Is Romelu Lukaku a flat track bully who is too timid in the big games?
By anyone’s standards, Romelu Lukaku has had a remarkable season up to this point. In just about every way, it has been the perfect start for a centre forward.
There are some players who, having moved to a club like Manchester United, for a record fee involving two British clubs, who would have struggled with the weight of expectation; the pressure and the demand for an instant return on a £75m plus investment.
Lukaku, though, has not so much taken everything in his stride as hop, skipped and jumped his way through his first few months at Old Trafford. There was no nerve shredding wait for his first goal – he scored on his debut against Real Madrid – and has kept on scoring ever since, 16 in 13 appearances for club and country. Only once had Lukaku failed to score in a game this season, against Leicester City back on August 26 before this. He has, most observers agree, added a new dimension to United's play and nobody has any reason to question his contributions.
To do so, now, is perhaps harsh, but it is relevant, particularly as Lukaku’s record against the best teams was also a spark that ignited criticism before he became a United player.
When you think of the elite strikers, they score important goals in important games. They score the winner in a tight, tetchy battle. They turn defeats into draws and draws into victories. When the stage is set, and the spotlight shines brightest, they seize the moment, they deliver the five-star performance when it is needed most. Lukaku did not do that here. He slid into the shadows, disappeared and became a member of the supporting cast.
This was a different sort of test, for both Lukaku and United. An intense fixture against an old rival and one of the teams capable, on paper, of seriously challenging them. It was the first time United have played one of the Big Six this season. For all their faults, Liverpool were not going to be blown away at home in the way others have been by this United side.
Liverpool’s defence may be a weakness, but Lukaku still had to prove himself against them, particularly as he had persistently failed to do so when he had been an Everton player.
It was the sort of game where he would be left on his own up front because of the way Jose Mourinho wanted to contain Liverpool’s attack.
Lukaku offered very little for most of the first half. Isolated and heavily out-numbered, he was roughed up, bruised and harassed by a Liverpool defence with the numbers to swarm all over him whenever United tried to get the ball to him.
In the opening 20 minutes, Lukaku touched it once. He had a front row seat for a game being played by others.
That changed the moment United got a ball over the top of Liverpool’s high defensive line. It was a pass out of defence they had looked for before, but failed to execute properly, until Nemanja Matic looped one over the head of Dejan Lovren.
Lukaku stretched his legs and comfortably out-paced Lovren. The centre back initially did well to hold him up and push him away from the area, but Lukaku shifted the ball from one foot to the other and had enough explosive pace to get to the byline. The cross, though, with his weaker right foot, was terrible, sailing harmlessly away from goal. The Kop roared its delight.
Minutes later, the chance; the big chance. In tight games, a lone striker in a team playing on the counter attack might only get one of them. In front of the same Kop End that had mocked him moments earlier, after some lovely intricate build up play from United, a one-two with Anthony Martial slipped Lukaku in behind the defence. Without breaking stride or looking up, Lukaku went for power, caught the shot well enough, but it was straight at goalkeeper Simon Mignolet.
For a player who failed to score at Anfield during his four years across Stanley Park with Everton, it was the sort of miss that can play on the mind long after a save has been made.
Mourinho knew his attack lacked a threat, replacing Martial with Marcus Rashford and Henrikh Mkhitaryan with Jesse Lingard, in the second half, but he left Lukaku on. It was a sign of how important the Belgian has become.
Even on an off day, his manager did not want to remove him, but he may as well have done. Lukaku barely broke into a run let alone touch the ball. For the first time as a United player, Lukaku did not have the right answer to the question.