The varying twists and turns relating to Paul Pogba’s status at Manchester United may have commanded many of the headlines in recent weeks, but that has served to overshadow a vast improvement in Romelu Lukaku’s all-round game.
On Sunday, the Belgian striker scored a crucial first goal and then superbly teed up the winner for Jesse Lingard as United came from behind to secure a vital 2-1 victory over his former club Chelsea at Old Trafford on the day that Pogba returned to the starting line-up to much pomp and circumstance.
While there were many pertinent questions being asked of Lukaku’s top-level ability when he arrived in Jose Mourinho’s squad from Everton, the front man has gradually improved his all-round forward play to the point where he now provides a compelling presence in the channels and handles himself well with his back to goal. Far from his immobile, lifeless performance at Stamford Bridge earlier this season, this was a buccaneering showing from the big front man.
His first goal against top-eight opposition all season being the pinnacle of an excellent personal display as United collected a huge three points in the context of the Champions League race. And the Red Devils have every right to be thankful for Lukaku’s display given their horrible start which forced Mourinho to change to a 4-2-2-2 formation midway through the first half and culminated in Chelsea grabbing a 32nd-minute lead.
The goal they conceded was entirely of their own making even if Chelsea deserve high praise for the electric nature of the counter-attack which saw them go one up from a United corner. Pogba failed to jump for a header against Victor Moses, then Scott McTominay gave up tracking Willian and allowed the Brazilian to roam free into the box where he collected Eden Hazard’s pass and fired a fierce shot beyond David de Gea.
While both De Gea and Victor Lindelof, who decided against putting in a challenge on Hazard, will accept some degree of culpability, the damage had been done already by Pogba and McTominay’s errors.
The important thing for Mourinho’s side at that point was to deliver a response, and they were able to get on level terms within seven minutes thanks to a wonderful move which saw Alexis Sanchez and Anthony Martial both involved with short, intricate passes before Lukaku took a perfect first touch and slid home clinically with his left foot.
It was a move which bore little resemblance to United’s play for the large part of a sterile first half, but they were much the better side for the majority of the second.
By the time they took the lead they were arguably deserving of the three points, while Lukaku had fairly entrenched himself at the top of the voting for the Man of the Match plaudits.
Having forced a great save from Thibaut Courtois with a wonderful bicycle-kick shot, Lukaku then turned provider. McTominay slotted a ball into the channel, allowing the Belgian to get in front of Antonio Rudiger before heading goalwards and sending in an inch perfect cross for Lingard to head home.
While their play was far from convincing at times, United had shown real character to dig themselves out of a hole. Led by their manager’s bold decision to switch his formation, the players eventually got a foothold in the game and made the most of their supremacy after the break. It was also no coincidence that Nemanja Matic’s best performance in months came on the afternoon United bested his former team-mates.
Pogba, too, was released to cause Chelsea some problems when Mourinho changed his approach, but while the Frenchman drifted in and out of the game there was just no keeping Lukaku quiet. He might have scored 21 goals before today, but this felt like a real breakout afternoon for him. It is the least he deserves after such an improvement in standards over recent months.