Why it is no surprise that Jose Mourinho did not let Romelu Lukaku take the Manchester United penalty
Romelu Lukaku has not scored a goal in six Manchester United games. His barren run dates back to the 0-0 stalemate at Anfield in mid-October. Before that, there was a late tap-in on an otherwise difficult day against Crystal Palace and before that, a confident, commanding brace at CSKA Moscow.
Against Benfica on Tuesday night, the striker lacked any of the swagger on display in Moscow. He look zapped, meeting the ball awkwardly and spurning the few opportunities that came his way, but he could have made a return to the scoresheet had his manager allowed him to take a 78th minute penalty, United’s second of the match.
Lukaku had the ball in his hands almost as soon as substitute Marcus Rashford, fouled by Benfica’s Andreas Samaris, had rose to his feet but Jose Mourinho was insistent on the sidelines. He wanted it to be handed to someone else.
Many managers would see this scenario as an ideal opportunity to boost the confidence of an out-of-sorts striker but Mourinho, evidently, did not. His decision to give Daley Blind the responsibility to score from the spot provoked questions in the post-match press conference.
“I don't understand why everyone asks me the same,” the United manager said in response. “I'm paid to take decisions good or bad. In the first half, the decision was bad because the player I chose to take the penalty [Anthony Martial] missed. In the second half I made another decision.”
That was as far as Mourinho’s explanation went. It was hardly an endorsement of a player who, just a day earlier, he had described as “untouchable”; one who he felt had to protect from unfair criticism due to his recent struggles to find the net.
Yet while a cheap goal may have lightened Lukaku’s mood and the snub could well damage his morale, the decision to stop him taking the penalty tied in with what Mourinho has said about the striker time and time again in recent months: Lukaku’s contribution should not be measured in the number of goals he scores.
It is the kind of platitude that managers will often use when asked about struggling strikers, but in fairness to the United manager, he was saying the very same when there was talk of Lukaku equalling Wayne Rooney’s all-time goal-scoring record at Old Trafford.
“I think he also deserves credit for that because of the way he plays, the way he is committed, what he does with and without the ball, not just the last touch and the goal but his overall contribution,” he said back in September, when Lukaku had six goals from his opening six games. “We couldn’t be happier.”
And again, after the Crystal Palace win and Lukaku’s last goal, which equalled Andy Cole’s club record of scoring seven in his first seven Premier League games: “I am happy with him. It doesn't matter if he scores or not.
“Lukaku is not just about the goals he scores,” he added. “He is about the way he plays and allows other people with different qualities than him to have conditions to shine and perform."
It is always difficult to take Mourinho at his word given his propensity to be political and spin things in certain lights, but at the time of these particular quotes, he could simply have joined the chorus of praise for Lukaku’s prolific start. Instead, he pulled the focus away from his goal-scoring and pointed out the Belgian’s all-round qualities that have helped make United’s attack more versatile and effective.
It is, after all, hard to disagree with him when he says that Lukaku, whether he is scoring or not, has turned United into a different proposition this year. Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have hugely benefitted from having a focal point that is more mobile and perceptive to runs in behind than Zlatan Ibrahimovic, while Lukaku’s physical presence means United have lost nothing when the ball is played aerially.
On Tuesday, for the second consecutive match, Lukaku had a significant hand in the match-turning goal in a tight game against a formidable opponent, setting up Nemanja Matic to shoot on the cusp of half-time.
Granted, that Matic’s strike went in had less to do with the quality of the preceding pass and more to do with a wicked deflection off the back of Benfica goalkeeper Mile Svilar. With it being correctly awarded as an own goal too, Lukaku cannot claim the assist, but he was there all the same, spotting the space Matic was in, picking the right pass, following up on back-to-back league assists against Huddersfield Town and Tottenham Hotspur.
It was the highlight of a poor and, some might say, quite embarrassing night for Lukaku, but ever the pragmatist, Mourinho will not worry whether his £75m striker needs a pick-me-up unless his performances start to affect United’s ability to get results.
So far, they have not, so why is now the time to give him a ‘pity penalty’?