Manchester United finished second in 2017/2018, and while many people might point to the points gap between themselves and Manchester City, it might be more pertinent to highlight what led to the points gap: the goals tally. Manchester City scored an impressive thirty-eight goals more than Manchester United and therein lies the reason for City’s dominance. It is the goals issue which United must address in 2018/2019 to hope of bridging the gap with City.
Manchester United have attacking options that most clubs in European football would envy. They have outstanding goal scorers in Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sánchez and Anthony Martial, players who are excellently augmented by Marcus Rashford, Jesse Lingard, Paul Pogba and Juan Mata. The front three are highly interchangeable and there are many ways in which United can build their attacks.
José Mourinho teams have classically been built around the lone striker complemented by wide players. It is clear that United operate a structure designed around Romelu Lukaku and for this to thrive, Lukaku needs his wide attacking players to work effectively. Lukaku has been noted for his immense power and pace, winning many plaudits during the World Cup for his work rate and intelligent running off the ball, particularly in Belgium’s difficult games against Japan and Brazil.
Lukaku scored 16 of United’s sixty-eight league goals last season. This constituted 23% of United’s league goals. Historically, great United seasons have seen the goal scoring dominated by an alpha striker. In 2013, Robin Van Persie scored 26 goals, 30% of United’s eighty-six goals that season. In 2008, Cristiano Ronaldo’s 31 league goals constituted 38% of United’s eighty league goals while in 2003, Ruud Van Nistlerooy’s 25 goals made up 33% of United’s seventy-four league goals.
What does this tell us about Lukaku and Manchester United last season?
Judged against former United sides, neither Romelu Lukaku nor last season’s entire Manchester United team lived up to past standards. While the campaign was Manchester United’s most successful league season in the post Ferguson era, it was by no means good enough to challenge the title winning Manchester City. Having started the season with a series of four goal hauls last year, this form soon dissipated and the goals dried up.
Romelu Lukaku is a fantastic attacking player but his finishing is arguably the least complete element of his game. Lukaku opened his United account with a fantastic finish against West Ham in the opening game of last season, but began this season missing an important chance to kill the game at 1-0 against Leicester. Also against Leicester last season, Lukaku missed a penalty and then a clear-cut chance later in the second half. In tightly contested games, the lone striker often feeds on scraps and needs to be able to take rare chances as they appear.
It was in games like these that Robin Van Persie excelled. Van Persie scored a late penalty against Liverpool at Anfield in 2012 and six weeks later scored a last gasp winner at the Ethihad against Manchester City.
Lukaku is a fine player but his all-round game and his excellent movement off the ball would best be complimented by speedy attacking players to compliment his style, and score additional goals, in a manner similar to Raheem Sterling and Leroy Sane at Manchester City. Players like Lingard, Rashford and Martial need to contribute consistently. Manchester United’s second top scorer last season was Anthony Martial with 9 goals. For a player whose season all but ended in January with the arrival of Alexis Sánchez, this was an impressive tally, but United will need his next goal total to be greatly increased.
There is a pressure on both Martial and Mourinho for the season ahead; on Mourinho to find a position in the side that best accommodates Martial’s mercurial talent, and on Martial to provide the same work rate given by the likes of Lukaku. Similarly, while nobody would question the work rate of Sánchez, he struggled greatly to find his best form for United last season.
José Mourinho will also surely look to his midfielders to step up and provide more goals. Ryan Giggs scored 13 league goals in 1993/94. Paul Scholes provided 14 league goals in 2002/3. Manchester United’s midfielders will need to start contributing to the goalscoring in a more meaningful way. Jesse Lingard had an excellent season last year but needs to replicate his form from mid-November to mid-December on a more consistent basis. The likes of Paul Pogba and Juan Mata are proven goal scorers. The raw materials are present for United to be more effective in the final third of the pitch.
In defence of the players, there is an argument that Manchester United need to play with more freedom. The importance of the new coaching trio of Michael Carrick, Kieran McKenna and Stefano Rapetti at Old Trafford has been highlighted and it is hoped their influence will help liberate the midfield and produce more attacking football. This mentality also needs to come from the manager. For a team that averaged 3.2 goals per game in their first five games last year, the following 33 games produced an average of 1.6 goals per game. Manchester United need to play with more bravery and bluster in 2018/2019 to bridge the gap between themselves and the league leaders.
There will rarely be a season where a fanbase can express such optimism about the level of attacking options in their side. The players in United’s attack possess the skill and nous to unpick any defence and outscore their opponents at will. The onus is on the players and the manager to deliver the goods in 2018/2019 and if that means playing with more abandon, so be it. The second half that Manchester United produced at the Etihad in April was played with more reckless abandon than we have seen in the past half-decade. What’s more; it was enjoyable to watch and the elation at the final whistle was abiding. Victories like that at the Etihad sustained Manchester United fans through their difficult preseason, and it is the hope of more like it that keeps them dreaming.