Romelu Lukaku underwhelmed after reaching 20-goal milestone
Mourinho says Manchester United striker who scored double was ‘cold’ in front of goal
Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku celebrates scoring his side’s first goal during the FA Cup fifth round against Huddersfield Town. Photograph: Gareth Copley/Getty Images
Romelu Lukaku sounded underwhelmed. An annual occurrence felt less a cause for celebration than a continuation of a personal habit. He was offered congratulations after reaching 20 goals for the campaign. “Yeah, but I have been doing it for years now,” he countered.
Four years, to be precise. The others came in Everton’s colours, though, and if Lukaku shrugged off passing a landmark that has eluded many a Manchester United striking signing – from failures such as Radamel Falcao, Diego Forlán and Garry Birtles to successes such as Carlos Tevez and Javier Hernández – José Mourinho probably approved of that attitude.
The United manager opted for a very Mourinho-esque compliment after Lukaku’s double at Huddersfield: he called him “cold” in front of goal. Whereas Jürgen Klopp and David Wagner like emotional football, Mourinho wants to take the emotion out of it. Lukaku had both of United’s shots on target and scored twice in an exercise in efficiency.
“The striker is there to score and he did exactly that,” a matter-of-fact Nemanja Matic said, showing a similar determination not to get carried away. Clinical finishing was expected, even at the end of a 90-yard sprint from box to box to double the lead.
Lukaku was signed to be a guarantee of goals. Mourinho has always insisted he does not judge the £75 million addition by his tally but a pragmatist is unlikely to ignore the numbers. They may bring him cause for satisfaction. If Lukaku has seemed sluggish in comparison with Mohamed Salah, after the Egyptian’s 30-goal start to life at Anfield, the Belgian’s 21-goal haul is still as many as last summer’s other two costliest attacking additions, Alexandre Lacazette and Álvaro Morata, have mustered between them.
Apart from the latest VAR-related controversies, Lukaku took the drama out of a potentially tricky tie. That is what finishers can do. He normalises goalscoring, at least against teams of Huddersfield’s stature. Yet this week United face Sevilla and Chelsea. Lukaku has never had the chance to score in a Champions League knockout tie. He has only five goals, none for United, in his past 41 games against England’s current top six. He has excelled on the comparatively small occasions. Now United require a big-game player.
“I am sure he will be important for us until the end of the season,” Matic said. Yet that fixture list is full of meetings with the sort of defences Lukaku rarely breaches. If United reach the FA Cup and Champions League finals, 13 of their remaining 21 matches could either come against the top six or the European elite. There is a sense that United players are judged on such stages. The Old Trafford attacking greats and very goods can tend to point to some seismic contributions when the stakes are highest.
Lukaku’s involvement is at least expanding. His spin and turn for the opener on Saturday, when he collected Juan Mata’s return pass, illustrated the improvement in his hold-up play. Even in the defeat at Newcastle last week, he supplied chances for Alexis Sánchez and Anthony Martial. That resourcefulness and self-sufficiency could be necessary. United were without the reportedly ill Paul Pogba at Huddersfield; Mourinho was unsure if he would recover in time to face Sevilla.
In his absence, United essentially attacked with only three players, lacking a bridge between the defensive midfield trio and the triumvirate in attack. Perhaps Mourinho used Huddersfield to prepare for stiffer tests, refining a counter-attacking blueprint as United had less possession and fewer chances but showed solidity when sitting deeper, escaping only with high-speed raids. Recalling the benched Jesse Lingard or Martial for the influential Mata would add further acceleration to the attack.
Pogba leaves a void, with the defensively diligent Matic performing an unconvincing impression of him on Saturday. Matic may be asked to deputise on the left of a trio again. Marcus Rashford, Ander Herrera and Antonio Valencia, Mourinho suggested, “have a chance” of playing.
“Marcos Rojo, Phil Jones, Marouane Fellaini, Zlatan Ibrahimovic: I don’t think they have any,” he added. Lukaku’s presence is a given. The question is how he plays: in the destructive manner he did against Huddersfield or the altogether less threatening way he sometimes does on high-profile occasions?