Last season was Jose Mourinho’s first at Manchester United and also featured Paul Pogba’s stunning return via a world record fee, but it was Zlatan Ibrahimovic who accounted for much of the drama from start to finish.
The Swede arrived to much fanfare, sweeping United supporters off their feet with his charisma. He quickly silenced critics who questioned his age by hitting the ground running with a flurry of goals.
But that prowess in front of goal vanished after the first few games, only returning in spurts for the rest of the campaign. In some ways, his presence coupled with the fact that he exuded confidence to the point that people around him believed in his abilities wholly as well, concealed his shortcomings.
Having been released by United following a knee injury that has sidelined him for months, Ibrahimovic may perhaps go down as the greatest stop-gap signing in the club’s history.
Nevertheless, the arrival of a new striker at Old Trafford this summer was always on the cards and presumably on the top of Mourinho’s shopping list.
With Everton and United agreeing a fee for Romelu Lukaku’s, as confirmed by the Manchester club, they may have actually upgraded in the striking department and here’s why.
Ibrahimovic is a better footballer than Lukaku, that isn’t up for debate. The Swede, despite losing a bit of pace which is forgivable in his mid-thirties, had the technique, creativity, elegance and penchant for the audacious to take his rightful place among football’s elite.
However, when it comes to scoring goals, Ibrahimovic was never the most clinical. The amount of goals he scored were more down to his brilliance to create things out of nothing than to put away the straightforward opportunities.
Every single goal Romelu Lukaku has scored for Everton. Clinical.pic.twitter.com/ur7KxaezU2— @ManUtd_HQ 🔴 (@ManUtd_HQ) July 8, 2017
Lukaku on the other hand feeds off those chances, they’re his bread and butter. He may not be the most creative striker but he knows how to hit the back of the net on a regular basis. In fact, the Belgian boasts a short conversion rate of 22.5% in the Premier League last season, a significant improvement from Ibrahimovic’s 14.8%.
The 35-year-old was also guilty of being the most wasteful striker in the league by far. He missed 18 big chances lasts season, Benik Afobe of Bournemouth was second with 13. In comparison, Lukaku missed only eight.
TARGET MAN ROLE
Despite his imposing physique, Ibrahimovic didn’t live up to his No9 shirt in the traditional sense. His hold up play was sloppy at times when United fans would’ve expected far better.
Instead, he preferred dropping deep to get involved in the game. While he was excellent with his passing and set up a good few chances, it meant United lacked focal point up top.
It’s also why he was never much of a goal poacher. With balls fizzing across the six yard box, Ibrahimovic was often caught on his heels back on the penalty spot or on the edge of the box. He has never had the nose of a poacher.
Meanwhile, Lukaku is far less inclined to insert himself in the team’s build-up play. Admittedly, a large part of that is down to his often poor passing and link-up play. So instead, he opts to stay forward and finish off moves.
On the other hand, his hold up play is among his finest features and he’s been dominant in the air, winning 3.7 aerial duels per game last season. When you think of the pressure United exerted on teams at home without having a ruthless striker to kill off those games, there’s every chance he could make a huge difference.
Lukaku scored 25 goals in the league last season, including three against top six opposition (more than any other striker along with Harry Kane). At United, the service he will receive should enable him to do even better, particularly with his mate Paul Pogba pulling the strings in midfield.
PACE AND MOBILITY
Ibrahimovic’s pace was never a cornerstone of his game. He’s always been quick enough to get by without having to rely on his speed. However, United have notably lacked a bit of zip in their main strikers for a few years now.
The likes of Danny Welbeck, Javier Hernandez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford have offered options to run in behind defences but none were or have yet been able to establish themselves as the first choice striker.
Lukaku however is deceptively quick and would be the first to threaten defences with sufficient pace and power since Wayne Rooney enjoyed one of his more prolific seasons in the 2011-12 campaign. The 24-year-old’s movement is one of the most underrated aspects of his game.
Compared to Ibrahimovic, Lukaku is also far more likely to beat a man, averaging 1.7 dribbles per game last season while the Swede could only muster 0.6. His forward runs, pace and mobility, makes him more suited to thrive under Mourinho’s tactics, which require a strong, fast and clinical front man.