As this below average United side trudged off the London Stadium pitch, there was a sense of inevitability about where this season is heading. Jose Mourinho’s side had once again been played off the park, this time by a side that started the season with four straight defeats. They now sit just three points behind United. A big reason for the defeat was the quality of a man who United were linked with during the summer, Marko Arnautovic. The rumours were laughed off by most United followers, but on evidence of Saturday lunchtime, United had the wrong man leading their attack.
Pressure on Lukaku
There was talk in the summer that Mourinho was looking to bring in another striker option to put some pressure on Romelu Lukaku. It would also give him an option if the big Belgian was injured or out of form. Well, he has finally got his wish, because he is certainly the latter. Lukaku has always been a hot and cold striker. At Everton he would go on a run of games where he would look almost unstoppable, only to then look like the complete opposite a few games later. He is currently in that slump at United.
Scoring four goals in seven games is hardly a bad return, but he has now not scored for four games following the blank against Valencia. The problem United have is that they cannot afford to drop him. Looking at Mourinho’s alternatives to Lukaku, Anthony Martial is barely getting a look in full stop, let alone centrally. Marcus Rashford has come in for some criticism from his manager following his sporadic striker opportunities. Whilst Alexis Sanchez has not yet been considered as the main striker, probably because of his size.
Whilst Mourinho does have options, Lukaku was bought for big money and he was targeted as the man he wanted to spearhead his attack. Since his arrival, Lukaku has played in 41 of the 45 league games and started 39 of those 41, only being substituted three times. He averages 83 minutes of game time when he makes an appearance for United. These figures highlight the reliance on him but also how very little opportunities are given to the other players.
Mourinho has essentially produced his own striker problem. He has a striker who now has no pressure on his position in the team. When an injury hits or more recently form drops, Mourinho does not trust his replacements and more importantly, his replacements play knowing they are not really wanted. It is no surprise that United were looking for a second striker to provide back up, but also to ensure their main man remains at his absolute best.
The names being largely rumoured as United’s “backup” striker were Mario Mandzukic and Marko Arnautovic. The former comes with a big reputation, playing for some of Europe’s best clubs, most recently Bayern Munich and Juventus. The latter most recently of Stoke and West Ham. From that point of view, it is maybe understandable why Arnautovic didn’t get the seal of approval from United fans and seemingly the board. He may not fit the “superstar” signing that seemingly is the ultimate goal at United these days. But he could well have been just that. West Ham were asking for big money for the Austrian, United quite rightly bulked at the price for a player seen as just the second striker. The problem was, he should have been viewed as the first choice.
Arnautovic was used as the main striker last season under David Moyes, an inspired decision which ultimately kept West Ham in the division. It would be unjust to compare him with Lukaku before last season. To be fair, on the comparing of two strikers playing for clubs at opposite ends of the Premier League anyway seems a pointless exercise. However, comparing the two since the beginning of last season, it will probably come as a surprise as to how closely matched the pair are in terms of goal and assist returns. Considering the wealth of talent behind Lukaku compared to Arnautovic’s supply line, it speaks volumes for the quality of the West Ham talisman.
To heap even more praise on Arnautovic, although he has played only four games less than Lukaku – when looking at minutes on the pitch – this actually equates to over 7 games.
For a striker playing in an inferior side, fewer games and still recording an almost identical goal and assist return, I struggle to understand the reluctance of everyone at United to buying the Austrian international.
Beyond the stats.
As with most player comparisons, judging purely on stats can be very misleading. Comparing Mo Salah’s goal return to Messi’s last season would almost put them on the same level. In actual fact, they are worlds apart. Comparing Lukaku’s goal return to Arnautovic’s suggests they are of the same quality. If you watched the game on Saturday you will be able to confirm this is very much not the case and that West Ham currently have the far superior striker in their ranks.
Everything about Lukaku is slow, lethargic and lacking in class. Everything about Arnautovic is the opposite. He works hard for his team, he shows enthusiasm and when the ball is passed into him, it exudes the touch and ability that you would expect of a top-four striker. The feeling of watching Lukaku with the ball is very frantic and unpredictable. Watching Arnautovic is elegant and almost calming, the way he brings players into play. But it was Arnaitovic’s movement off the ball which impressed me the most and is what United are crying out for.
Looking at his and Lukaku’s heat maps for Saturday, the Austrian’s movement was all over the pitch.
Often picking up the ball in wide areas but also coming deep to pick the ball up. Lukaku is heavily focussed in the central areas, mainly dropping deep with his back to goal but always staring towards the middle of the pitch. By doing so, he makes himself very easy to mark. Defenders do not like being made to make a decision. Playing against Arnautovic, the three United centre-halves would have to decide whether to follow him out wide and if so which one? Do they follow him back almost into the opposition half? Will he instead roll and run in behind? Many of these questions do not need to be answered against Lukaku. It was very much evident again on Tuesday night as the Valencia central defenders had a simple night marking a vert static striker. His limited movement also removes the amount of space that can be exploited by the wide men of United and the more attacking players in the midfield.
Lukaku has more to offer
Lukaku is in a slump at the moment, but he is certainly not alone. When he wants to run and work, he is a totally different beast. He has missed some major chances this season which adds to his loss in confidence, but when things are not going for him in front of goal, he lacks the motivation to still produce for the team. I wrote recently about how important he is to United being successful. This is no more evident than now. There is no doubt Lukaku has the potential and attributes to be one of the most feared strikers in the league if not world football. Tall, strong, quick and a hunger to score goals. But Arnautovic is currently better in every aspect and gave Lukaku a glimpse of what he could be achieving on Saturday.
Yes, United missed out on some major defensive signings in the summer, but not pursuing the Arnautovic signing is maybe a bigger regret. He was invaluable to West Ham last season and his price was too much for United to pay in the summer. Another season playing as well as he is currently will only see that price continue to skyrocket. If the interest remains, it may well be worth re-visiting in January before it is too late.