Manchester United have just dispatched Swansea with their second consecutive 4-0 win to begin the new season in imperious form, following a promising preseason for the prospective title challengers. They have looked comfortable at the back and well equipped to break down teams, against whom they might have struggled last season. Central to this impressive start has been Romelu Lukaku. Whilst he has hit the ground running, scoring four goals in his first three matches for his new club, it is what he does for the rest of the side that has helped set up the club’s flying start.
The Belgian was individually very quiet against Swansea having had the fewest touches in the game of the United XI; the three touches he had in the move for his goal represented 12% of his total touches in the match. However, whilst he made a decisive contribution to put the reds two nil up, it is his overall play that is helping his teammates have their say in the attacking third.
Throughout preseason and in his first three competitive matches for United he has occupied two defenders at a time with his sheer presence, helping to create space for runners to move into. Swansea countered this by playing a very defensive and compact 3-5-2 formation and they frustrated the Manchester United midfield runners. For the majority of the game the Swans defended deep and in numbers but as the match progressed they were forced to look for an equalising goal themselves. This stretched the game and allowed United to do what they’ve been doing all summer – break at pace and with purpose.
Despite his size and strength, Lukaku likes to play on the shoulder of the last defender making runs in behind and not as a traditional target man. His hold up play is decent but looks very deliberate and he will need to improve this side of his game against the better defenders he will face in Europe. In contrast, he is very comfortable stretching the game and creating space between the defenders he takes with him and the midfielders that are trying to protect them. This allows the likes of Mkhitaryan, Mata, Rashford, Pogba and Martial the opportunity to run into those spaces and affect the game.
In particular, Mkhitaryan has benefitted with the Armenian already picking up four assists in his first two Premier League games; three more and he will have matched Phillipe Coutinho’s best ever assist tally in a Premier League season. Mkhitaryan notched just the single league assist last season when Zlatan Ibrahimovic led the line. As good as the Swede was, he didn’t stretch defenders like Lukaku does. He was brilliant at holding up play and is a proven goal scorer but his inability to run in behind restricted United at times and they consequently struggled to get the best out of the supporting attackers.
Against Swansea (and West Ham) we have seen the opposite with all three of United’s second half goals being created by runners breaking between the lines. As Lukaku takes defenders with him, Pogba can make those ranging runs from midfield and drive at the opposition defence; Mkhitaryan can find pockets of space where his eye for a pass can be maximised; Rashford can isolate defenders and drive at the goal; Mata can ghost into dangerous attacking positions; and Martial can attack tiring defenders and leave them sprawling as he takes advantage of the space created.
Another key attribute Lukaku showed against Swansea, and throughout his Everton career, is patience. He looked isolated as he was regularly surrounded by two or three defenders but when his chance came he took it emphatically. Swansea had to work hard to keep him quiet for large parts of the game but he was still able to help decide the result. In the final period of the game United’s attackers took advantage of the fatigue created by an energy sapping defensive strategy and put the game to bed, scoring three goals in just under four minutes; including Lukaku’s which took him past Dennis Bergkamp’s total Premier League goal tally.
Frighteningly for defenders, Romelu Lukaku is by no means the finished product and has plenty of room for improvement but importantly, at 24 years old, he is still only just approaching his peak years. United possessed a 28-goal striker in Ibrahimovic last year and if he re-signs later this year Lukaku will have a true great to learn from. Ultimately, he will be judged and measured on the goals he scores and he will be looking to emulate the legendary Swede’s first season in England. However, if United are going to challenge for the title, it is the rest of the side that will need to contribute and they will be grateful for the big Belgian’s work so far.