’s attacks.
Lukaku is under fire and has received a lot of criticism, but 13 goals in 24 appearances is not a bad record at all. The disappointing aspect to his game that he has portrayed is his anonymity in the truly important fixtures; but perhaps that is something that he will grow into as he comes into his prime.
There is no time for sentiment over the festive season. Instead, Mourinho needs to be ruthless in his decision to pick his centre-forward, while that player needs to be clinical in front of goal to even give a glimmer of hope of challenging Manchester City for this season’s Premier League trophy.