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13th Dec 2017

Romelu Lukaku won’t be the player Man United need him to be as long as Jose Mourinho is manager

Lukaku's struggles reflect his own deficiencies as a player, but also Mourinho's tactical plan and outlook as a coach

Robert Redmond

In the 84th minute of the Manchester derby on Sunday, the ball was cut back across the penalty area to Romelu Lukaku.

The Manchester United striker had the goal at his mercy, the ball landed on his stronger left foot, Fernandinho, who had been filling in at centre-half, was out of position and Lukaku just had Ederson to beat. Everything was set up for him to hit the net and make the score 2-2, to snatch a dramatic point and keep the title race alive. He smashed the ball into the Manchester City goalkeeper’s face.

If the ball had have landed to past United strikers, from Mark Hughes to Eric Cantona, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer to Ruud van Nistelrooy, Wayne Rooney to Robin van Persie, then it would have been a goal. No question. They would have buried it into the bottom corner and United would have been set-up for a grandstand comeback in a game where they were comfortably second-best.

Lukaku certainly isn’t on the level of some of those past United strikers at the moment, and may never will be. He’s also having enough trouble without being compared to Old Trafford legends of the past. But there’s no disguising how out of form the striker has been recently. The Belgian’s last Premier League goal was in United’s 4-1 win over Newcastle at Old Trafford on November 18. Before that, he scored in the 4-0 win over Crystal Palace on September 30. That’s one goal in nine games. One goal in over 13 and half hours of football.

There are two theories on the cause of Lukaku’s troubles in front of goal. On Sky Sports on Sunday, Graeme Souness said the player was working hard, but “living off scraps” within Jose Mourinho’s tactical plan, and he was left desperately isolated. Gary Neville said it’s a case of a player going through a poor spell and under a lot of pressure. “He struggled at being confident in the game,” Neville said.

“He’s got to get over that quickly as he’s Manchester United’s centre-forward. He’s a young lad but he needs to get to the point where he believes he should be out there – it’s like he doesn’t believe it in this period.”

It was strange to hear Neville speaking in the abstract. The sharpest mind in English football punditry reducing a player’s performance down to an issue of “belief” is peculiar. Lukaku can have as much “belief” as he likes, but it won’t change the fact that he often has a poor first touch and he’s been asked to make the most of aimless hoofs. Confidence certainly helps, but it’s not the reason why Lukaku often fails to effectively hold the ball up and it doesn’t explain why he shot high when he had the chance against Ederson, instead of shooting low into the corner. Nicklas Bendtner is testament to “belief” only getting you so far.

The truth, as often, lies somewhere in the middle. Lukaku’s struggles reflect his own deficiencies as a player, but also Mourinho’s tactical plan and outlook as a coach. Against Liverpool, Lukaku made six passes in the opposition half and just three were successful. In the match against Arsenal, the former Everton striker had 20 passes in the opposition half and only 11 were successful. Against City, just two of Lukaku’s 12 passes in the opposition half were successful. These statistics reflect that the player has been isolated in the big matches, but also show that he has failed to make the most of the scraps served to him.

In the loss to Guardiola’s side, Lukaku was involved in 13 aerial duels, but won just five – and that was against a defence which contained Fernandinho for the second half. Against Chelsea, he won just three out of his eight aerial duels. Lukaku’s passing statistics make for even worse reading in big games. Against City, he had a passing accuracy of just 37.5%. Only six of his passes found a teammate. He had just 11 passes against Liverpool, and seven of them were successful. Against Arsenal, 10 of his 24 passes failed to find a teammate.

These statistics show that, despite Lukaku’s physical power and stature, he’s not actually an effective target man. He struggles to hold the ball up and help his team get up the pitch, which is essential when they’re pinned back on their 18-yard line. So, if Lukaku isn’t a target man, and he fails to make the most of the little service he receives, why the hell is Marcos Rojo lumping the ball up the pitch to him?

This brings us back to Mourinho. There’s a theory that the United manager doesn’t place a great emphasis on coaching his forwards, that he organises the defence, and leaves attacking players to improvise in the final third. This theory was given further weight by Eden Hazard’s quotes when he compared Antonio Conte to Mourinho. “There’s a lot of tactics,” the Chelsea forward said about Conte’s training. “It’s not always nice as a forward as you have to run, defend and everything, but at least at the weekend, you know exactly what to do, you can even close your eyes and play. That’s good.” Hazard said his current manager improved him “after a week”, and his line about knowing “exactly what to do” on the pitch under Conte is telling. Under his current manager there’s a plan when in possession in the opposition’s half.

Conte structures his attack, imposes a tactical plan and works on it in training. The same applies to Guardiola, who appears to have improved every player in the City squad, particularly Raheem Sterling. The England forward has been brilliant so far this season – he’s scored nine goals in 17 appearances – and has flourishing because his coach has provided detailed individual instructions and a wider team structure for him and others to thrive.

Sterling said he started controlling the ball with the outside of his foot because he thought it looked “nice”. But he told Jonathan Northcroft in The Sunday Times that Guardiola noticed this and corrected it.

“‘If you control it like this,’ Sterling mimes, ‘the ball’s stuck under your feet . . . One touch, open up quicker’. [Guardiola] has switched my brain back on. ‘Oh yeah — why aren’t I doing that?'”

This is a small detail, but the small details add up and it’s exactly the type of coaching that helps improve elite players. Meanwhile, Mourinho discards creative, attacking players if they fail to thrive within his limited framework. Henrikh Mkhitaryan started the season in fantastic form, registering five assists in his first four matches. Since Mourinho decided to take a point away to a Liverpool team leaking goals at the start of October, and United’s performances started to decline, Mkhitaryan’s own form has fallen off a cliff and he’s been left out of the squad for the team’s last three games. Imagine what Guardiola could do with a player who scored 23 goals in his last season for Borussia Dortmund, because it’s clear Mourinho doesn’t know how to use him.

Mourinho’s shortcomings with attacking, creative players partly explains his emphasis on using tall players who can score from a set-piece, or disrupt the opposition with their physical power, like Marouane Fellaini. It also explains his reliance on Paul Pogba, who can create a moment of magic. Mourinho sets his team up to score from set-pieces, or from an opposition mistake. He waits for the game to “break” and expects his forwards to capitalise on the opposition error when it comes. As far as Mourinho is concerned, he’s sanctioned a transfer worth £75m for Lukaku, he should know how to score goals.

People say Mourinho was wrong to let Kevin De Bruyne and Mohamed Salah leave Chelsea when he was manager, and he undoubtedly was. Even the United manager must feel embarrassed about discarding the two best players in the league. However, neither would be the player they currently are if they remained working under him. He focused on what they couldn’t do, ignored their immense talent, and failed to give them a chance. He could never have improved De Bruyne to the level he’s currently operating at.

Mourinho won’t discard Lukaku the way he did those players, but so far there’s little evidence to suggest he will help turn him into the talisman United need, the difference-maker in big games, where they may only get one chance. In time, he’ll start scoring against the so-called weaker teams – he might even score against Bournemouth on Wednesday night. He’s always managed to score in games like that, but Lukaku probably won’t be the player United fans want him as long as Mourinho is manager.