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The curious case of Romelu Lukaku

In the post-Sir Alex Ferguson years, Manchester United have made a number of inadequate acquisitions in the transfer market. The cases of Radamel Falcao and Alexis Sanchez in the eyes of many are the definition of failure. However, in Romelu Lukaku’s case, statistically speaking, the Belgian’s goal return is far from inadequate. 

With 42 goals in 93 appearances, Lukaku’s goal to game ratio is at 0.45, essentially scoring a goal in every other game. In spite of the forward’s superb goal tally, many fans want Lukaku to depart the club in the transfer window. But the question is, is the onslaught of criticism that Lukaku faces justified?

A prominent critique of Lukaku since his arrival in 2017, is that the towering number nine hasn’t fitted into United’s system. In the weeks proceeding his arrival, Jose Mourinho cited Lukaku as the perfect candidate to replace the sidelined Zlatan Ibrahimovic. In many ways, this is where Lukaku’s problems began.

In the season in which Ibrahimovic led the United attack, the Swede was predominantly used as a target man, similarly to Mourinho’s use of Didier Drogba at Chelsea. This meant Ibrahimovic’s height was the most utilised of his attributes. Mourinho used Lukaku in a similar role, which initially seemed like a logical decision.

In his first seven games for Manchester United, Lukaku scored a sensational seven goals. However, following his initial purple patch of form, both United and Lukaku’s form dropped significantly. Following losses against Huddersfield, Chelsea and Manchester City, Manchester United found themselves all but out of the running for the Premier League title.

In his first season in Manchester, Lukaku scored an admirable 27 goals in all competitions. In spite of his impressive goalscoring record, it was clear to many that Lukaku didn’t fit Mourinho’s view of a target man. It could be argued that the role Mourinho provided Lukaku limited the Belgian.

While at the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Lukaku’s link-up play was sublime, at United it was almost non-existent due to the instructions designated to the striker by Mourinho. The sensational dummy Lukaku provided for Nacer Chadli for Belgium against Japan, signified that the former Chelsea forward had a wider repertoire than being a target man.

In the 2018/19 season, Lukaku struggled in an underperforming team. The most memorable moment for Lukaku is, unfortunately, a pejorative one. In a clash against rivals Tottenham Hotspur, Lukaku cleverly brought the ball around Hugo Lloris, but when faced with an open goal the Belgian fired it wide.

Ultimately, if Lukaku was clinical when faced with this golden opportunity, United would have led Tottenham by a goal to nil. The game ended with a 3-0 win to Spurs, a result that was disastrous for both Mourinho and the club. Following the departure of Mourinho, Lukaku found himself out of the starting line up under the new manager, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.

In spite of his exclusion from the starting eleven, Lukaku flourished from the bench. In Solskjaer’s first 11 games, Lukaku provided five goals, including a crucial double away at Paris Saint-Germain, in one of United’s greatest comebacks. However, it was clear from the offset that Lukaku didn’t fit into Solskjaer’s tactical vision.

The philosophy of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer appears to be a pressing based system, therefore relying on players with vast amounts of agility and pace. This meant that Marcus Rashford is the preferred option, as he provides pace, fluidity and stamina. Due to the fact Lukaku doesn’t fit into Solskjaer’s system, it seems almost inevitable that he will depart the club this summer.

In spite of the onslaught of criticism Lukaku receives his goal record dwarves many United ‘greats’. In his first Premier League season for the ‘Red Devils’  Lukaku bagged 16 goals and provided seven assists. In contrast, in the 1999/2000 season, Dwight Yorke netted 20 goals, while contributing three assists.

This means that both forwards contributed the same amount of goals and assists, which suggests Lukaku may have been treated harshly, especially as Dwight Yorke was perceived to be at his peak in the 1999/00 season. Furthermore, Wayne Rooney scored 11 goals in his first season at the club (2004-05) which Lukaku tops goalscoring wise by five goals.

This suggests that Lukaku’s onslaught of criticism may have been unfair, illustrated by the comparison to United ‘greats’.While Romelu Lukaku’s goal scoring record is sublime, it appears his popularity at Manchester United is at an all-time low. It seems inevitable that the Belgian will depart the club, amid interest from Inter Millan.

While Lukaku is a source of mockery for some Manchester United fans, his goalscoring record suggests that in the aftermath of Lukaku’s potential departure, the Belgian may have the last laugh.

Written by Alexei Braithwaite

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