Polished Alvaro Morata shows why Romelu Lukaku isn't what Jose Mourinho wants at Manchester United
If Alvaro Morata celebrated his winning goal with a little extra relish on Sunday, it would be entirely understandable. This was not just a match-winner against a main rival, or the end of a drought, but also something of a point proven; a proper message back.
One story has it that the first time Morata found out his deal to Manchester United was just not going to happen was when he looked online and saw the headlines stating Romelu Lukaku would be going to Old Trafford.
From then, all contact with United supposedly ceased – much to the player’s bemusement and disappointment – so it would have been especially sweet to create headlines in a different way at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.
For United’s part, that switch in transfer plans was not just down to an abrupt decision in the summer, but also an ongoing frustration – and testy relationship – with Real Madrid as well as the feeling that the Spanish side were stringing them along.
The sudden opportunity to sign Lukaku was also of course a chance for Jose Mourinho to get one over on his former club Chelsea. That was always going to add an extra satisfaction to the signing.
That fact itself only adds more of an edge to Sunday’s result at Stamford Bridge, all the more so because Lukaku seems to have lost his edge. When the striker’s poor in-game stats were put to Mourinho after the 1-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, the United boss dismissed them – “I’m not reading the stats, I’m reading the game” – but there is one broader stat that can’t be so dismissed. Lukaku has now not scored now in seven matches.
Worse is that even if you take Mourinho’s view of just “reading the game” and not looking at how few touches the Belgian has had in matches, there are other elements that are impossible to avoid.
He seems to spend so much of matches isolated, often 30 yards from Henrikh Mkhitaryan and seldom involved in play, with his frustration rising. The perception of every bad touch or finish is thereby amplified, because the other touches and finishes are so few and far between.
Lukaku just isn’t a striker suited to playing off scraps, and that is always going to be what he has to do in big games under Mourinho.
It’s thereby equally impossible not to wonder what he would have been like if the signings had gone as expected, and the Belgian had ended up at Chelsea and Morata at United.
One problem is that Lukaku is not as polished as the Spanish striker, and also feels further from the finished article. It is as if he hasn’t had some of his coaching finished. His touch remains rough, and it is still like he doesn’t know when or where to make certain runs.
This is precisely why he would have greatly benefitted from Conte, and the Italian’s micro-management. Conte would have given Lukaku such specific instructions on what runs to make, what space to fill, to the point it would have been so diligently rehearsed.
Some of that could be seen for the goal on Sunday, when Conte had told Davide Zappacosta to move three yards to the right, ultimately forcing the extra few yards that allowed Morata to score such a perfect header. This, really, is what Lukaku needs.
Mourinho does not do this, very much leaving attackers to their own devices unless there are defensive demands, and this is why he has always favoured strikers who are in their prime and have nothing more to learn.
It doesn’t help of course that the Portuguese sees Lukaku as a target man, and would ideally have crosses being drilled in for him, but all of United’s current wide players are instead more prone to cutting inside. This is why Mourinho so wanted Ivan Perisic from Internazionale, and this is why there isn’t any real growing partnership or cohesion between the Belgian and Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial. They don’t really interchange in the way you’d expect.
Morata and Eden Hazard have started to do that at Chelsea, and the playmaker is said to greatly like playing with the Spanish striker, but one flipside to all of this is that the extra polish to Morata’s game means he isn’t yet perfectly suited to Conte’s game either.
It also shouldn’t be forgotten that he was on his own drought recently, too, even if that was greatly influenced by a hamstring injury. There are many times when it feels like Morata should be more assertive, where it looks like he needs to bully defenders in the way Lukaku would try, although Morata did plenty of that on Sunday and it shows the benefit of the Italian’s coaching.
It does remain an unavoidable difference between the two managers. One will give strikers this level direction, the other won’t, and that will make a big difference with two of them who are under the age of 26 too.
By the same token, Mourinho himself would greatly benefit from the intelligence of Morata’s runs, from his intrinsic understanding of where to be. This is what the Portuguese’s system requires right now.
But that is just the now. It does not mean it’s irretrievable or anything of the sort. The mere signing of a more traditional winger could see Lukaku transform again, and we’ve already seen what he can do in the first 10 games of this season when there is a flurry of activity around him, when he can use his ability and intelligence for scoring to take advantage of such chaos.
It’s just that in games against the big clubs Mourinho prefers control to chaos, and there was no better display of control than Morata’s perfect header for that goal against United.
Independent News Service