Ever since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure, fans and critics alike have been lamenting about the loss of the Manchester United spirit. This spirit, morphed over the span of two decades, embodies the strength of belief, fighting spirit, and relentless barrages of fluid attacks into opposition boxes.
Legendary finishers that led the line for the Red Devils did not always possess the technical prowess that were as elegant as Cantona or Berbatov. Notable poachers who didn’t bother too much with the fancy footwork include the likes of Van Nistelrooy, Chicharito, Shringham, and Hughes.
Despite embodying different playing styles, all successful strikers at Manchester United shared a similar trait and that was their ruthlessness in attack. Whether they scored goals or not, they always produced.
While Lukaku has been smashing goals week in week out for Everton in the 16/17 season, he just doesn’t feel like a Manchester United signing from the get go. With Lukaku’s sheer strength and eye for goal alone, he could probably guarantee any premier league team at least 15 league goals. Yet, while there aren't doubts about the quality of the Belgium talent, he might never reach the heights that were set so high by former United’s greats. Here’s why.
To put it bluntly, Romelu Lukaku doesn't quite have an identity. This claim bear no regards to his name or his goal scoring accolades, but rather the role of the Belgium big man on the pitch. Let’s put Lukaku in perspective with two of United’s successful target man; Is Lukaku a penetrative dribbler that can create opportunities for himself and others like Van Persie? Or is he a no nonsense smasher like Van Nistelrooy?
Ruud Van Nistelrooy
219 appearances, 150 Goals
Football for Van Nistelrooy is all about service and link up play. Expect him to come up with neat one-twos or find teammates in space so that they could put a quality ball in for him. Van Nistelrooy knew his own strengths and would usually bully his way down the middle as he was never effective on the wings. Suppliers like Beckham, Giggs, and Scholes understood the space he operated in and the kind of balls he preferred. Put the ball in Van Nisterlrooy's path and chances are it'll hit the back of the net. Van Nistelrooy knew he had one job to do and he did it exceptionally well.
Robin Van Persie
105 appearances, 58 goals
Van Persie was always more versatile. He had a special left foot that is blessed with power and technique. He could whip in crosses from the left or cut in from the right with a cross or a shot with his trademark curlers. When Van Persie played on the wings, wide midfielders had the option to support and drift towards the box for his services or move aside and pull away defenders so that he could take a shot. At dire times when he’s closed down on his left, he was always comfortable with his right foot and that attracted multiple defenders who had to close him down, creating more spaces for his teammates to attack the goal.
As for Lukaku, what kind of a striker is he? For a start, he’s physical, huge, and imposing, yet he never uses his physicality like Zlatan or Diego Costa. While he could pump in a few step overs, he doesn’t have the agility and pace to beat defenders on the wings like Henry or Ronaldo (Brazilian), not to mention, he is not adept with his weak foot and he isn’t a remotely good crosser of the football with either legs.
While Lukaku poaches inside the box, he rarely creates his own space and shot, or smash in from distance like Drogba. So the question beckons on how to supply Lukaku and what can his teammates expect of him? If Mata were to give Lukaku the ball on the left wing, what should Mata do next to support the attack?
The issue with Lukaku is that he has to define his game and command for balls in areas that makes him a threat against the opposition. He’s not expected to control a game, defend, or whip in dangerous balls so he has to know how he can hurt opponents. Unlike players like Rashford or Martial, there are no displays of raw pace or acrobatic flair in Lukaku’s game. He’s always going make more of an impact as a starter than a substitute, bruising and wearing down centre halves so that his pacier counterparts can exploit the defences when fatigue kicks in later in a close game.
Classic target men in the physical Premiere League has always done well to hold up a long ball and bring teammates into play. Think Kevin Davies, Andy Carroll, and Giroud. It becomes a call for concern when Fellaini brings a high ball down better and is preferably a stronger header of the ball in late game situations. Drogba, Berbatov, and Giroud never had problems holding onto long balls. It's supposed to be a natural part of a target man's game. Lukaku has got to improve on the apparent qualities that he already possess rather than the step overs and penetrative play that United already have an abundance of. If Lukaku recognizes his strengths, he can impose himself onto defenders and turn into a physically unstoppable force for his front line.
The silver lining for Lukaku is that he’s too good and too expensive to just be a regular goal poacher. United paid £75 million for a leading striker and with Stretford End on his shoulders, Lukaku needs to bring back the Manchester United attacking spirit by doing the simple things right and aim at just being the best target man in the Premier league by a mile. It's not always about the goals (Giroud never scored once in the 2018 World Cup and the French won) but if you could shove off the bullish plays by Kompany and Lovren like swatting a fly, one can only imagine what that does to the confidence of your teammates and your opponents. In Vidic's prime, fans across the world saw that he was untouchable in most games but Torres and Drogba always had a way of torturing him. Lukaku needs to be in that class of strikers and he can start by identifying the strengths of his own play.
It’s still early days for Lukaku at Manchester United and there's still much shopping United can do in the transfer market to get the best out of him. If he does get the knack of physically destroying centre halves, how about a decent crosser of the ball to reward him?