Romelu Lukaku’s first season at Man United has been mixed to the say the least. The Belgian hit-man started like a house on fire, scoring 10 goals in his first 9 games, breaking Sir Bobby Charlton’s record of 9 in his first 9. Since then Lukaku has gone cold. Some are prematurely calling the striker a flop, many are saying United should have gone for Alvaro Morata instead. Is the criticism fair? Let’s investigate.
In United’s first 7 games, Lukaku scored 7 goals. The opposition, West Ham, Swansea, Leicester, Stoke, Everton, Southampton & Crystal Palace. Four of these teams are in a relegation battle currently while Everton were right in the midst of it at the time they played the Red Devils.
In the 11 games since the beginning of October; Lukaku has only managed 3 league goals scoring against Newcastle (now in the relegation zone), Bournemouth (in a relegation fight) and West Brom (second from bottom). He drew blanks against Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham, Man City and Arsenal. 0 goals against the big teams and 10 against canon fodder clubs.
Lukaku being a flat track bully is an indisputable fact based on these statistics. The question is whether it is his fault. The answer, for the most part, is no.
Before October, Man United were playing the best football they’d played since Sir Alex Ferguson retired. Jose Mourinho himself said he was allowing the horses to run free. Henrikh Mkhitaryan was pinging assists all over the place, Pogba was roaming around the pitch with ease, Martial and Rashford were one hell of a 1-2 punch for any team and Nemanja Matic provided a platform from which the team could build.
All that changed against Liverpool.
For the record, Liverpool’s defence was extremely leaky leading up to the game, both teams had attacks that the other should have been fearful of but United had the better defenders and Nemanja Matic. They should have attacked Liverpool and won the game. They didn’t. Mourinho decided it was best to sit back and park the proverbial bus to stop Liverpool playing instead of making Liverpool stop United. As a result Lukaku, was left isolated, starved of service and only had 22 touches of the ball in the match, less than Simon Mignolet and David De Gea. He wasn’t bad. He wasn’t even allowed to be bad by the sheer lack of service.
United then went on to lose to Huddersfield in a terrible performance, however Lukaku’s delicious cross for Rashford’s goal was a particular highlight. Against Tottenham, Lukaku worked hard in another game in which United starved him of service but his strong flick to an on-rushing Martial to score was his second successive assist.
Against Chelsea, Morata won both the game and the debate amongst fans about who United should’ve signed. Again, context was lost because Lukaku received next to no service while Morata was supplied constantly by his teammates, summarized by a wonderful header from a wonderful cross.
Two more big games came and went. Against Arsenal Lukaku again didn’t score but was involved in the build up for two of the three goals and let’s not forget he had an assist for Martial vs Watford (though he also missed an absolute sitter, it must be said). Against City, Lukaku suffered an absolute shocker. He was directly responsible for both of City’s goals and he should have done better with the chance to equalize that mangled Ederson’s face for the day. Since then, Lukaku has scored goals in back-to-back games but has hardly celebrated with the criticism likely taking it’s toll.
So yes, he hasn’t scored in the big games but the team and manager have let him down. Everyone knew beforehand that he would require through balls and crosses to get his goals and initially that was done, but since the Liverpool game the team has lost belief and now retreat when the fans demand that they “ATTACK, ATTACK, ATTACK”. Without the will to attack Lukaku is rendered useless to the cause.
This poor form has lead to many fans calling for Zlatan Ibrahimovic to start. Let’s analyze his goal record last season. 26 in 48 games looks great but it’s not all it seems.
In 2016/17 Zlatan lead the league in big chances missed, coming up with 18. The next on the list was Benik Afobe with 13. Opta defines a big chance as “a situation where a player should reasonably be expected to score, usually a one-on-one scenario or from close range.”
This season, Lukaku sits 7th, 4 behind Gabriel Jesus. Zlatan also went on the worst goal drought of his career last season, failing to score in 496 minutes or 5.5 games of football. In that run he failed to score against Liverpool (home) and Chelsea (away) just as Lukaku failed. That said, Zlatan did score against Manchester City and Liverpool in the return fixtures.
Lukaku still has time to rectify his woeful record against the top 6. In both of those games Zlatan failed to score in, United retreated, starving the main man of service summarized by United’s total of only 6 touches in Liverpool’s box. Ibrahimovic has more talent than Lukaku and can create something out of nothing but even he needs service. It is clear however, that when service was provided, the Swede actually proved more wasteful than his Belgian counterpart.
Tactically it’s very clear that Lukaku is a better fit for this United team as well. Last season, United scored 54 goals in the Premier League (Bournemouth scored more). Ibrahimovic had 17 in the league, Juan Mata was next with 6 and Pogba, Rashford and Rooney followed with 4. This season Lukaku leads with 10, Martial is second with 6 while Lingard and Martial follow with 4 and we’re just at the halfway point of the season.
In terms of assists this season, 3 United players sit on 5 (Mkhitaryan, Pogba and Rashford), while Lukaku is next with 4 and we still have 5 months to go. Last season, Ander Herrera lead the team with 6, alongside Anthony Martial. Zlatan was next up with 5 for the entire season. It’s unlikely that all the credit should go to Lukaku for the improvement in the team’s form but it is quite clear that his work rate and selflessness bring others into play more than the Big Swede does. Zlatan often drops too deep and takes up space occupied by Pogba, Martial and Rashford while Lukaku lets them do their thing.
Lukaku may not be the big name flashy player that United fans wanted, but despite his failings he has clearly been better for the team than fans and media give him credit for. No wonder Romelu refuses to celebrate his goals. It’s about time United fans celebrated him.