For only the second time in the last 15 matches, Manchester United emerged victorious from Sunday’s game against the Blues of West London. Both of those wins have come under the Portuguese, and while United arguably put in their best display against Chelsea last season, the latest win has come under much more difficult circumstances.
Chelsea had the better start. They brought with them all the confidence they had gained from their 1-1 battle against Barcelona in midweek, testing the frame of the bar as early as the fourth minute (through Alvaro Morata). On Sunday, Chelsea dominated the early exchanges, particularly from the left-hand side against United’s right flank, which looked outnumbered 2-to-1 all over the pitch.
They scored through Willian—the man who has redeemed himself in the last week. By adding to his goal tally at Old Trafford, he shows that he is still a vital asset to Chelsea. As Eden Hazard found the Brazilian through on goal, only one result was possible, though it involved beating the best goalkeeper in the world at the moment.
The game changer—Lukaku
But the game was ultimately decided by another player, who also had to redeem himself. Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku has been criticised for not delivering in the biggest games, or against the best sides in the league. The censure leveled against the Belgian striker has come despite his hitting the 20-goal mark for the season in all competitions. Until Sunday, that is.
Recently, United has been a tough club for forwards to thrive in. (This is due to how the approach to football has changed post-Alex Ferguson.) In this transition era, as United have gone through continental managers—who also happened to be conservative—forwards have not had the best of seasons at the club. Lukaku was often starved of any service inside the box, a spot where he can be very effective.
Similarly, in 2015–16, Anthony Martial ended up as top scorer at United, netting a mere 17 goals in all competitions. That season, the Red Devils finished with just a goal more than Sunderland did. Then, Zlatan Ibrahimović enjoyed a remarkable season in the following campaign (for his age) in what was clearly a temporary fix. There was a sense, though, that he had to do things on his own—that he was disconnected from the team.
So far, Romelu Lukaku has had a respectable season for Manchester United, despite all his mid-season drought in terms of goals. The Belgian scored his 13th Premier League goal of the season on Sunday, cancelling-out Chelsea’s deserved lead early on. His only shot on goal, from inside 10 yards, was assisted brilliantly by Anthony Martial—United’s brightest forward—who was in the game for long periods.
Romelu Lukaku averages under three shots per game for United. When he lacks goals, he has invariably not had enough opportunities to have a go on goal. Manchester United rank 6th (among the top six) for shots attempted—and that paints a clearer picture as to what the underlying problem is. On Sunday however, the 24-year-old stepped-up at a point when United were losing, but could not afford to lose.
Tipping the balance for Manchester United
The home side pressed on in the second half. N’Golo Kanté’s early booking and Fàbregas’ limited mobility gave the Reds the advantage in midfield. The front three found themselves more involved in the final third. As Jesse Lingard came on for Alexis Sánchez, Mourinho pushed Pogba further up the field in search of a goal with the potential to kill the game. And fittingly, Lukaku, after scoring the opening goal himself, launched the ball in for Lingard, who pounced from between the centre-halves and directed the ball towards the net.
That was Lingard’s 13th of the season, and quite comfortably his most prolific in the first team squad. The 25-year-old’s importance to the senior team has skyrocketed in the last eight weeks, as his goals have now directly resulted in seven points for United. He’s just behind Romelu Lukaku’s nine points, in that regard. That is unless one calculates the number of points David de Gea’s astounding saves account for every season.
In such a pivotal week as this…a week in which United could reach the quarter-finals of the Champions League, and the semi-finals of the FA Cup, they have made arguably the best possible start. And Lukaku has made the best possible stop—to all his critics.