With Zlatan Ibrahimovic fit again and closely scrutinising his performances from the substitutes’ bench, Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku is under pressure to rediscover his goal-scoring touch.
Having scored 11 goals in his first 10 games following his £75million switch from Everton, Lukaku has found the net only once in 12 matches since.
Manager Jose Mourinho continues to profess satisfaction with Lukaku’s all-round displays, but the longer the Belgian striker’s difficulties continue, the bigger a point of concern it will become.
“For a striker, it is all about your goals and unfortunately people will always measure him by that, but away from the goals his contribution has to be big,” says former United captain Gary Neville.
“He’s had his struggles. That was always going to happen at some point after his blistering start, but this is a critical stage of the season where he has to deliver.”
Question marks are hovering above Lukaku as United approach a potentially pivotal week in their season.
They host CSKA Moscow in the Champions League on Tuesday and face Premier League pace-setters Manchester City at Old Trafford on Sunday in a derby they must win if they are make up ground in the title race.
Lukaku’s recent displays suggest if United are to get the results they need, their goals are unlikely to come from him.
His frustrations appeared to tell during United’s 1-0 victory over Brighton and Hove Albion when he kicked out at Gaetan Bong in an incident caught on camera but for which he avoided retrospective punishment.
He squandered three presentable chances during United’s 4-2 win at Watford last week, notably dallying for too long when presented with a clear sight of goal by Paul Pogba, enabling the home defence to block.
But he also played an important role at Vicarage Road, setting up a goal for Anthony Martial, and produced a similarly valuable contribution in Saturday’s 3-1 success at Arsenal.
– ‘Demons’ –
Though he did not find the net at the Emirates Stadium, Lukaku’s pressing and direct running helped establish United’s tempo and he was involved in the move that led to Jesse Lingard scoring the visitors’ second goal.
Mourinho joked after the win at Watford that Lukaku needed only to secure a new boot deal, but the United manager has been steadfast in his defence of the former Chelsea striker, who he has described as “untouchable”.
While United’s other attacking players – Martial, Lingard, Marcus Rashford, Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Juan Mata – are regularly rotated, Lukaku has started every single game in the league and Champions League.
“For me, the most important thing is teamwork and he’s second to none in terms of giving everything he has to the team,” Mourinho said.
“If he scores or doesn’t score, that’s not a problem.”
When Ibrahimovic made his return from a nine-month lay-off with a serious knee injury, as a late substitute in last month’s 4-1 win over Newcastle United, Lukaku was farmed out to the right wing to make way.
But working in his favour is the fact his pace and mobility make him a much neater fit for United’s counter-attacking football than the sauntering Ibrahimovic.
Lukaku’s lateral movement across the pitch serves to open up space for the likes of Pogba, Martial and Rashford, all of whom have benefited greatly from the Belgian’s ability to tie up opposition centre-backs.
“I don’t see Zlatan Ibrahimovic as a threat to Lukaku at all, but as a supplement,” Neville wrote in a recent Sky Sports column.
“The only way Ibrahimovic can become number one is if the aura of Zlatan gets to Lukaku.
“Zlatan is confident, but Lukaku is number one, the fans and the manager believe in him and if he does have any demons then he needs to clear them from his mind.”
Manchester City have suddenly had to get used to struggling to earn three points, as for the third straight game they needed a late goal to secure victory against a well-drilled, organised defence with the intention of frustrating Pep Guardiola‘s men. After Huddersfield Town and Southampton, it was West Ham’s turn to attempt to keep City at bay.
In the end, City’s attacking players did just enough to earn another crucial victory, keeping their eight-point lead at the top of the Premier League table.
Here are Seven Deadly Stats from City’s hard-fought win.
WEST HAM’S UNLIKELY GOALSCORER
There was a stat going into the match that the odds for a 1-0 West Ham win were longer than an 8-0 City win. If that’s the case, the odds on Angelo Ogbonna being the first goalscorer must have been even longer – he’d never scored a top-flight goal before.
144 - Angelo Ogbonna's goal was his first ever in one of the big five European leagues, in what is his 144th appearance. Shocked. pic.twitter.com/oNlxWcgrFV— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) December 3, 2017
OTAMENDI PROLIFIC FROM THE BACK
This Manchester City side has some thrilling attackers, but it also does like to spread the goals around, and Nicolas Otamendi has been one of the biggest beneficiaries. The Argentine centre-back has discovered a scoring ability few knew he had.
JESUS KEEPS MAKING AN IMPACT
When City finalised the deal to bring Gabriel Jesus to Manchester, the question was, Gabriel who? Nobody’s asking that anymore, because the young striker has quickly become one of the side’s best players. His contribution to City’s attack has been phenomenal.
SILVA’S FAVOURITE OPPONENTS?
David Silva isn’t quite a prolific goalscorer, with his role more to create chances than finish them. But he does like scoring against West Ham, so it was no surprise he did it again.
THE ASSIST KING STRIKES AGAIN
Speaking of creating chances, the ball for Silva’s goal was exquisite. So it isn’t too difficult to figure out who played it. Ever since he arrived at Manchester City, Kevin de Bruyne has been finding the right pass time after time to set up a City goal.
CITY CLOSING IN ON WIN STREAK RECORD
Last year it was Chelsea, this year it’s City with the record-tying winning streak. They’re the fifth team to hit this mark of 13, but nobody’s gotten past that. Next week, City will go for the record-breaking win, at the home of their biggest rivals and closest title challengers. Manchester United would like nothing better than to stop City in their tracks.
ARE CITY UNSTOPPABLE?
If City do set the new win streak record, they’ll also have an 11-point lead at the top of the table, and although no title has ever been won in December, it’s hard to see anyone making up that ground. Their current eight-point lead is already more than any team has had at this stage.
The phrase ‘Fergie time’ was coined as United often snatched victories at the death during their trophy-laden era.
And there is a case for ‘Pep time’ now as neighbours Manchester City show their own will to win in the latter stages of games. Having overcome Feyenoord, Huddersfield and Southampton in this manner, the Etihad outfit did it again to maintain their eight-point advantage over United at the top of the Premier League.
A powerful header from Angelo Ogbonna stunned City on the stroke of half time as the struggling Hammers, led by home icon Pablo Zabaleta, defiantly set about trying to upset the form book.
But Guardiola’s side responded with Nicolas Otamendi squeezing in a leveller from a Gabriel Jesus cross and then David Silva latching onto a sublime Kevin De Bruyne pass and hooking a volley home for the winner seven minutes from time.
“I heard about the Fergie time,” said the City chief. “At the end what we show in the last games is we never give up.
“I think what happened, the opponent doesn’t want to play. They just want to defend, waiting for a moment. Even in that situation we have to learn to attack that position.
“That is why I’m happy because we were able to do it in the second half. In Huddersfield we had more problems than this in the second half when they defend the same way. If we can take something about the Fergie time, it is welcome, a pleasure.”
As City stretched their winning run to 20 games in all competitions, they also equalled the record 13-match streak, set in a single season, of Chelsea and Arsenal.
And Guardiola said he wants to maintain this run with Shakhtar Donetsk to follow in the Champions League on Wednesday and then a crunch clash at United on Sunday.
“I said to the players the guy who doesn’t want to play in Donetsk, let me know please,” he added. “I am preparing a team to win.”
Despite being driven back for most of the second half and keeper Adrian – deputising for Joe Hart, ineligible against his parent club – making a string of superb saves to deny City, namely from Silva and Leroy Sane, striker Diafra Sakho almost snatched an injury-time leveller, but fired wide.
The loss hurt the Hammers after their battling efforts and boss David Moyes made no excuse for setting his side up defensively.
“I really want the football to be attacking, but we are playing against a team that we can hardly get the ball from so what are you going to do?” said the Scot, whose second-bottom side next face Chelsea and Arsenal.
“We are gutted we lost it. Some results don’t show that they are a really good group of boys and working really hard, but when you play top teams you have to do it for 90, not 60 or 70.”