When you’re one of the biggest football clubs int he world, you’re bound to attract criticism here and there. So for Manchester United, its supporters are used to the press and fans alike sticking the boot in when they fall on hard times.
Numerous times this season, the club, its manager Jose Mourinho and various key players have come in for criticism, some of it very much undue.
One of those players who has received more than his fair share of criticism throughout the season is Romelu Lukaku.
Signed from Everton for a mighty £75m transfer fee last summer, the number 9 was bought to Old Trafford to solve United’s inconsistent attack. Too often last year, the onus was placed on veteran striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic to provide the goals. And provide he did, netting 26 times in a remarkable season for the Swede that ended prematurely with a knee ligament injury. The lack of input by the clutch of wide forwards and other attackers at the club, namely Anthony Martial, Jesse Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata, persuaded Jose Mourinho and Ed Woodward to shell out an astronomical fee for Lukaku, right under Chelsea’s noses.
It seemed a given that Lukaku would go back to his former club. All summer, the press linked the Belgian with a move back to Stamford Bridge only for United to swoop in at seemingly the eleventh hour and seal a shock transfer for the striker. Since then, his early United career has been a mixture of ups and downs.
He started the season in red-hot form, mirroring his club’s form, scoring in each of his opening 4 games, a feat unmatched since the days of Andy Cole and the glory glory years of the 90s. However, much like the club as a whole, an autumnal slump resulted in a relative goal drought for Lukaku, who failed to find the net consistently in both the Premier League and in Europe.
Manchester United’s fans, not know for their loyal nature to players who are out of form, at least on social media, were quick to write-off the big striker. Pundits and journalists also couldn’t wait to brand Lukaku and expensive dud.
The biggest albatross around the Belgian’s neck was his career record against the so-called top 6. Going back to his Everton days, Lukaku has admittedly a dismal record against the bigger sides in the league; up until the weekend, only 16 of his 92 Premier League goals have come against the ‘big six’ of Manchester City, United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham.
It’s his performances as a whole in these big games that have drawn attention. Lukaku was a lonely figure at both Anfield and Stamford Bridge during the autumn, whilst he was at fault for both goals during City’s win at Old Trafford. Likewise, Lukaku cut a frustrated figure at Wembley earlier this month in a 2-0 defeat.
Although his performances in the big games this season have been disappointing, so too have his teams. Not once this season has United approached a game against the top 6 in a positive manner and on the front foot. Too often they have defended deep, adopting a risk-limiting approach and blunting their attacking prowess. This means that Lukaku, along with the likes of Martial, have been starved of service.
Remarkably, United’s approach to these fixtures were not too dissimilar to Everton’s when Lukaku was the club. I say remarkable, because United are a supposed title challenger with a squad roughly costing the guts of £400m, whilst Everton up until last summer operated on a shoe-string budget and would consider a top 10 finish a successful season. But I digress; a blog about Mourinho’s tactics is for another day.
The point is, Lukaku has seldom featured in a tactical set-up geared towards attacking in games against the Big 6. The stick to beat him with this season has not taken that into account.
On Sunday against Chelsea, United adopted a much more free-flowing approach, particularly in the second half; Lukaku thrived in such conditions. His second half performances was simply brilliant. He scored United’s equaliser with a well-taken finish and produced a brilliant assist for Jesse Lingard’s winner. The run in the dying embers of the game, when he held up the ball deep in his half, turned and surged into the box before getting a shot away (albeit blocked), was breathtaking and reminiscent of the great George Weah.
Lukaku showed last weekend that he can mix it with the very best when the team is set-up to do just that. More of the same from him and a very large serving of humble pie will be handed out to opposition fans and short-sighted journalists.