“First of all, people don’t have to be grateful to Romelu. I have to be, not you, not the supporters, not the pundits, I have to be,” –Jose Mourinho
With 15 goals in the current season, Romelu Lukaku has been one of the key players for Manchester United this season. Having started the season with goals in almost every game, the Belgian forward had started to win the hearts of Manchester United fans. However, a goalscoring drought and some missed chances in the derby games against Liverpool and Manchester City and also his role in the goals conceded against Manchester City and Burnley has led to mixed reactions from the Manchester United fans. In this article, I will try to explain why I feel the criticism directed at him is harsh.
The first few games of the season saw Henrikh Mkhitaryan drifting into the #10 space behind Romelu Lukaku. So the playmaking responsibilities were mainly given to Manchester United’s midfield which comprised of the likes of Paul Pogba, Mkhitaryan and Mata. Lukaku’s job then was mainly to create space for his midfielders by occupying the back line and looking to stretch the opponent block vertically. He would also look to get on the end of through balls supplied by the playmakers. Consequently his goalscoring return during that period of the season was very good. He scored 11 games in his first 10 appearances.
With Mkhitaryan losing his touch and subsequently his place in the Man United team and Pogba out due to injury, Lukaku had to adapt his gameplay. He started dropping deeper to help in chance creation in the absence of Mkhitaryan(dropped) and Pogba in the big games in September and October. This meant he could not get on the end of chances like he had been doing earlier in the season. Thus, his goals dried up. Missing the 1 or 2 rare chances he got in the derby games against Liverpool and Manchester City did not help his cause either. It was after those games that some fans started to have doubts about him. However Mourinho has always defended Romelu Lukaku when asked by interviewers about his performances.
“Now I see 20 matches in the Premier League, playing 90 minutes, I think for a striker, any player, he’s absolutely incredible. But if you are a central defender, a holding midfield player, where you can control your energy, positional play, you can resist, survive. But for a striker to play 20 matches in the Premier League, 90 minutes, I have to be grateful.
“Is he unlucky in our box in recent matches? He was in the picture, it was not a direct influence on just him, but he was in the picture in some of the last goals we concede but it is a consequence of a player that really needs a little rest, but the guy is fantastic for me and for the team and gives absolutely everything and I’ve no critics.”–Jose Mourinho on Romelu Lukaku’s dip in form
The heatmaps below highlight the above points.
Lingard has been the man who has stepped up to fill in for Mkhitaryan. He offers different dynamics to the team compared to Mkhitaryan. While the Armenian is better at receiving the ball in tight spaces behind the striker, Lingard is better at recognizing spaces and timing his runs into those spaces. Lukaku’s changing role is evident in the way he has been looking to find Lingard’s runs with his through balls. Lukaku’s role has been more like that of a false 9 in recent weeks.
Lukaku’s stats have also been good despite his change in role. The goals may have dried up but he has created the most number of chances for Manchester United this season. Goals should not be the only criteria people should use when judging Lukaku.
There are certain things he needs to work on to become one of the best players in the world. His 1 v 1 skills vs the goalkeeper have to improve. As a CF, he is expected to place his shots into the corners in such situations like the Lewandoskis,Ronaldos, etc. Lukaku this season has severely underperformed in this area of his game and that has been the root cause of many of the fans doubting his abilities as a striker. I also believe he needs the midfielders around him to step up so that he can get back to his job as finisher. He still has a lot of time to improve and Manchester United fans can hope that he leads them to glory in the years to come.
“I rate Romelu really high. He’s such a hard-working, dedicated forward that he is almost a perfect striker for any manager because if there’s something he needs to improve he will work on it relentlessly.”– Vincent Kompany