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Lukaku may not be first choice at Man Utd but he’s already proved crucial for Solskjaer

March 5, 2019

NOT so long ago, a picture from Manchester United’s winter training camp in Dubai surfaced. It showed Ole Gunnar Solskjaer crouched down on his haunches talking to Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard, all of whom have been revitalised by the interim manager at Old Trafford. Romelu Lukaku was not pictured.

Indeed, the Belgian was forced on to the bench for the early days of United’s renaissance under Solskjaer. Many saw Lukaku as a misfit, unsuited to the fast and furious style of play that came naturally to Lingard, Martial and Rashford. Some even claimed his Man Utd career to be over, destined to be sold this summer.

The 0-0 draw at home to Liverpool was perhaps the nadir of Lukaku’s decline. With United decimated by injuries, the Belgian looked completely devoid of confidence, with almost every pass bouncing off his shin or chest or some other body part. There was nothing Solskjaer could do for him, they said. A lot has changed since then, though.

Lukaku now has four goals in his last two appearances, carrying Man Utd to crucial wins over Crystal Palace and Southampton, lifting them back up into the Premier League’s top four. All of a sudden, the 25-year-old looks like the striker the Old Trafford outfit splurged £75 million on two-and-a-half years ago.

Of course, for some it doesn’t matter what Lukaku does. Even going back to his West Brom and Everton days, the Belgian has been a divisive figure. In the age of the modern centre forward, Lukaku is, for many, out of sync. Not so much a maverick, but a fish out of water, particularly in a team as dynamic as Manchester United.

Much of what Lukaku faces is unfair, though. Solskjaer has shown that the Belgian can be used as part of an interchangeable attacking line, sometimes even deploying him on the right wing. Jose Mourinho never found a way to forge a relationship between Lukaku and Marcus Rashford. The dynamic between the two has changed, with the latter now favoured over the former, but Solskjaer has found something to fuse them.

“He [Lukaku] is a good finisher and he loves scoring goals,” Solskjaer explained when asked to sum up the qualities and traits of Man Utd’s number nine. “Strikers who love scoring goals, you can’t beat it. You see the way he celebrated, and we see it every day in training, he practices all the time and that’s why he scores goals.”

As a goalscorer, Lukaku’s qualities are well-documented. Sergio Aguero is the only other player to have scored 10 or more goals in each of the last six Premier League seasons, with Lukaku on pace to finish among the top 10 scorers in the English top flight’s history. However, that doesn’t quite illustrate the full package.

At last summer’s World Cup, for instance, Roberto Martinez managed to harness Lukaku as a counter-attacking force, making the most of the striker’s desire to turn and run towards goal. When he gets going, Lukaku is almost impossible to stop. And yet when Lukaku returned from Russia, he reverted back to his stereotype in the eyes of the majority, including Mourinho.

Lukaku is a paradox. There have been moments of sheer brilliance over the course of his career, with one such moment coming in Man Utd’s comeback win over Southampton on Saturday, in which the striker scored twice. And yet there can be a certain inherent clumsiness to his game. It’s this that clouds the judgement of many, too many.

It’s true that with everyone fit Solskjaer would likely overlook Lukaku in favour of Lingard, Martial and Rashford, all of whom are undoubtedly better with the ball at their feet. But that isn’t to say Lukaku is the player he is frequently typecast as. In fact, it’s when Lukaku is typecast that he lets others, whose expectations have been warped by misconception, down. After all this time, he deserves to be judged with open minds.