Manchester United continued their miraculous run of form last weekend, beating Brighton 2-1 at home for victory number seven under caretaker manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, winning once again with Romelu Lukaku sitting on the bench and out of the starting XI.
After arriving from Everton in 2017, the Belgian striker quickly emerged as Jose Mourinho’s go-to man at Old Trafford. But Lukaku has amassed just 71 minutes of Premier League action since Solskjaer replaced the sacked Portuguese manager according to Transfermarkt, sidelined in lieu of young forwards Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
With the speedy attackers at the forefront, United have regained control of their campaign over the past five weeks playing a fast, dynamic style that’s taken advantage of the pace and counter attacking prowess which Mourinho overlooked for so long.
The change hasn’t slowed Solskjaer’s side yet, and though Lukaku may break into the starting XI in Friday’s FA Cup tie with Arsenal, one would imagine the system is one they won’t move too far away from throughout the remainder of the campaign.
The problem? The big, lumbering Lukaku – the man the club shelled out £75million (BBC Sport) to sign less than two years ago – simply doesn’t fit into that system, and on no day has that been more evident than when Manchester United visited Wembley on January 13th.
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With Rashford and Martial up top and Jesse Lingard at the head of a midfield diamond against Spurs, United were vicious on the break, moving the ball forward and working their two strikers into one-on-one situations.
The young forwards tore through Spurs’ defence with their speed, while Lingard served as a cool yet confident presence in the middle. And in the end, it was Rashford’s 44th-minute goal on the counter just before the break that served as the difference in the 1-0 victory. Lukaku watched it all unfold from the sidelines in a sweatsuit.
See, while Rashford and Martial possess the devastating ability to carve up an opposing defence, Lukaku plays a far more planted game. The 25-year old is most dangerous when the ball is put to his feet within range of the net. His work rate is often low, and against the wrong opponent Lukaku’s one-dimensional style falls flat.
That sort of striker simply won’t work within the style of football Manchester United have played since Solskjaer took over. So where do they go now?
Should Solskjaer remain with his current tactics, he could still use Lukaku as something of a super sub and rotational forward. He was brought on in the 83rd minute against Brighton, and possessing size and a knack for finding the back of the net, the powerful striker can become a dangerous weapon making an impact off the bench for United. A player of Lukaku’s skill and stature is the sort of substitute opposing managers would fear coming onto the pitch.
Working in a less frequent capacity, such as starting in cup matches as he might on Friday at the Emirates Stadium, Lukaku could also forge himself an important role. He undoubtedly possesses the talent and competence to have an impact on the pitch, and in lower stakes cup matches may emerge as a potent weapon for United to deploy when the likes of Martial and Rashford are rested or protected.
From a long-term perspective, Lukaku’s future with the club may hinge on whether or not Solskjaer is made permanent manager. Recent reports from The Sun have hinted towards the growing potential that the Norwegian manager might be brought back following this season and if Solskjaer does remain, no first-team regular will likely be impacted more significantly than the big Belgian.
Plenty can change in the months to come and into the summer, but Lukaku’s role within Manchester United’s squad is more unclear than it has ever been.