Around eight minutes into Manchester United’s 1-0 defeat to Juventus, Paul Pogba sent a hopeful long ball into the right channel for Romelu Lukaku to chase. As the ball bounced, Lukaku tried to bring it under control, took a heavy touch, almost ran it out of play, retrieved it, and then sent in a cross that skewed off the outside of his boot and ended up nearer the halfway line than the Juventus goal.
If ever there was a moment when Lukaku realised it probably wasn’t going to be his night, this was surely it.
As United slipped to an anaemic 1-0 defeat on home turf, their main attacking threat enjoyed what the old pros occasionally call a fresh-air game. Goals: none. Shots on target: none. Shots off target: none. Assists: none. Chances created: none. Tackles: none. Interceptions: none. Fouls committed: none. Fouls suffered: none. Offsides: one. Lukaku didn’t feature in any of United’s top 30 combinations on the night, receiving just two passes each from Juan Mata and Marcus Rashford, the same number as he received from David De Gea. And on an evening when what we might amusingly and acerbically describe as the Manchester United “project” received another chastening reminder of its place in the world, these were perhaps the most squeamishly telling numbers of all. Alas: we have to talk about Romelu.
It’s not so much that he isn’t scoring, even though he isn’t. This is, after all, a player who has always been susceptible to hot and cold streaks. He began his United career last season with 16 goals in 13 games for club and country, which he then followed with one in 12. He began this season with six in four, and now has none in eight. This is, in a way, simply part of the caprice and evanescence, the feast and famine, of the lone striker in a faltering team coming up against two of the great modern defenders in Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini. The goals, the confidence and the aura that his manager Jose Mourinho once claimed made him a £150m player will surely return before long.
But that’s not the part United need to worry about.
Ahead of the Juventus game, Lukaku offered an interesting explanation of his fitful club form, which contrasts strikingly with his consistency for Belgium. “Here, I still think the teamwork between myself and my teammates can be much better,” he said. “The players need to know me and know my movement. When that starts clicking, I think the results I have with Belgium will also come here.”
The thing is, Lukaku has played 64 games for United. For most of that period, he’s played with the same few players around him. That is, in short, one hell of a bedding-in period. When you’ve been at a club for over a year and the chemistry still isn’t there, perhaps it’s time to admit that the issue isn’t time, but something much deeper: the essential tactical and cultural dysfunction of a club where collective problems always seem to have individual solutions.
It was telling to hear Mourinho’s analysis of Lukaku’s malaise on Tuesday night. “I have to agree his moment is not sweet,” he said. “Not just with the goals he is not scoring, but in his confidence, movement, touch. He is not linking the game well with the team. But Romelu is a hard-working guy and a good professional. One day the goals will arrive and the confidence will be back.”
In short: how can Lukaku can get better? By getting better.
Maybe Mourinho is offering Lukaku more intricate, incisive advice in private. The evidence on the pitch would suggest otherwise. He’s 25 years old, an age when the last vestiges of potential generally evaporate, leaving something close to the finished article. This is particularly true of Lukaku, an early starter already closing in on 500 career games. And yet qualitatively and stylistically, he is essentially the same player he was when he was 20: the same movements, the same technique, roughly the same output. Perhaps, in fact, there is no great leap. Perhaps, scarily, this is all there is.
This may seem a touch harsh on Lukaku, an intensely driven character, a ruthless self-improver, a voracious student of the game. And yet the sense remains that during these last couple of years, the final crucial stage in his formation, he could have benefited from a little more help. He has spoken warmly of the rich insight and perspective offered by Thierry Henry during his time with the Belgium squad. But who at United is offering him that sort of specialist expertise on a daily basis?
As for Mourinho, he mused aloud about replacing Lukaku with Rashford ahead of Sunday’s game against Everton, before doubling back on himself because it would leave him without options on the wing. What’s missing here is a blueprint, a trajectory, any sort of wider strategy, any indication that Mourinho is thinking beyond the next 90 minutes, never mind the next few years. How should Manchester United be playing football in 2018? How will they be scoring their goals in 2020? How is it possible that a club of this size and weight doesn’t have the faintest idea?
You don’t need to be one of Mourinho’s infamous ‘Einsteins’ to work out that Lukaku can only really function with players around him: players to sweep up the second balls that he wins, midfielders running beyond when he drops deep, the sort of pressure-relieving support that Didier Drogba enjoyed from Eidur Gudjohnsen (in his earlier years), Nicolas Anelka (in his later ones) and Frank Lampard (all the way through). You don’t need to have played the game to wonder whether a central striker might get more chances if full-backs were allowed to get to the byline, with mobile holding midfielders who can cover the spaces they leave behind, rather than the enthusiastic but sadly limited Nemanja Matic, a player whose lumbering demeanour evokes one of the less threatening house robots on Robot Wars.
Are United genuinely set on evolving and developing their front line? Are they exploring alternatives to Lukaku, or enabling his development as a player? Or will they simply carry on doing things as they are now: putting the house on Lukaku, taking his 20 goals a season, bringing on Marouane Fellaini if they still need a goal after 70 minutes, continuing to be quite good without ever threatening to be great? Over the next few months, the answers to these questions will give us a good idea of how United see themselves.
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