Manchester United’s start to the season probably wouldn’t be so worrying if striker Romelu Lukaku wasn’t amid an equally worrying goal drought.
Yes, there are a number of long-term problems Jose Mourinho needs to address before the Red Devils can hope to compete with Manchester City or Liverpool, but results would likely be painting a much prettier picture right now if Lukaku were poking the ball into the net on a somewhat regular basis.
The scoreless draw with Crystal Palace on Saturday, for example, wouldn’t be casting such stomach-churning feelings of impending doom, had Lukaku watched the line a little more diligently and converted his rebound from an onside position. United would have beaten Palace 1-0, and Mourinho would be dubbing it another pragmatic masterclass against a covertly dangerous side.
When you’ve got a consistent goalscorer, you’ve always got a chance of winning games even without playing well. In contrast, during the eleven-game run from Lukaku’s last United goal away at Watford, the Red Devils have lost two, won four and most tellingly drawn five – a few strikes from the Belgian powerhouse could have been all the difference in that quintet of stalemates.
Doing the same thing over and over again yet expecting different results is often described as a sign of madness. Perhaps Lukaku hasn’t reached the point of insanity just yet but it’s clear something needs to change to get him firing again and while the obvious solution would be to modify the shape of the team to better suit his strengths – he’s lacked quality service all season – adapting the 25-year-old’s role could prove to have a much quicker and more significant impact.
Some of Lukaku’s best performances under Roberto Martinez, the manager who has most consistently got the best out of the former Everton striker throughout his career, came in an unorthodox wide right role, where his sheer pace and power created a mismatch with the opposition full-back. The first time this trick paid off was back in 2014, when Lukaku completely bullied Nacho Monreal on the break as Martinez masterminded a 3-0 win over Arsenal.
And after being reunited within the Belgium fold, Martinez called upon the same ploy again as his side beat Brazil in the quarter-finals of the World Cup in Russia. Whereas Lukaku’s impact on the scoreline that day wasn’t quite as direct as scoring Everton’s second against the Gunners, it was nonetheless equally influential, driving forward from his own box through the middle of the pitch to assist Kevin De Bruyne for what proved to be the winner.
In Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial, Alexis Sanchez and even Jesse Lingard, Mourinho has plenty of options to mull over for United’s left wing berth – too many options in fact, in one of many indicators of the fatal imbalance within United’s squad.
On the other flank though, the Old Trafford gaffer isn’t quite so privileged; quite incredibly, since the start of last season just three Premier League goals out of United’s 88 have been scored by players starting on the right wing – and all of those were netted by Juan Mata.
Long-term, it’s an issue that needs to be addressed via the transfer market. But moving Lukaku out wide represents a temporary resolution for United’s immediate opposition, one that may also kickstart his individual form amid such a disappointing few months as an isolated centre-forward.
Admittedly, United’s coming encounters don’t naturally lend themselves to that kind of ploy, simply because Lukaku will lack space to burst into on the counter-attack against Young Boys and Southampton. But with big games against Arsenal and Liverpool on the horizon, perhaps now is the time to test Lukaku out wide and iron out any tactical issues created by a change in position.