It would be easy to simply look at Romelu Lukaku’s goal scoring record since joining Manchester United two months ago and declare him an instant success.
The Belgian international has scored seven goals in seven appearances for his new club since swapping Everton’s blue for United’s red, helping Jose Mourinho’s side to a near-perfect start to the season.
He has scored six of United’s 16 league goals this season and has one assist to his name after setting up Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s goal during the weekend’s 4-0 win over his former club.
The numbers do not lie – and if anything, they should be better given some of the chances he has failed to put away – but Lukaku’s goal scoring exploits alone do not do justice to the start he has enjoyed at United.
To put this into context, Manchester United has played seven competitive games this season. It has won five of those, drawing one and losing the other against European champions Real Madrid in the UEFA Super Cup. In those games, United has scored 19 goals, conceding just four (split evenly between two games – two against Madrid and two against Stoke) and keeping five clean sheets.
In the first seven games of United’s 2016/17 season, United won four and lost three, including the 2-1 Community Shield win over Leicester City and ending with its 1-0 loss to Feyenoord in the Europa League. In those games, United scored 10 goals, conceded eight and kept just two clean sheets.
Furthermore, Zlatan Ibrahimovic scored five of those 10 goals, making up 50 per cent of United’s goals over the same amount of games this season.
Lukaku has scored more goals for United than Ibrahimovic did last season after the same amount of games, but a lesser percentage of the club’s overall – just 36.8 per cent.
Why? Because Lukaku’s superior match intelligence, pace, mobility and greater physical presence has completely opened up United’s attacking third. The brilliant but immobile Ibrahimovic – who meandered in and out of games and popped up almost at will to score goals – has been replaced by a whirlwind of firepower.
Where last season, everything was channelled through Ibrahimovic, this season, Lukaku’s boundless energy and gut-busting runs into the channels mean more opportunities for more players and more goals.
This season, United already has eight different goalscorers. After seven games last season United had five.
This increased versatility has had a telling effect on United’s opponents, too. It is no longer enough to pile defensive resources into man-marking one player. Ibrahimovic was good enough to score goals despite the attention, but United’s reliance on him made it much easier to stop.
When facing Lukaku, defenders must deal with an offensive threat in constant motion. The result is chaos. Central defenders are constantly pulled out into wide areas by Lukaku’s searching runs into the channels. Full-backs follow him inside to try and help their team-mates cope with the Belgian beast and space is opened up everywhere for the likes of Mkhitaryan, Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard to cause their own problems.
Mkhitaryan in particular seems to be flourishing. No doubt he has benefited from a full season at the club, but his start to the season makes for a stark contrast to that of his first year at the club and that has to be down in some part at least to the increased fluidity of United’s attack and the space it has afforded him.
When United is running at a defence on the break, it must be truly frightening for those trying to stand in its way. Follow Lukaku? Or close down the other threats? Either way, you are probably going to concede at least a shot on target.
Even when the opposition has the ball, there is no time for pretty build up from the back. Defenders are almost constantly forced into rushed balls forward or – better yet – wild clearances which hand United possession once again.
It is little wonder that United seem to be scoring so many goals in last-minute flurries. Defenders are simply exhausted when facing this new-look and increasingly fluid attack.
The flow-on effect is benefiting the whole team.
Consider the following two average position graphs.
The first is from United’s 2-0 win at home against Southampton during last season’s Premier League campaign on August 19, 2016:
Manchester United (left) v Southampton (right) – Premier League – August 19, 2016 Average positions
Compare that to United’s average position against Leicester City, just over a year later.
Manchester United (left) v Leicester City (right) – Premier League – August 26, 2017 Average positions
Every United player, besides goalkeeper David de Gea and centre-backs Phil Jones and Eric Bailly are on the halfway line or in the attacking half.
Manchester United (left) v Everton (right) – Premier League – September 17, 2017
It was a similar story at the weekend, with even better results. United were able to achieve a greater spread of offensive positions, while Everton was squashed into compact spaces trying to defend the middle of the park and contain the threat of Lukaku.
As a result, United’s defenders pick up the ball with a lot more time, the midfield has it before their opposite numbers can compose and reorganise themselves and the cycle continues.
The interesting part is, Lukaku does this all with fewer touches of the ball than Ibrahimovic.
Manchester United v Everton – Premier League – September 17, 2017
Manchester United v Southampton – Premier League – August 19, 2016 – Ibrahimovic
While Ibrahimovic almost demands the ball in every phase of play, Lukaku relies more on his elusive movement to open up pockets of space and is rarely directly involved on the ball unless it is in the final third of play.
Ibrahimovic’s touches in deeper positions help to explain why Southampton was able to achieve a much higher average position last season than Everton this season, while Lukaku’s lack of touches (27 to Ibrahimovic’s 47) demonstrate the Belgian forwards preference for pushing the opposition’s defence as deep as possible.
The re-signing of Ibrahimovic, who is continuing his rehabilitation from a knee injury which prematurely ended his debut season at the club, was viewed as good news by many.
The Swede brings plenty of quality to the first-team squad, but on the evidence of this season, Mourinho will need to think carefully about how he brings the high-profile talent into the side without upsetting the remarkable balance United has achieved this season.