The details of our shortfalls in the attacking departments really showed how Zlatan Ibrahimovic, whilst comfortably being our top scorer, lagged behind others when compared to 11 select strikers in the league. The inefficiency he showed was one that no could predicted and was one of the many reasons why United would eventually finish 6th.
One of the 11 that embarrassed Ibrahimovic, pertaining to finishing the good quality chances they had, was Romelu Lukaku. He was the largest over-performer, when comparing xG and actual goals scored. He was one of the names mentioned when I spoke about the No.9 that would serve as the successor for the Swede. Off the back of his best goalscoring season, finishing only second to Harry Kane, it looked like Lukaku was destined to go back to Chelsea. His former hunting ground to resolve unfinished business and walk in the footsteps of his idol, Didier Drogba. Instead he has ended up at Old Trafford, through the convincing of Ed Woodward, Mourinho and perhaps most importantly, Paul Pogba. Yet even with all the positives, the division on Romelu Lukaku is even about whether he suits the play of a big club and how much of a success he will be at Manchester United
It goes back to his development as youngster at Anderlecht and its unique circumstance. At the time of signing as a 13 year old, Lukaku was still wiry. He only started to resemble the phenomenal physique he possess currently when he turned 15, after starting to go to the gym once a week when he was 14. Lukaku was close to the first team but rules in Belgium disallowed him from starting senior games until he signed a professional contract, only permissible at 16. In preparation, he bulked up, benching 100kg, giving him problems in his knees and back because he was still growing and could not handle the load. He played through it because Anderlecht needed him. He was integral. He was that capable of handling men years his senior. By the time he left Anderlecht for Chelsea, he weighed 101kg. He had to trim because the weight was becoming a hindrance and he did so to 94kg, a weight he is still in and around today. The Belgian No.9 has stated he plays with his weight during the summer, putting on or losing some to experiment with. But in all this time during his first team appearances in Belgium, Lukaku was missing out on important 1v1 coaching on the technical side of the game and it was clear to see when he made fleeting appearances under Andre Villas Boas as a substitute in the 2011/12. Most of his time was spent with reserves where the Chelsea reserve team coach would work on improving that side of his game. ‘It was his [Lukaku] idea’ of doing this training is just an example of the hard working nature of the player.
Lukaku would go on to play just three more games for Chelsea, in between a loan at West Bromwich Albion and Everton, before he made a permanent move to the latter. He enjoyed a 17-goal season with the West Midlands club but he only played six full 90 games; the majority of his appearances consisted of him coming off the bench. Sometimes he scored like away at Anfield and his hat trick vs Man Utd in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last game. He had to build up this match fitness with Everton and he contributed to the Toffee’s best ever season in the Premier League with 16 goals in 33 games. He suffered the next season when teams sat back more vs Everton, letting them have possession. This was a novel situation for the Belgian, having to rely more on his other attributes that were not as refined. He forced into doing target man duties and was probably a main reason why he only ended with 10 league goals in 36 Premier League games. His 8 in 9 in Europa, however, showed a potential for European pedigree. 25 in 46 and 26 in 39 has shown an improvement with each passing season as in the Liverpool Blue.
Target Man or Poacher?
In the present, Mourinho has said the dimension that Lukaku brings is one of a target man, but not akin to Ibrahimovic. Lukaku’s proficiency does not come from dropping into space between the lines, being able to link up and hold up play. The central figure, that is able to threaten in behind, will occupy the opposition’s centre backs and have them worrying about the space in behind, in turn creating space for those around and behind him. Despite Mourinho’s proclamation and his idolising of Drogba, Lukaku does not really play as a target man nor does he see himself as one. He struggled to do so in his second season at Everton and for a man of his size, he struggles with making the ball stick when he has to contest for it on his own. His best comes from latching onto balls in behind, his clever positioning between defenders in the back line contributing heavily to this, and his movement within the box when the ball is out wide. The long and short of it being that Lukaku is a poacher with the physique of a target man.
At the age of 24, the scope for improvement is there and that is an improvement on an 85 in 176 Premier League games. The progression needs to come in his ball reception and retention needs to improve, accused of being lazy in terms of showing for the ball to feet. Two games during 2015/16 vs both the Manchester clubs stick out in the memory showing these weaknesses particularly. Vincent Kompany and Eliquam Mangala thrive on the physical, 1v1 battles and this is what Lukaku enjoys – isolating his centre back and turning them using his physicality. Because of the match of physicality in both of these players, it was relative comfortable afternoon for the pair as the Belgian centre forward was unable to mix up his game or find different avenues to hurt his opponents. Even when facing a CB is so much slower but cerebral their defensive actions, someone like Daley Blind, Lukaku still found trouble. He wasn’t able to fully impose himself on the Dutchman as the latter pipped him to the ball time and time again, stopping the danger into Lukaku before he could even get it. It builds to the point that Lukaku has struggled vs the bigger teams, factors permitting such as playing for an inferior side. However, last season he did manage to score the highest from the top 7 strikers, albeit vs the Man City defence and consolation against both North London teams.
But the flaws are there and they need to be minimised, even if it does cause division on his effectiveness. Him being here and the expensive outlay means his needs have to be catered to, probably linking to the incessant links with Ivan Perisic. The attacking structure resembling atoms in water is not going to do anything to get the best out of the former Everton man. Bodies need to be closer to him, whether it is as a No.10 or a support striker. There has to be a winger who keeps the width and delivers balls into the box, as did Rashford for Lukaku’s best chance vs Barcelona in our last pre-season match in America. We need to find his runs early because he is always looking for the early ball when the defence are not as organised, something Pogba delivered for Lukaku’s goal vs Man City. High pressing and winning the ball back before teams advance past the halfway line would give Lukaku the chance to run into the space that he needs to. Isolating ourselves by sitting deep can cause problems due to what was mentioned earlier about Lukaku not really possessing the best skills to hold up play and bring others in.
Then again, Lukaku could be Mourinho’s project. A limited centre forward, who with the right guidance and attention could fulfil his potential to become the complete striker that he has been touted as becoming and with the words of Lukaku and the hard work that he puts onto the training pitch to improve means he can never be discounted in reaching that target. Mourinho doing so would show his willingness to commit the club and squad of players for more than the 3 year mark, where he can never truly make it into his fourth in the tenure. Lukaku’s goalscoring is without question and the rest is secondary at present. He is a better fit for the other attackers than his antecedent but it is still not enough. To get him to levels of goalscoring that is needed, however, the United team need to be focused on finding Lukaku, first and foremost and early.