Manchester United have had an eventful January so far. Three wins in three in the Premier League without conceding a goal, FA cup progression and most importantly – the signing of Alexis Sanchez – a massive statement of intent from the club in January which has raised eyebrows for various reasons, with Henrikh Mkhitaryan going the opposite way.
United now have in the ranks one of the few true world-class attacking footballers with the ability to turn a game on its head, in seconds. Whether that makes a difference to their title push in the final third of the campaign remains to be seen – but there is little doubt that Jose Mourinho has a clear outline of where he wants to be ahead of next season, unlike his predecessors at the club.
In the midst of all the drama, it is easy to forget the already existing attacking riches at Man United. The growing influence of Anthony Martial – who scored a crucial winner in the weekend and Jesse Lingard – who bailed the club out several times over the last few weeks has been a welcome change from last season when the Red Devils were desperate for the supporting cast to chip in with the goals when center-forward Zlatan Ibrahimovic could not. However, now, United have a different and more interesting problem to solve.
Following a rampant start where this season’s spearhead Romelu Lukaku managed to score 10 goals in his first 11 starts, the Belgian has found it difficult to sustain the rate at United. The numbers dwindled as Lukaku managed a measly 6 goals in his next 24 appearances for the club.
The 24-year old has been inconsistent in front of goal – particularly in the big games. But as United often flattered to deceive against the fellow ‘top six’ sides, this was not met with a lot of surprise.
In the meanwhile, there has been plenty of dialogue – via both direct and indirect media – between Lukaku and the supporters, who, although at times, seemed to vent their frustration out at a player who is undoubtedly one of the best forwards in the league, when he struggled to put the ball into the back of the net, largely backed the player to come good – for there was concrete historical evidence of the Belgian scoring 25 goals in the league for Everton – with all due respect, a lesser team.
Jose Mourinho, one of the staunchest defenders of the forward, who also once deemed the Belgian inexperienced to lead the line for Chelsea whilst he was manager at Stamford Bridge, has reiterated time and again in his less cheerier post match interviews, insisting on his support, to the point where he rarely or in fact never acknowledged the forward when he failed to have an effect on games – a direct consequence of his teammates failing to get him involved inside the box – in front of goal – where he is comfortable.
Yet, the signing of Alexis Sanchez, is in many ways the strongest indicator of what Mourinho feels about United in terms of where they are found wanting. United have a strong core of defensive setup which has arguably been the best in the country in the last two years. A true testament to good management is when the team fares better than the sum of its parts and the Portuguese has been able to achieve it at the back – thanks to his innate conservative idea of football which he proudly calls ‘pragmatic’.
The Chilean is as versatile as they come – blessed with the hallmarks of an elite wide player – directness, raw pace and superior control in tight spaces with the temperament of a striker – single-minded and borderline selfish. At 29-years old, he is everything Jose Mourinho needs to make his attack as functionally good as his defence is, at this point in time.
But he could be more than a match-winner turning up every other game should Jose Mourinho get this right. It may mean a world of good for Lukaku – with the two wreaking havoc in tandem, or not.