It’s a strange kind of crisis that has you second in the table and favourites to progress in the Champions League.
Such are the standards at Manchester United, a club dragged into the elite by the halcyon legacy of Sir Alex Ferguson. Success isn’t enough: it must be won through daring and skill, not extracted through torture.
This is José Mourinho’s biggest problem at Old Trafford. He has struggled to marry his utilitarian approach with the swashbuckling persona of his employer.
Romelu Lukaku’s signature was supposed to be the harbinger of the good days returning, the bringer of goals for a fanbase waiting for a new hero.
A beautiful marriage
The Belgian had reached double figures in each of the preceding four campaigns, with his final year at Everton proving the most productive. After a long internship, he was ready to graduate to the elite.
At first, it was a beautiful marriage. Lukaku fired 11 goals in his first 10 games, including a double against West Ham on his debut. That performance offered his strengths in microcosm; Brutal pace, towering strength and impeccable timing.
The Belgian’s form has dried up since. Now, those same strengths have devolved into weaknesses. To his detractors, he is lumpen and disinterested, a flat-track marksman who can’t perform against top-class defenders.
These tropes are all-too-familiar for footballers of colour. Your success, according to that well-worn narrative, owes more to physical prowess than any footballing intelligence. Defences are ‘bullied’, touches are ‘lazy’ and chances are fashioned with 'pace and strength' rather than probing movement.
Lukaku, despite the vested criticism of his recent performances, has still scored 19 goals. In a team this dour, under a manager so loathe to encourage creativity, it is a more than respectable tally.
The simple fact is that Lukaku has not been afforded the service necessary to score more. Paul Pogba might be United's chief source of assists with nine in the league but his form has fallen off a cliff as his relationship with Mourinho has disintegrated.
The player with the next-highest number is Henrikh Mkhitaryan, whose languid style was deemed too florid for the Portuguese's rigid system. Mourinho is routinely strangling the likeliest sources of Lukaku' s goals.
The need for a source
This was most obvious against Newcastle at the weekend. The Belgian did his job well, holding the ball up for teammates and buffeting the Toon defence.
A lack of movement and incisive passing from Manchester United's midfielders, however, meant that he appeared isolated.
It makes the need to replace Michael Carrick all the more urgent. Manchester United are badly missing his stability and technique, especially in the light of Pogba' s defensive and positional disinterest.
A new midfielder - not a striker - should be top of Mourinho's agenda.
Where else to go?
Even if United were to seek a replacement for Lukaku in the summer, the paucity of available talent is stark.
Mauro Icardi is a natural target, but an irascible character and a long-standing interest from Real Madrid would make any transfer protracted and difficult. Timo Werner is another candidate, but his skills are ill-suited to a manager that prefers a solid presence up front.
The Manchester United hierarchy will also be mindful of the fee they paid for Lukaku's services.
Ed Woodward's legacy is still unsure after the debacle of the David Moyes era, so the Chief Executive has a vested interest in Lukaku's move paying long-term dividends. He will be reticent, then, about the questions and headlines that would follow any eventual sale.
Lukaku is not to blame for Manchester United's struggles. He is a scapegoat for a club that is scratching for an identity and strategy.
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