Belgian striker struggled against Manchester City, but before trying to find a way to raise his game against the big teams, it makes sense to start scoring against smaller teams again
First task for Manchester United's Romelu Lukaku must be to revive flat-track bully reputation ahead of Bournemouth game
It was not the way it was supposed to go for the most expensive striker in Manchester United’s history.
Their supposed executioner-in-chief shot himself in the foot in his Manchester derby debut, contributing to two Manchester City goals. He ended the day the butt of jokes, rather than the man who sank the league leaders.
Suggestions surfaced that Romelu Lukaku threw the bottle that left City assistant manager Mikel Arteta with a cut face in the post-match altercation between the two camps. Witticisms soon followed that he was actually aiming for manager Pep Guardiola.
Lukaku had struggled to find his intended target all day.
He had a 37.5 per cent pass completion rate, only finding a teammate seven times – which, to put it another way, was only one more successful pass than City’s Bernardo Silva, an 87th-minute substitute, managed.
Both found City players, Lukaku with two pieces of poor defending from set-pieces that led to goals for David Silva and Nicolas Otamendi.
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Isolated, ineffective and unfortunate, he was starved of service, more prominent in his own box than the City penalty area, he became the face of United’s failure. City’s unwitting ally ended the day with five goals, none of them for United, in his last 40 games against big-six opponents.
If it lent itself to the conclusion that Lukaku lacks the mettle to excel on season-defining occasions when the quintessential United players deliver, the reality may be more complex.
There was a spell when Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals came almost exclusively against the bottom 14. Others scored instead against the top teams and United willingly accepted that trade-off.
If it implied Lukaku is the man for the small occasion, that was partly what United wanted and may bode well for him on Wednesday night. They drew 10 home games last season, mainly against inferiors such as Bournemouth.
The Cherries drew 1-1 at Old Trafford. They were beaten 6-3 at Goodison Park, gutted by a four-goal forward: Lukaku.
Few covet the reputation of a flat-track bully, but it can be useful to have one. None of Lukaku’s eight league goals for United have come against the current top nine: half came against sides who were in the bottom three after 16 games.
The man-manager in Jose Mourinho has praised him for his work ethic in a run of 14 matches in all competitions that have yielded just two goals. The pragmatist in him will not object to a player who wins the winnable games.
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Another perspective was offered, before the Manchester derby, by his Belgium teammate and City captain Vincent Kompany.
“I rate Romelu really high,” the defender said. “Romelu is such a hard-working, dedicated forward that he is almost a perfect striker for any manager because if there’s something he needs to change or improve, he will work on it relentlessly.
“People have spoken a bit about him having a dry spell. OK, it happens, I don’t think there’s any problem with that, but I’ve noticed is his overall involvement and I really look to those things.
"If someone can always improve year in year out and has always got that he’s a good goalscorer in the bank then I say this is serious guy.
"And that’s what Romelu is all about – always improving.
“He’s always had to deal with a lot of stick but when you put his statistics up against anyone else you realise what a frightening prospect it is for any Premier League club to have.”
Lukaku’s past shows he can frighten Bournemouth. His present indicates need to improve to terrify City and their ilk.
But first, to reprise his role as the scourge of his inferiors.