Signed from Everton for £75million in the summer, Lukaku’s dry patch has led to widespread criticism of the former Chelsea man, with his record in big games a particular point of focus.
But reports of Lukaku’s demise have been greatly exaggerated
While it is true that he must do more with the scraps he is forced to feed off in such matches, when United often cede possession and create fewer opportunities, the 24-year-old is also, to an extent, not helped by the way José Mourinho sets up his side against top-six rivals.
For the most part, United’s attacking play has improved his term, aided greatly when the currently suspended Paul Pogba lines up in midfield. The Red Devils have outscored every team in the Premier League except neighbours Manchester City, and are averaging 2.18 goals per game, up from 1.42 last term.
Lukaku has played a part in this uptick in potency, offering a greater threat in behind opposition defences and a powerful aerial presence. But much of the criticism levelled at the Belgian is based around his perceived inability to act as a target man, holding the ball up and linking play in advanced areas.
It would be nice if these aspects of Lukaku’s game matched his stronger physical and technical attributes, but such development takes time; he can’t be expected to suddenly become a world-class hold-up player.
Knowing the player they spent so much money to sign, it would be in the interest of both Lukaku and United if the Red Devils put a greater emphasis on playing to his strengths. When facing strong opposition, he is often isolated in high areas and located with long, high balls.
In such circumstances, Lukaku is unlikely to thrive playing with his back to goal is not his strong suit; he’d much rather be playing off the shoulder of the opposition’s deepest defender and latching onto crosses into the box.
United’s 1-0 victory over Bournemouth on Wednesday stood as a prime example of how to maximise Lukaku’s gifts. The ex-Anderlecht star scored the game’s only goal by leaping above two defenders to power home a header from a delicious Juan Mata cross.
If United are unable to play in a manner that best suits his attributes in key games, then there should be an understanding that Lukaku’s performances will not be optimised. It won’t always be possible for Mourinho to prioritise attacking in a manner that suits every player at his disposal and some, as Lukaku has been, will be square pegs crammed into round holes to a degree.
To his credit, Mourinho has been open in his praise of Lukaku’s general performances recently, despite the goals drying up. “My job, when I feel they deserve it, is to protect my players,” the Portuguese tactician said after United’s 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur in October.
“Romelu is one of the players that should be untouchable in terms of the respect of everyone. It’s not one goal or the ball goes against the post or a save by the opposition keeper that can make Romelu’s contribution below the top level.
“He is playing extremely well for us and yes I have to protect my players when I feel they deserve it. And Romelu always deserves it because what he does for the team is fantastic. Playing football for a striker isn’t just about scoring goals. So for me [he is] untouchable in my team and I think he should be untouchable in support from the fans. But fans are fans, they pay the ticket and do what they want. As a manager I feel duty to protect my players when I feel they deserve it.
“Ask Vertonghen and Alderweireld if he was quiet, and they are some of the best centre-backs in football. I don’t think he’s quiet at all. The point is scoring or not scoring because in the end that is what people analyse sometimes.”
Much of the issue with the criticism of Lukaku is one of perception. Being a big, athletic, powerful striker, most assume he is, or should be, a conventional target man. Whereas the reality is that he is much more of a poacher, a dedicated goal-getter who comes alive with space to run into or crosses to contest.
There are certainly areas of his game he can improve, but Lukaku can be deadly when confident and playing in a system that suits his style.