Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 November 2019

Romelu Lukaku's day of woe back at Everton sums up Manchester United's struggles

Like David Moyes did on Easter Sunday in 2014, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer will have realised challenges that lie ahead for club

Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku had a forgettable return to former club Everton on Sunday. Getty 
Manchester United forward Romelu Lukaku had a forgettable return to former club Everton on Sunday. Getty 

April 2017. A souvenir seller outside Everton’s Goodison Park hollers in Scouse: “Everton hats! Everton scarves! Yer Everton badges! Lukaku scarves!”

Lukaku, a £28 million (Dh133.5m) club record signing in 2014, was already Everton’s highest goalscorer in the Premier League era.

“We’ve kept Lukaku and you can see a real team developing,” said the editor of Everton’s When Skies are Grey fanzine.

“They have to keep hold of their best players like Romelu Lukaku,” said Phil Neville, the former United and Everton player.

April 2019. Lukaku, now a Manchester United player after his 2017 transfer for £75m, is booed by those very fans who once adored him, a demonstration of the whims of football fandom.

A minute before Everton’s opening goal in a 4-0 thrashing of United – the club’s heaviest defeat since 2016 – 3,000 travelling fans sang Wayne Rooney’s name loudly.

The Scouser and lifelong Everton fan is United’s all-time leading goalscorer but towards the end of his time in Manchester he was not the player he had been at his peak.

History will judge Rooney well given his body of work at Old Trafford; not so Lukaku on his showing so far.

Will he even have time to get anywhere near Rooney’s achievements?

Lukaku scored 27 goals last season and he has hit 15 this season, despite losing his place as United’s main centre forward to Marcus Rashford.

That is creditable, but he is one of many failing United players who have seen their form fall off a cliff since beating Paris Saint-Germain away at the start of March.

United have lost six in eight, the latest against a resurgent Everton, who have drawn with Liverpool and beaten Arsenal and Chelsea, before hammering United, in successive home games.

United’s goals have dried up too – just six in those eight games. They have conceded 17 at the other end.

The defence is causing concern, the midfield and even David de Gea, one of the world’s finest goalkeepers, has been error prone in those eight games.

The strikers are all culpable, none more than Anthony Martial.

How can such a talented player look so uninterested, be so far off the pace? When Marcus Rashford shoots, the fans behind the goal should duck since the shots fly over the bar.

United’s two wins, against Watford and West Ham United, were fortuitous but kept Solskjaer’s side in contention for a top-four place they were 11 points away from when the Norwegian took over.

Even with their wretched form, United can still finish in the top four, though they play Manchester City and Chelsea at home in their next two games.

This increasingly woeful side need to find form, but from where? Solskjaer, who apologised to the club's travelling support post-match, thinks that the best incentive is City at home, yet City are vastly superior to his side of underperforming players.

Lukaku was as off the pace as anyone. He did win some aerial duels which was more than other teammates did, but when Matic hit a 52nd minute pass forward to Lukaku, he failed to control it.

When Paul Pogba hit the ball to him, one time United player Michael Keane easily dispossessed him.

Playing in Lukaku’s role is difficult, but he lost possession 22 times, not what you expect from someone who cost £75m.

Long before the end, United fans given up chanting "Attack! Attack!" and focused their non-stop singing on former, long gone, glories. The past was theirs but the future is not.

United were embarrassingly abject against Everton’s excellence. The visitors did not have a shot on target until the 86th minute while Everton fans in the Park End were even singing "Ole, Ole" in mocking of United’s manager.

“Lukaku, what’s the score?” enquired the opposite Gwaldys Street end in the 90th minute before the Belgian hugged his former teammates at the final whistle.

It wasn’t his day; it wasn’t any United player’s day. It was the worst Manchester United performance of the season – and there have been some horrors.

Yet even in the defeats at Brighton and Hove Albion, even at West Ham, United had positive spells.

But not at Goodison Park. Everton were fitter, faster and far, far more productive. Everton did the basics right, United did not.

On Easter Sunday 2014, David Moyes’ side went there and lost 2-0. A grim reaper appeared behind United’s manager during the match and he was duly dismissed the next day after that defeat which left it mathematically impossible for United to reach the following season’s Uefa Champions League.

There was no grim reaper in the Merseyside Sunday sun, United can still qualify for the Champions League and Solskjaer, who touched the club badge close to his heart when he spoke, won’t lose his job, but he’s got a huge task ahead of them.

It is one as daunting as that which faced Moyes when he took over from Alex Ferguson.

In that respect, little has changed in the last six years.

Updated: April 22, 2019 11:15 AM

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