Of all the frustrations in Manchester United’s season so far, Romelu Lukaku missing an open goal when his side were playing well against Tottenham at Old Trafford is the most painful to watch.
The Belgian took advantage of a mistake by Danny Rose, rounded goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and hit the ball with his less-preferred right foot. It wasn’t the tightest of angles, but Lukaku dragged the ball wide of the target and missed. He was as furious with himself as his manager and United fans were with the miss. There was another missed chance after Harry Kane opened the scoring. It was awkward to watch, just as it was when Lukaku missed at Brighton when the score was 0-0 and United hadn’t started the game badly.
Strikers miss chances, it happens. Lukaku is one of the best around and had a decent first season at United, but decent isn’t quite enough for modern United. Why modern? United went 20 seasons without a striker scoring 20 league goals between George Best in 1968 and Brian McClair in 1988. It was long thought that United’s lack of a 20-goal-a-season striker was a major reason why the team never won the league, while over in Liverpool, Ian Rush hit 24, 32, 14, 22 and 30 league goals in successive seasons.
Strikers from the 1970s and 80s, including Stuart Pearson, Jimmy Greenhoff, Frank Stapleton, Norman Whiteside and Mark Hughes, were all very popular among United fans — popular if not prolific. Lukaku has been prolific. He scored 25 league goals for Everton in the season before he joined United, and while he was chided for scoring them against struggling sides, 25 Premier League goals in a decent side meant a £75 million transfer. Given how much strikers from Garry Birtles to Diego Forlan struggled to score when they arrived at Old Trafford, Lukaku was a success.
It’s hard to grumble about his 27 goals in his first United season, but people do, and away from the softer focus of his engaging life story published this summer in The Players’ Tribune, opinions about Lukaku will be harder in the present. This is how it is with strikers, often an underappreciated breed while they’re playing but lauded later on. Andy Cole was hammered by factions of United fans and the media for needing several chances to score each goal, yet he’s now highly regarded as a great. Which you should be if you’re good enough to go to Barcelona or Juventus away and lead the line in an attack that scores three times.
Lukaku scored seven league goals in his first seven United league games and told friends he was determined to be the league’s top scorer and unseat Kane at the top of the goalscoring charts. By the end of the season Lukaku had 16 and Kane 30. Mohamed Salah scored 32, while Sergio Aguero and Jamie Vardy bagged 21 and 20, respectively. Like United’s season, Lukaku faded.
The goals stopped when the big teams arrived last season too. After the opening burst he failed to score against Liverpool, Chelsea, Spurs, Arsenal and City before Christmas. Only one of his 16 league goals last season came against a team in the top seven — a February equaliser against Chelsea. He did score in the UEFA Super Cup against Real Madrid, but drew a blank in the vital away Champions League game in Sevilla, and his goal 84 minutes into the second leg at Old Trafford was a microcosm for his team — too little, too late.
There are always mitigating circumstances. Lukaku was so isolated in United’s most important game of the season against Sevilla that Lionel Messi would have struggled in the same role. And while we’re on Messi, let’s mention Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo, Edinson Cavani, Aguero, Kane, Karim Benzema, Neymar, Antoine Griezmann, Mohamed Salah and Robert Lewandowski. These are the world’s leading strikers. Ronaldo and Rooney in his prime (he twice scored more than 20 league goals) were in that class of strikers. Is Lukaku? Not quite. Not yet. He could be, but like so many of the players at Old Trafford, he’s not quite there, not quite as good as he could be if he was playing in a better team that had really found their stride.
We’d love to see him spark Dwight Yorke and Andy Cole style, with Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez or Marcus Rashford more often. Maybe those players should be sharing the workload more and scoring more themselves; United have missed a secondary scorer since those title-winning days half a decade ago. But then from Rashford’s perspective, he’d like the chance to play as a central striker more often.
Lukaku has started this season well with three goals, including two at Burnley. It could have been more had he taken one of the two penalties United have been awarded.
When Lukaku went through a relatively dry patch last autumn, Jose Mourinho noted how he’d always judge himself by the goals he scored, but there is more to his game than goals. There has to be. Ruud van Nistelrooy was a great United striker, probably the club’s best finisher since Denis Law, and he scored more than 20 league goals in four of his five United seasons, but a lot of his teammates weren’t that sad to see him leave because they felt he could have contributed more than goals. Need proof? United scored 11 more goals the season after the Dutchman left.
Mourinho likes the options Lukaku gives him. He won more balls in the air than any United player last season and his touch has improved too. He works hard outside the box, he’s popular with teammates, and, at 25, he still has time to improve. Two more goals to smash Watford’s 100 percent start on Saturday wouldn’t be a bad way to take the next step forward.