Manchester United’s 2-0 defeat to Tottenham on Wednesday night was arguably their worst performance under José Mourinho since he arrived at the club in 2016. Defensive mistakes along with a lack of any sort of midfield partnership between Paul Pogba and Nemanja Matić, the dire 90 minutes brought fans back down to earth after Alexis Sánchez’s arrival.
Whilst the defeat highlighted problems within the squad itself, it had also displayed to those who watched it how far apart Harry Kane is to anyone in the Premier League and possibly Europe. Though the Englishman had no goalscoring impact on the game, it was a masterclass in centre-forward play and Romelu Lukaku could only watch on as the North London hitman bullied Chris Smalling and Phil Jones in front of a Premier League record crowd.
It was always going to be Kane’s night after he had got one over Jones within eleven seconds, climbing highest to create Dele Alli’s blocked shot that was later finished by Eriksen. From that moment on, both Jones and Smalling looked frightened to receive the ball and when they did, the duo were swift to lend it to someone else.
Kane’s performance was everything United fans want to see from summer acquisition Lukaku. Though his interplay and ability to hold the ball up are no doubt improving since his arrival at Old Trafford, his performances compared to Kane are even further apart than the 15-point gap separating Mourinho and Guardiola at this moment in time. The closest Lukaku has come to a big game performance was the 3-1 win at the Emirates, though the majority of play was in Arsenal’s favour after Jesse Lingard’s eleventh-minute strike made it 2-0.
Against Chelsea, the Belgian was poor. His performance in the draw at Anfield was hardly his fault given Mourinho’s game plan but he did have a chance to give United the lead, which was hit straight at Mignolet. His performance at Stamford Bridge looked lively early on before being outshone by Álvaro Morata and in the derby, well, let’s not even go there. Strikers, especially in a Mourinho team, cannot always score, but Lukaku must learn to have an impact in games, no matter the stature.
Rio Ferdinand summed it up perfectly on BT Sport after the final whistle, saying: “I think Kane showed today why he’s the best striker in the league and one of the most potent in Europe because he’s bullied United’s centre-halves. He totally dominated them physically and brought other people into play.”
“The contrast between him and Lukaku today was so evident it was unbelievable from up here where we watched it. The ball going into him, sticking, holding centre halves off and bringing others into the game. That’s a real No. 9. That’s what you want to see a No. 9 do.”
In many games this season, a lack of service and teammates ignoring Romelu’s runs have been a valid excuse for his lack of impact but a striker for a club of United’s stature has to be able to create something out of nothing and if that’s not possible, like Kane, he has to bully the opposition defenders and allow those around him to have chances on goal. On too many occasions this season, Lukaku has done neither, giving opposing centre-halves a free ride for 90 minutes without any real threat through the middle.
Lukaku’s performances this season have been a whole lot better than Zlatan Ibrahimović’s last year. The Swede’s static nature and demanding of the ball at all times meant other offensive players, such as Martial, weren’t able to make an impact. His poor finishing also increased the heavy criticism of Pogba’s lack of goal contributions and United’s play seemed to improve when Rashford was played through the middle rather than Ibrahimović, most notably against Chelsea at Old Trafford.
Lukaku’s signing was not a negative move and in no way shape or form has he been anything like a flop. 18 goals this season would certainly prove otherwise. The point that I’m trying to make is Lukaku’s goalscoring ability is there for all to see, but he’s not at Everton or West Brom anymore, he leads the line for Manchester United and more is needed from him in big games. Obvious weaknesses in the team are there for all to see, mainly in clashes with the top six, and we are in need of Lukaku being able to win games with limited chances or being able to create something from nothing for a teammate.
United’s remaining top-six fixtures include Chelsea, Arsenal and Liverpool at Old Trafford whilst a trip to the Etihad still looms. The three at home are in desperate need of Lukaku stepping up and once he has, it should take the pressure off his shoulders and hopefully more big game performances will follow.