When Manchester United paid £75million for Romelu Lukaku during the summer, there were two lingering concerns; firstly, the beastly Belgian’s underwhelming scoring record against top-class opposition and secondly, his inconsistent contributions to all-round play.
While the former criticism remains intact after failing to find the net at Anfield and against Tottenham Hotpsur last weekend, Lukaku’s recent appearances have proved he’s more than just a goalscorer – and that Jose Mourinho’s continued declarations that the ex-Everton man shouldn’t be judged on his netting tally alone are more than simply a manager trying to defend his ‘untouchable‘ striker enduring an uncharacteristic dry spell.
“What he does for the team is fantastic and to play football for a striker is not just about scoring goals.
“I think Romelu is one of the players who should be untouchable in terms of respect from everyone.”
Indeed, Lukaku hasn’t found the net for six games but certainly during his last three starts, he’s still found ways of affecting the game. Only technicalities stopped him from picking up three assists – half of his top flight tally last season already – in as many starts last night as Nemanja Matic’s shot hit the post and bounced in off Benfica’s teenage goalkeeper Mile Svilar, consequentially going down as an own goal.
The powerful centre-forward set up Marcus Rashford for United’s consolation strike in the defeat to Huddersfield as well, while his flick-on last Saturday put the ball into the path of Anthony Martial, who struck a vital winner against Spurs at Old Trafford.
The latter performance too saw Lukaku provide a real foothold in the final third, not an easy task when you’re up against arguably the best defence in the Premier League using three centre-backs, and it was a similar case against Benfica last night.
Including the lay-off for Matic’s shot, the 24-year-old created four chances for his team-mates while winning five aerial duels, completing two dribbles and consistently getting on the ball inside Benfica’s box.
In fact, the only thing that was missing – ironically – was a goal, something that will have made Mourinho’s decision to put Daley Blind on the late penalty all the more infuriating for Lukaku.
But perhaps that was Mourinho’s point, as Mark Critchley argues in The Independent; a subtle to reminder to Lukaku that his personal scoring tally isn’t as important as the functionality of the team and ultimately United’s results. While that may seem a counter-intuitively ruthless way to treat a striker in need of a goal, it can be reassuring too. Mourinho’s made it clear explicitly, tacitly, publicly and probably privately that he won’t judge his star centre-forward on goals alone.
“It doesn’t matter if he scores or not. Lukaku is not just about the goals he scores, he is about the way he plays and allows other people with different qualities than him to have conditions to shine and perform.”
In some ways, that takes the pressure off – especially when you haven’t scored in six. But Lukaku will be desperate to get back on the scoresheet, and Mourinho would certainly like him to as well, when the duo return to their former stomping ground, Stamford Bridge, in the Premier League on Sunday.