Manchester United’s poor 2018/19 campaign continued in a 1-0 loss to Juventus on Tuesday night. The first half was spent under siege with United’s defense struggling to hold off the dominant Italian champions, but the Reds were able to make a game of it in the second half. United’s attack, however, failed to recover in the same way that they did against Chelsea. United managed to produce just six shots, with only 2 of them on target, and once again the top scorer from last season, Romelu Lukaku, failed to make an impact.
Lukaku extended his dry spell to 8 games against Juventus, further raising questions about his seemingly unquestioned place in the starting 11. He is named by fans among José Mourinho’s “untouchables” — players who will never be dropped regardless of poor form. That theory has appeared relatively accurate thus far this season, but now even Mourinho has admitted that Lukaku’s form has dipped.
“No criticism at all,” Mourinho said. “A complete understanding that the player is a fantastic professional that wants to give everything for the team, but I have to agree that his moment is not sweet.”
Mourinho also pointed out that Lukaku’s confidence had taken a hit from the goal drought, which has only exacerbated his already poor run of form.
Lukaku’s lack of confidence can easily be studied this season. He has managed to squander plenty of chances that would’ve ended up in the back of the net a year ago. Early on against Tottenham he made a spectacular move to beat the defender and round the goalkeeper, only to send the ball past the far post of an empty goal. He appeared to recover, scoring 3 goals in two crucial matches away to Burnley and Watford, but then his goal drought began. He hasn’t scored since September 15th. His intelligent movement continued, but the shots kept going wide. He could get free from his man, but couldn’t head a ball on target to save his life. And as the drought continued, his confidence sank. His pitch awareness has worsened, his first touch has reverted back to his Everton days, and he is visibly distraught by his form.
Romelu Lukaku played nearly every game he could for United last season, a campaign in which he scored 27 goals, becoming only the second player to score 20+ goals in a single season for United since Robin Van Persie in 2012/13. However, his consistency was already being critiqued by the second half of the 2017/18 campaign, as the once steady stream of goals began to slow. He also started nearly every match of Belgium’s 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign. For both Manchester United and Belgium Lukaku is the only true no. 9, and the lack of depth at striker has meant he has made over 80 appearances for club and country in the last year.
So why is Lukaku not given a break?
He’s hardly had time off since the Summer of 2017. Some time on the bench may not be the best solution for his confidence, but he’s only making matters worse for himself at the moment. Mourinho’s insistence on playing Lukaku in every match could be down to his lack of striking options, but his one true no. 9 option isn’t scoring. He has several goal scoring wingers who could fill in for him. Alexis Sánchez or Anthony Martial are capable of standing in at striker, and the former could use an opportunity to boost his own confidence after riding the bench for several matches now.
There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer to Lukaku’s form, but what is clear is that he’s played in an astounding number of matches over the last year without any extended break in between competitions. His career at Old Trafford will not end because of a dry spell, but surely allowing him some time to rest while giving other players an opportunity to play won’t have a negative impact on a United squad that desperately needs to shake things up anyway.