Sunday 22 July 2018

Romelu Lukaku faces fight to remain a Man United regular

Romelu Lukaku shows his frustration during Manchester United’s victory over Huddersfield. Photo: Getty Images
Romelu Lukaku shows his frustration during Manchester United’s victory over Huddersfield. Photo: Getty Images

James Ducker

One suspects that Jose Mourinho might make an allowance if Cristiano Ronaldo makes contact and asks to return to Old Trafford but, short of an extraordinary development, the Manchester United manager will not be entering the transfer market for another attacker this summer.

Twenty months into his United project, Mourinho has professed himself happy with his options at the front end of the pitch.

The Portuguese has insisted his attacking options could only be improved with the addition of either Ronaldo or Lionel Messi now Alexis Sanchez, who scored his first goal for the club on a lively home debut, has arrived to sharpen an attack already comprising Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford, Romelu Lukaku, Jesse Lingard and Juan Mata.

The challenge now, Mourinho declared, was to order those options correctly, and as Wednesday night's defeat at Tottenham and even this hard-fought victory against a Huddersfield Town side in freefall suggested, accurately arranging this expensive jigsaw puzzle might be rather more taxing than it appears in theory.

"We have to improve not in the quality of the players, we have to improve in the dynamic in the team, and in the efficiency because even [against Huddersfield] it is a game to score more than two," Mourinho said.

Shift

So far this season, Mourinho has mostly favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation, but maximising the talents of his two best players, Sanchez and Paul Pogba, could require a shift to the 4-3-3 set-up he championed earlier in his managerial career and a few hard decisions along the way.

United finished against Huddersfield in a 4-3-3, with Pogba in the marginal left midfield role in which he thrived at Juventus after being summoned from the substitutes' bench in the second half, and Rashford and Martial either side of Sanchez after Lukaku's withdrawal.

It was a line-up that would find favour with more than a few United supporters but, even if Mourinho threw a cat among the pigeons by dropping Pogba following the Frenchman's struggles against Spurs at Wembley, it remains to be seen if he is willing to do similar with - another player who has enjoyed "untouchable" status up until now.

Lukaku's near-post finish from Juan Mata's cross was very well taken, but the Belgium striker was mostly a lumbering presence and, at times, it is easy to believe that United's attack would be more fluent, more nimble and quicker thinking without him always leading the line.

That does not mean he does not have a valuable role to play, but there were two instances in the second half that illustrated his limitations. The first was when he kicked a lovely through pass from Sanchez 15 yards into touch with a clear chance opening up and the second was when he failed to read a quickly taken free-kick from the omnipresent Chilean.

Lukaku is not 25 until May and has room for growth, but there is a long way to go to get to the level of Didier Drogba or Diego Costa, Mourinho's spearheads at Chelsea, or his No 9 at Inter Milan, Diego Milito.

Only two of Lukaku's league goals this season have come against teams in the current top 10, a record that will have to improve, although perhaps Sanchez's arrival will help to liberate the Belgian and persuade Mourinho to rotate him.

Huddersfield, interestingly, was the first time Lukaku had not completed 90 minutes in the league, injury aside. "Now we have more No 9s," Mourinho said. "We have Alexis, Lukaku, Martial, Rashford. All of them apart from Lukaku can play from behind as the second striker. Don't speak about attacking players that are coming here -because nobody is coming here.

"For speculation in the summer you have to go to other areas [of the team] - [in terms of] attacking players I am really happy."

Sanchez's debut was notable not just for a goal, when he scored on the rebound after his penalty was saved, but his willingness to pick himself up and keep driving at a Huddersfield side who had resolved that the best way to try to stop him was to kick lumps out of him.

This was a fifth successive Premier League defeat for David Wagner's side, who have dropped into the bottom three and failed to score in 10 of their past 12 away matches, although seven of their next eight games are against opponents in or around them.

Their sharp slump could be arrested yet. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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