Football Features

Did Man Utd get their Romelu Lukaku call horribly wrong? It might not be so simple

By Muhammad Butt

Published: 15:02, 30 October 2019

Romelu Lukaku scored an absolute beauty for Inter away to Brescia, winning his side a crucial three points.

Those three points took Inter back to the top of the table, where they could remain if Juventus fail to beat Genoa at home. It’s Lukaku’s seventh goal in his first 10 Serie A games for the Nerazzuri, and so far he’s helping their fans to truly leap forward into the post-Mauro Icardi era.

Inter really do look a side in superb form. Driven by Antonio Conte’s leadership and tactical brilliance as well as the goals from both Lukaku and his strike partner Lautaro Martinez, Inter look like one of few genuine title challengers Juventus have had over the last decade or so.

So given Inter and Lukaku are flying high while Manchester United are clambering out of a ditch somewhere, did the Red Devils get it oh so very wrong when they chose to sell their brilliant Belgian this summer?

While both teams have conceded 10 goals this season, Inter have scored a whopping 22 compared to United’s 13. Goals change games and those extra wins, brought on by Lukaku’s efforts, are why the Nerazzuri are where they are (1st, or 2nd) and United are where they are (7th).

This season Lukaku looks lean, mean and intensely focused. His goal against Brescia was a miracle of a thing, where he collected the ball out wide before driving at the heart of the opponent’s defence before curling a sumptuous effort into far corner of the net. It was an incredible goal, and Lukaku himself looks like the striker that Manchester United spent most of the season crying out for, so why on earth did they sell him?

The perceived wisdom is that Lukaku didn’t suit the style Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wanted to play at United, and there’s definitely some truth to that. It’s not a hard and fast fact, because Lukaku is playing plenty vertical for Conte and thriving, but the idea that Lukaku wouldn’t work in Solskjaer’s 4-2-3-1 makes sense.

Sure, if United were going to commit to a two-man attack (perhaps ahead of a diamond) then Lukaku could have excelled. With the freedom of movement across the pitch, Lukaku could have found space wherever it was and would be better able to drift wide and make those killer outside-to-in runs he first learned from Roberto Martinez at Everton.

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Conte’s 3-5-2 system puts Lukaku ahead of a quality midfield to supply him with constant passes, and also a team shape that means he doesn’t have to track back defensively and exhaust himself that way. It gives him total horizontal and vertical freedom of movement as well as a young hotshot striker to partner with.

Lukaku’s relationship with Lautaro Martinez is growing by the game, and is reminiscent of the brief one he shared with Marcus Rashford last season, the high point of which was United’s famous 1-3 away win in Paris. The Argentine is a quick forward with intelligent movement and a great sense of timing. He (like Rashford) is similar enough to Lukaku that the pair can take it in turns to run forward and drop deep. Their two-man attack can keep opponents guessing where the danger is going to come from next, allowing them both to thrive.

But that’s the thing: Manchester United aren’t playing a two-man attack. Alright, they have occasionally used it, like against Liverpool, but most of the time it’s been 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3. That system forces Lukaku into one of two roles, a central striker where he has to play with his back to goal and link with teammates, or a right-winger, where he has to hurtle up and down the touchline providing width and penetration.

Now, Lukaku can do the latter. In fact, he’s probably as good a crosser of the ball as United have had in the last few years. But physically, it takes too much out of him. He doesn’t have the frame and lungs to be running up and down the touchline in the same way that, say, Daniel James does. As for the former, Lukaku has nearly always struggled when forced to play as an orthodox No.9. He lacks the ability to play with his back-to-goal and – ironically given pundits never shut up about his size – the physical presence to effectively deal with centre-backs.

Rashford has similar problems when he plays down the middle, which he had to do for a large stretch of this season so far. That stretch is when United looked utterly lost and in need of a goalscorer like Lukaku, who was running wild for Inter at the same time. But now that Anthony Martial is back, the scope of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plan becomes clear.

In essence, Lukaku left so Martial could thrive. The Frenchman is a much better no. 9 than the Belgian. He has a tighter first-touch, he’s better at using his body to physically battle defender and he can play back-to-goal and link with team-mates superbly. He thrives in smaller spaces, and when he’s leading the line Solskjaer’s United, even with their non-midfield, look a dangerous side.

This transfer wasn’t a mistake from Manchester United. Lukaku simply didn’t fit into Solskjaer’s plans. This was, in fact, a rare transfer involving an elite talent where every party came out on top. United were well compensated for a brilliant but unhappy forward and got to empower the magnificent Martial (their mistake was not signing a back-up striker for the Frenchman), Inter got an elite forward and Romelu Lukaku got to live out two dreams: play in Serie A and be coached by Antonio Conte.