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 By Michael Cox

Man United give Lukaku the platform he craves to score the goals they need

Romelu Lukaku sits down with ESPN FC's Alexis Nunes in Los Angeles after completing his Manchester United medical.
After working together at Chelsea, Romelu Lukaku says he is excited to link up with Jose Mourinho again at Man United.
Romelu Lukaku says he looks up to Zlatan Ibrahimovic but will fill the striker position in his own way at Man United.

This is the age of the false nine and, though there are few Premier League sides that genuinely use a player in the role, the emphasis upon link-up play has unquestionably shifted what managers want from their attackers.

The likes of Sergio Aguero and Alexis Sanchez didn't consider themselves No. 9s when arriving in England, but have been pushed forward to become a main striker with great goal-scoring success.

The same thing happened with Robin van Persie and Carlos Tevez. Even Harry Kane, often considered a traditional No. 9, prefers to wear 10 as he considered himself more of an all-rounder when developing.

And then there's Romelu Lukaku. In a sense he feels like a throwback, a striker eternally making runs and positioning himself in traditional scoring positions. His movement is occasionally disappointing and his link play is nothing like that of Sanchez or Tevez but, in terms of being a traditional, "old-school" No. 9, Lukaku is among the best. That makes him perfect for Manchester United and, in particular, Jose Mourinho.

On the list of players at top clubs, who scored more than 15 goals last season, the only two comparable as traditional No. 9s are Diego Costa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic, both of whom United's manager brought to English football. Mourinho has little interest in patient build-up play, preferring a more direct route to goal and, in that sense, a traditional striker suits him well.

That's not to say that Lukaku is a particularly adept target man. Indeed, for such a tall -- he is listed as 6-feet-2 -- and powerful striker, it's arguable that he doesn't offer anything like what he should as an aerial threat.

This has been an area Lukaku has improved upon, however. He scored six headed goals last season, only behind Christian Benteke and Fernando Llorente, two players renowned for their prowess in the air.

Lukaku is more about working the channels and this should work nicely with Mourinho's determination to get the ball forward quickly, as well as the ability of Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitayran to play through balls.

Romelu Lukaku
After starring for West Brom and Everton, Romelu Lukaku has made a big-money move to Manchester United.

United have had mixed experiences with traditional centre-forwards during the years, but the club's tradition is to play with more speed and directness than they've been accustomed to in recent seasons.

The Louis van Gaal reign was particularly notable for sluggish build-up play and, while Ibrahimovic scored 28 goals and had an excellent impact during his sole season in England, he lacked the speed to stretch play and force the opposition back.

The curious thing about Lukaku's style, though, is that he broadly plays the same role as Marcus Rashford. The 19-year-old is a No. 9 who works the channels excellently and is a fine close-range finisher. Rashford is more versatile and can play on either flank, but it still feels like his skill set is suited to being a proper centre-forward, even in a three-man attack.

Mourinho is smart enough to use the right attackers at the right moments tactically, but is there any situation in which Rashford would be a better fit than Lukaku? No, they're roughly the same type of forward and so Rashford might worry when he'll be favoured for big games.

Meanwhile, despite his apparent suitability to what Mourinho wants, United's capture of Lukaku is somewhat surprising for two reasons.

First, because Chelsea seemed to be in pole position to land the Belgian international; manager Antonio Conte is reportedly annoyed not to have landed his top target. Instead, another Stamford Bridge old boy will strengthen a direct title rival and, just as Kevin De Bruyne has excelled at Manchester City, one wonders whether Chelsea might regret not keeping Lukaku. 

Second, United seemed more likely to sign Alvaro Morata, who Mourinho had brought through at Real Madrid. Morata is probably more of an all-rounder than Lukaku, more intelligent with his movement and better at linking play. He might well be a better centre-forward overall.

However, while Morata would be adjusting to a new league, a new culture and a new language, Lukaku represents less of a risk. Plus, his record in the Premier League is genuinely excellent: He's managed 17, 15, 10, 18 and 25 goals in his five seasons as a regular with West Bromwich Albion and Everton.

He's only the fourth player to reach 80 goals before turning 24, after Michael Owen, Wayne Rooney and Robbie Fowler, although it's worth considering that those three all peaked rather early and were a shadow of their former selves by the time they hit 30.

But perhaps Lukaku's most underrated qualities are his belief, his dedication and professionalism; he's a hugely ambitious, hard-working player determined to make himself one of the best in the world. He has said he looks up to four players to make himself better: Luis Suarez, Robert Lewandowski, Karim Benzema and Edinson Cavani. 

When asked whether he can become one of the best in the world earlier this year, Lukaku said boldly: "Definitely, definitely. But to do that, you need the platform to show yourself." 

With Manchester United, he has that platform.

Michael Cox is the editor of and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.


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