Manchester United were passive, dire, and unambitious and every adjective that has no relation to joy, at Anfield on Sunday. However, amidst the many poor performances, Romelu Lukaku somehow managed to stick out like a sore thumb.
The Belgian has been poor almost all season and Jose Mourinho must be questioned for picking him against Liverpool. There is enough logic behind the selection: in theory, he would have worked as a target man in a low-block. But there’s something called form and confidence: Lukaku lacks both at the moment. You don’t need a tactical analysis to know how poor he was. But I’ll still do it.
The No.9 shaped abyss
The 25-year-old forward was absolutely dire for the 90 minutes. Other than his run down the left-channel that led to the accidental Manchester United goal, the Belgian was poor. The way Virgil van Dijk absolutely dominated the big burly forward was embarrassing.
Nothing was sticking to his feet, he was struggling to win headers and completed one pass in the first half. The ball seemed like a bludger from Quidditch, an annoying thing that he was struggling to control. He was also mastering the art of bouncing off Van Dijk for the duration of the game. Every time the ball came towards his vicinity, he waved a leg at it or tried running the other way. He looked like a cat startled by a laser in a dark room. He had just 20 touches of the ball. The stat is more damning when you see how much defensive work he carried out in the opposite box from set-pieces.
The Dutchman was not the only Red who were having fun with Lukaku. The sight of Sadio Mane pushing Lukaku into an offside position while Ashley Young took a free-kick in the first half was both funny and sad. Lukaku came to Manchester United with the reputation of a striker who can bully defenders. These days the Belgian would struggle to bully Under-18 centre-backs. He is a representation of wider problems within the squad and the management of Mourinho.
The striker seems to have got all the joy sucked out at the moment. He looks deflated, despondent and short of any confidence. Manchester United looked beyond dire – a dire squad, dire football being played by dire selection choices. Lukaku’s form is only a byproduct.
But where is the service?
The Belgian will need midfielders who can pass and an attacking outlet from the middle. Paul Pogba sat on the bench for 90 minutes and Juan Mata came on for the final five minutes against Liverpool. A midfield of Ander Herrera and Nemanja Matic will hardly get the pulses racing. When Mourinho needed to bring in an attacking midfielder, he threw in Marouane Fellaini.
As much as Lukaku is letting down his team-mates, his manager is also not giving him any respite. His best trait is playing on the shoulders of the last man and running the channels. But the Belgian is being left so isolated up front, he has little option but to come short. He is being forced to try out his worst traits: first touch, ball control and trying to find runners beyond him.
He completed just eleven passes in the game. But he had so little to work with in terms of support he could legitimately ask, ‘who would I pass to?’.
Lukaku is a symbol of Mourinho’s mismanagement of talent at Manchester United this season. He might not have fallen out with the manager, but his plight is no different to Pogba’s. You would think that after spending a big sum to acquire him, the Portuguese would know how to use the 25-year-old’s strengths.
The way forward
Lukaku must be taken off the firing line at the moment. The striker is out of form and looks devoid of confidence. If he continues to play up front for Manchester United, it could really have an effect on him mentally. The noise around his form will grow, without actually looking at the more internal factors.
Mourinho seems destined for the sack: it is not a question of if, but when? The other question is whether a new manager will manage to get the best out of Lukaku? The wider debate is whether a player of his qualities should lead the line for Manchester United. There’s a lot to like about his football when he is at his best: his strength, his ability to run at defences and bully defenders.
But a look around the top sides and it is hard to find a striker of his strengths. In England, technical forwards such as Sergio Aguero, Roberto Firmino and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang lead the lines. The story is not different in Europe as well.
There is a growing consensus that Manchester United looked to build their attack around Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial. However, it is easy to forget £75m was spent to sign Lukaku. Manchester United would take a huge financial hit if the next manager doesn’t fancy the Belgian.
The 25-year-old could still find his touch but once Mourinho goes, he would be under pressure to show his worth. The next manager might not be as patient with him.
Lukaku is increasingly becoming a problem for Manchester United. His loyalty towards the manager means he would get more opportunities. But it is clear the attack looks coherent in his absence. This is an uneasy situation for the team. Mourinho has already shown that he would not drop players who don’t question his methods. So we continue to see Nemanja Matic take a dump in the middle every week and Lukaku gets more time to play his way back into form.
The growing moans every time he fails to control a simple ball will only add to his woes. Lukaku needs a break but with Mourinho under pressure, the spotlight will continue to shine on him. It is now up to the Belgian to either step up or get deeper into a shell of self-doubt.
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