The question would have seemed unthinkable this summer, whilst Romelu Lukaku was running riot at the World Cup for Belgium, but it has arisen all the same — namely, should he be dropped by Jose Mourinho?
In the last few weeks, he has cut a frustrated figure, with crucial goals surprisingly eluding a player of his reputation. After a remarkable start to his career at Old Trafford, during which he even drew comparisons in some quarters with Ruud van Nistelrooy, his momentum has slowed a little. The Van Nistelrooy parallels were most accurate so far as they related to the similar style in which the two forwards play — but, more importantly, the Dutchman was far more ruthless. United have been far below their best in several games this season, and it is at these moments that an elite striker should step forth to rescue them. Sadly, though, Lukaku has of late been found wanting. Against Brighton and Tottenham, he missed very presentable early chances that could have changed the direction of the game, which were then goalless. Instead of being part of the solution in those contests, he became part of the problem.
Goals have not been Lukaku’s only concern. At his best, he is an asset for United because his speed and movement allow his team to stretch the play, with his delivery from wide areas a notable threat — witness, for example, his sublime cross from which Jesse Lingard headed the winner against Chelsea in last season’s 2-1 Premier League win at Old Trafford. Yet in recent games his contribution has been limited, and his technique — often a barometer of his wider form — has been uncertain. A famously self-critical footballer, he may well be reflecting that these are far from his finest performances.
There may be a longer-term problem, too, one which Opta identified in February: “None of Romelu Lukaku’s 12 Premier League goals this season have come against teams currently in the top eight. In games vs. top eight sides, he’s played 900 minutes and attempted 17 shots without scoring. … The cumulative Opta xG (expected goals) total of Lukaku’s 17 shots in these matches is 2.38, meaning that a player would be expected to score between 2-3 goals from these chances based on historical average.”
The only way to dispel accusations that you are below par in big games is to score in them, and United have plenty such fixtures coming soon — in their next six matches, they have three away games against Juventus, Chelsea and Manchester City. Lukaku has not made a compelling case for his inclusion — and the one thing that may save him is that he was part of the final lineup when United clinched their morale-boosting and utterly thrilling comeback win against Newcastle, and that collection of attacking players probably needs another few matches to gel into a decisive force.
In this context, it might seem a bold move to start Lukaku on the bench in at least one of these games. It would send the message that no player is immune from rotation, or from being dropped if their form is lacking. While that is arguably a message that players at Old Trafford have long heard loud and clear under Mourinho, Lukaku’s poor form, given the nature of his game, is a reflection of United’s poor play as a whole. Being primarily a player who relies on fine service, he struggles when deprived of it, which is why he can seem on the fringe of the game for long periods. He is not, say, a George Weah, who had the skill and superior playmaking to initiate attacks from deep. He is much more in the mould of a Tony Cottee, Alan Smith or Gary Lineker, each of whom might have found it difficult to make much of an impression in such a side.
Though it would do no harm in the long run to remind Lukaku that he is subject to the same rules as, say, Anthony Martial, it would not make great sense to make this rotation now. The stakes are simply too high and United need a player of his calibre in these approaching games — and, crucially, to show that they trust him. If United make a great show of backing their manager in the matches to come, then the least that Mourinho can do by extension is show that he trusts Lukaku. Given the number of points United have dropped of late, much of their fate this season will depend on what, over the next six games, the Belgian can produce under as severe a period of pressure as he has faced at Old Trafford.