When you fork out £75 million for a centre-forward, there is always going to be an expectation attached to the player. Chiefly, for that amount of money, you had better score a sh*tload of goals. For Romelu Lukaku, while that appeared to be the case when he first stepped foot in Old Trafford, his form has been indifferent at best for much of his debut season with the Red Devils.
Tasked with leading José Mourinho’s front-line with his astonishing power and presence, Lukaku has instead cut something of a meek figure. After ten goals in his first nine games, he’s since found the back of the net just twice in 14 matches. A kind of return that smacks more of David Bellion than Ruud van Nistelrooy. And it is no surprise that during this barren period Lukaku has come up against the likes of Liverpool, Tottenham, Chelsea, Arsenal and Manchester City.
Lukaku has always had a problem scoring against the bigger teams – 5 goals in 40 games, to be precise – but when you have a £75 million price tag to your name and you play for arguably the biggest side in England, that kind of record just won’t wash. Plus, it doesn’t help that Big Rom is seemingly incapable of scoring unless his best mate Paul Pogba is on the pitch. To put that in perspective, when Pogba was injured, United were essentially missing £164 million-worth of talent on the pitch.
However, Lukaku’s run of poor form came to a head during the abject Manchester City performance, where the big Belgian directly contributed to both City goals. After failing to out-jump Lord of the Rings extra Nicolas Otamendi-Baggins for the first goal, he proceeded to display a complete inability to clear a simple ball for the second. £75 million for a man so bereft of confidence he’s forgotten how to volley a football.
So, it begs the question: could it be time for the return of the king? No, not Aragorn, but a certain humble Swede who loves nothing more than to revel in the achievements of his team-mates. We jest – nick a goal off Zlatan and he will kick you in the head. Just ask Antonio Cassano.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic, or ‘the Lion’ as he appears to be going by these days (no, we don’t know why, either) has been making a comeback from the cruciate knee ligament injury he suffered in April at a rate even Wolverine would be proud of. Already this month, he’s accrued a few minutes here or there, and while he looks some way off match fit, his performances can’t be any worse than scoring twice in 14 games and then helping your arch-rivals win the derby.
The towering Swede, who scored 28 goals in all competitions last season, could well be the perfect fit for Mourinho’s current brand of anti-football. As we’ve seen against City, Chelsea and Liverpool, José likes to sit deep, soak up pressure and hit teams on the counter. That’s all well and good when you have a way out, but when your wingers are pinned back into your own half, the whole team relies on the centre-forward holding up the ball to bring willing runners into play.
Unfortunately for Romelu Lukaku, despite possessing a physique equivalent of a Kodiak bear, his hold-up play is hampered by the fact he has a first touch radius of roughly 6,000 feet. There are pinball machines envious of the sheer ease with which he can send a ball spinning in the opposite direction with just one touch of his size twelves.
Zlatan, though lacking the pace of Lukaku, is much more suited to being the focal point. Not only does his enormous ego allow him to cope with the pressure of being the target for the out-ball, he has the technique and the strength to keep defenders at bay while he waits for the likes of Martial, Rashford and Mata for support. As he proved in his first season in England, he’s no stranger to the back of the net, and shows no signs of slowing down at the ripe age of 36.
And while purists may argue that José should just alter his brand of football to accommodate someone like Lukaku, remember this is Mourinho. If he’s coming up against a team that could cause his side a problem, he’s parking that double-decker and putting clamps on all four wheels. It may not be the right approach, but it’s an approach Lukaku needs to adapt to.
It’s not that United fans are turning on Lukaku; he’s proven he’s a terrific footballer, and he’s still young, but when things aren’t going your way, sometimes you just need to sit one or two out for the benefit of the team. “You go through these patches,” you often hear wizened old strikers-turned-pundits quip when they witness the latest big-money striker draw his eleventh consecutive blank, and the way to solve the issue is usually to let the beleaguered player keep on flailing around in the box until he finally sticks one away.
Fortunately, Manchester United don’t have that problem. With a gruelling Christmas schedule on the horizon, it’s probably time to give Romelu a rest and let Zlatan take the mantle. After all, what’s the worst than can happen?