United have just passed through a really important week unscathed. After defeating Huddersfield in the FA Cup, this column gave The Reds the challenge of getting two positive results against Sevilla and Chelsea. It could be argued that they should have aimed for more away in Andalucia, but back in Manchester, they were able to secure all three points.
In the aftermath of the Sevilla game, Romelu Lukaku’s performance was criticised after he failed to score against another top level opponent. Paul Scholes didn’t hold back in his assessment of the forward:
‘He was so weak. You’ve got to be strong, you’ve got to get hold of the ball. You’ve got to get your touch right and bring players in. Most of the time, he’s given the ball away.’
Rio Ferdinand agreed with Scholes, stating that ‘If you’re trying to produce a counter-attacking performance, that ball has to stick to allow your team to get out. With Lukaku in your team at the moment, the ball doesn’t stick so the counter-attack doesn’t happen.’
They weren’t wrong. The ball regularly bounced off the Belgian and he only managed to clock up a pass completion percentage of 52%. He also missed a glorious chance when he blazed over the bar after a lovely ball by Sanchez. Lukaku had enough time to take a touch or enough space to adjust his body and smash his laces through it. Throughout the game, he was barely involved in proceedings.
On Sunday against Chelsea, he was imperious. The Belgian scored one and assisted the other in a man of the match performance. For his goal, he easily held off Kante before laying the ball back to Matic. The Belgian continued his run into the box beyond Martial, receiving the ball in the congested penalty area. He had the awareness, speed of thought and skill to push the ball out from under him and onto his stronger left foot to stroke it home.
We have seen both sides of Lukaku this season. In September he looked unstoppable, scoring seven goals in six games that month. A goal drought followed as he didn’t score again until November and continued to have a rough winter period. Now as we enter spring, hopefully, this strong performance against Chelsea is a sign he’s going to recover some of that early season form.
So how come his performances vary so wildly? Many believe that he’s simply not that good, that he’s a flat track bully who can score against the poorer opposition, but once he’s up against a tougher defence he starts to struggle. As you’ve no doubt heard, Lukaku’s goal against Chelsea was his first against the top six this season. But his failure to score in these big games hasn’t been his only issue. His general play has often been lacking as well and he often ends up basically anonymous.
How was he able to be so dominant against Chelsea? What was different about this game compared to the other top of the table clashes? Well, he had a point to prove after a poor performance in Spain. But more than that, this was the first big game United simply had to win. In all the massive fixtures that have come before, Mourinho was satisfied with a draw as he was banking on The Reds picking up the lost points against the smaller teams. But with ten games left and the table so tight, United cannot afford to draw these games. Every game is a must win.
There was an uncharacteristic sense of urgency with United’s play on Sunday. They won the ball high up the field and committed several players forward in an attempt to score. This was no doubt helped by the change in system and the fielding of McTominay and Matic alongside Pogba. The extra midfielders gave the attackers a safe platform to push forward and get closer to Lukaku. The Belgian was able to feed off Martial and Sanchez, as well as turn provider for Lingard nearer the end of the game.
To get the best out of Lukaku in the future, United have to be braver. They have to commit men forward and attempt to surround him with options at all times. That allows him to combine with them and in turn pull defences around to make space for his teammates. Too often in the other big fixtures, he’s been left stranded up the field, sad and alone, making runs for passes that will never come.
In the last week, we’ve seen the very best and the very worst of Lukaku. It seems to clear to me how to get the best out of him, it just requires more bravery from both Mourinho and United. When the Belgian is at his worst he is almost invisible on the field. When he’s at his best he’s one of the best strikers in the league, possibly the world. I know which one I want to see more of.