City left Old Trafford with a deserved 2-1 win on Sunday, leaving José Mourinho’s side 11 points off the pace in the Premier League title race to eradicate the promise shown in the previous week or so, which had included encouraging away victories against Watford and Arsenal.
Lukaku must respond to criticism
But for all the dominance of Pep Guardiola’s side in the highly anticipated Manchester Derby, City ultimately secured their win thanks to two sloppy pieces of defending from the hosts, with forward Romelu Lukaku failing to clear properly on both occasions, allowing first David Silva and then Nicolas Otámendi to score almost identical close-range efforts from set pieces.
That’s all the more damning of United and Lukaku, though – City didn’t even need to be at their best to fend off the Red Devils. Mourinho, whose teams are usually well organised at the back, admitted himself that United’s defending was “disgraceful,” while Guardiola spoke of his surprise at how his team scored. “We are not the best team in the world with set pieces, but we scored two of them today,” conceded the former FC Barcelona coach.
United showed little in attack, registering just two shots on target throughout the 90 minutes, and not much more at the back. Although City were kept at bay for a while before Silva put the visitors ahead, they had no trouble breaking down the Red Devils’ flaky looking backline.
Lukaku, who was at least partially responsible for those two City strikes, also missed a gilt-edged chance to equalise in the dying embers, but in failing to capitalise allowed the narrative surrounding his so called poor record against top quality opposition to roll on.
The former Everton striker hasn’t been at his best for over two months – his winning goal against CSKA Moscow last week was only his second goal in 14 club matches. Some were overly critical of those displays while those looking for encouragement were perhaps too insistent on praising the berated forward. The Belgian has probably been about average across the board, but still nowhere near good enough.
Unfortunately, his performance level dropped again in the derby. His all-round game was also poor, failing to hold up attacks all too often, adding to those fatal contributions at both ends of the pitch.
United must place faith in Lukaku
While Lukaku was poor against City, the derby also demonstrated a lack of a suitable alternative for the 24-year-old at present. Zlatan Ibrahimović came off the bench late on in what seemed like a half-hearted attempt by Mourinho to fight for an equaliser.
Sure, the Swede has a huge reputation to produce big moments, but has looked unfit since returning from injury last month, and there looked to be a complete lack of a plan for he and Lukaku to combine when he did come on.
Ibrahimović’s arrival also derailed United as it signalled the end of Jesse Lingard’s outing for the afternoon. Lingard has been fantastic recently and although by no means special in the derby, he was arguably United’s best player in the match, with his pace helping the hosts to build more counter attacks as the contest went on.
Lukaku deserves criticism for his derby performance, and some unconvincing displays that came before it, too. But, Ibrahimović looks far from being ready to replace him, not only given his fitness, but considering how he regularly slowed down United’s attacks last season, he seems a stylistic misfit for this team, too – that’s both as the main striker or as the team’s chief creator. Of course, he, too, deserves time to recover, but form shows he's not worth being rushed back.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial would both be deserving of having a chance to play through the middle, but that would only deprive United of their best right and left wide forwards respectively at the current time.
Lukaku is the man to lead United’s attack, and given some of the accusations levelled at him, such as not being enough for the club or lacking the mentality to play for the club of this size, he deserves the opportunity to prove his doubters wrong and play himself back into form. After all, following his 11 goals in his first ten club appearances, Lukaku has already proven how quickly a run of form – good or bad – can be forgotten and that he is more than capable of scoring the goals for a big club like United.