These are the most difficult days Romelu Lukaku has faced since joining Manchester United. He is without a goal in eight games and even his manager Jose Mourinho has picked up on the negative vibes.
The Belgium record goalscorer was heavily criticised among fans for his latest fruitless outing – against Juventus in the Champions League on Tuesday night – with Mourinho being asked about the issue in the press conference afterwards.
"No criticism at all," he insisted when questioned about his centre-forward's form. "But I have to agree his moment is not sweet.
"Not just with the goals he is not scoring but also in his confidence, in his movement, his touch. He is not linking the game well with the team."
Lukaku is never going to be a well-rounded No. 9 like Roberto Firmino. His chief attribute is his ability to score goals. And when he does exactly that, there is no great focus on his overall game. He is permitted to get on with the job. The problems are noticed when the goals dry up. The deficiencies in Lukaku’s game are the same whether he’s scoring or not.
He has never been among the top strikers when it comes to working with his back to goal or contributing in open play. He is a striker to be serviced and deserves credit for that. He is one of only three currently active Premier League players to have hit over 100 goals – Harry Kane and Sergio Aguero being the other two – and has always been much more a poacher than a link-man.
Perhaps Mourinho sees Lukaku’s physical characteristics and deduces that he should be able to give him the kind of play that Didier Drogba gave him at Chelsea or Zlatan Ibrahimovic offered him at Inter. But Lukaku has never been at his best when acting as an isolated front man as he currently is at Old Trafford.
His best output comes when he’s on the end of moves which include five or six more team-mates in attacking positions. That’s not how Mourinho sets his team up.
Quite often, the United team can be split in two. Mourinho is a conservative coach at heart and six of his chosen 10 outfield players are on the field primarily to ensure clean sheets.
He plays with a back four with the full backs given occasional licence to contribute further forward. Then he plays with a central midfield duo who are tasked with ensuring no lines are broken when the opposition are on the attack.
The bulk of the heavy lifting in an attacking sense is left to just four players. At the moment, it is falling on Juan Mata, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Lukaku to carry the ball forward and create chances among themselves. When Alexis Sanchez and Jesse Lingard come into the team, it will be for one of these as Mourinho will not overbalance the team by having an abundance of attacking players.
But football is a numbers game and key to getting consistent goals from Lukaku is getting numerical superiority somewhere on the field – a tactical advantage that will then leave him free to pounce. He rarely has an opportunity to get one on one with his marker and burn him for pace because Mourinho takes too few risks.
It’s a difficult balance to strike but one that Roberto Martinez has achieved when coaching Lukaku for Belgium. In order to tip the numbers in his team’s favour further up the pitch, Martinez sacrificed a defender. Belgium don’t usually play four at the back, they play three. And in front of that back three sits Axel Witsel. Everyone else, primarily, is there to make chances.
Watch Belgium and you’ll see with regularity six or seven outfield players joining the attack. When Kevin De Bruyne has the ball in central midfield for example he can often find Thomas Meunier high right, Yannick Carrasco high left and Eden Hazard, Dries Mertens and Lukaku in front of him.
In turn, that can overwhelm the defensive ranks of the opposition, who have too many Belgian players to mark. That’s when gaps begin to appear. It is here that Lukaku finds space – either running in behind or receiving a pull-back.
His goal output since Martinez took over the national team has been the best in world football. He’s scored 28 goals in 24 starts and benefitted hugely from the one-on-one work done with Martinez's former assistant Thierry Henry.
Admittedly, his international record doesn’t quantify the calibre of opposition, but it is impressive nonetheless. United’s attacking structure – or lack thereof – is not optimised for Lukaku.
He may be undergoing a dry spell right now but is not performing demonstrably worse than when he’s scoring. His conversion rate this season is steady at 29 per cent. It’s not that he’s missing the chances that are coming his way. It’s that he’s not getting them. Lukaku has only had 14 shots across his nine games.
Among the top players, Aguero (29), Mohamed Salah (26) Kane (21) and Alexandre Lacazette (20) have had far more. But only six players have scored more than him in the Premier League this season and three of those – Harry Kane, Eden Hazard and Glenn Murray – take penalties for their clubs.
That he can keep pace at all with strikers who play on teams that have the ball more and create more chances is a sign of his strengths.
He’s too often isolated with little in the way of support or clever running from his team-mates. It’s a hard slog playing up front for this United team; Lukaku is usually outnumbered by central defenders in the opposition ranks – one marking and one sweeping.
Among the league’s players who have scored three or more goals, Lukaku touches the ball far less than you would expect.
No surprise that Hazard leads the way in this category – with 727 taken – but his international colleague is way back on 273. The likes of Lacazette (342), Aguero (345), Kane (346), Sadio Mane (387) and Salah (398) are all better serviced in that regard.
One more statistic stands out and shows how scarcely Lukaku involves himself in the approach play compared to his striking peers. Only 90 of Lukaku’s passes have ended up in the final third.
This again ranks lower than Salah, Aguero, Lacazette, Mane and Kane. It’s difficult for him to hold the ball up and find colleagues when too few of them – generally speaking – are running past him.
Lukaku was also criticised while on international duty earlier this month for saying that he might one day like to play with Juventus. But it is easy to sympathise. He saw the kind of service Cristiano Ronaldo gets first-hand on Tuesday night and what happens when a team is running as a cohesive and well-oiled machine. United are the opposite; dysfunctional and playing with no confidence.
With a new generation of player emerging, Mourinho appears to have lost his touch. And when that winning momentum is brought to a halt, what you are left with is negativity pervading the dressing room. Is it any wonder players like Lukaku would prefer to play somewhere else and actually enjoy their football?
That is not to absolve Lukaku from all criticism. There are improvements he can make. At Premier League level, games are often decided by the first goal. When that first chance comes Lukaku’s way – as it did at Old Trafford against Tottenham a few weeks back – he has got to be cold-blooded and make it count.
His mobility – or lack of it - might be causing an issue as well. He is a big boy but has grown bigger again since joining United. No doubt he enjoys the feeling of having defenders bounce off him, but all that muscle is restricting his explosiveness and his manoeuvrability.
That is something Lukaku did not have to worry about as a young player. Indeed, it was to his advantage. He was comfortably a head and a neck bigger than his markers in youth football so he could afford to stand and wait for balls to his chest, head and feet and be sure of winning the physical battle that ensued. That's where Martinez has sought to improve his movement, to make sure he's on the front foot and relying on his football ability first and his physicality second.
It might be easy to look at Lukaku and deduce that he’s not pulling his weight. But this is a player with goals in his locker and the ability to bully and harass any defender in the world. He needs confidence to get goals.
Unless Mourinho can conjure a system whereby Lukaku gets the right service, however, it might be that United fans never see the best of him.