Romelu Lukaku gets Manchester United on track but questions persist
It has been a busy and momentous few months for Romelu Lukaku. He was instrumental in Belgium's advance to the World Cup semifinals, scoring four times and being hailed by Roberto Martinez, his national team's manager, as the "perfect" striker for his country.
His two against Burnley in Manchester United's 2-0 victory have given him three goals in four Premier League games. It was a match that also saw him draw level with the Premier League tally of Didier Drogba -- 104 goals, an amount that he achieved 30 matches quicker than the legendary Chelsea forward. He is still only 25 and his goal-scoring feats already look set to keep him in the history books.
And yet, and yet, the questions still persist.
How can there be any doubts over Lukaku's quality? Well, an alternative view is that he has already cost them at least one victory so far this season. When the game was scoreless against both Brighton and Tottenham, Lukaku missed two eminently presentable opportunities that would have changed the direction of the game. In both cases, United's opponents capitalised on Lukaku's profligacy to take the lead.
Lukaku is often compared to either Drogba or Ruud van Nistelrooy, but the truth is that he is not yet quite like either. Drogba was a player who frequently scored from distance and who was a relentlessly physical presence, whereas Lukaku's key strength lies in his ability to evade contact -- to disappear from his marker's radar in a crowded penalty area. Lukaku's game is actually more similar to that of Van Nistelrooy, in terms of his movement and the positions from which he scores, yet the one thing that marks the Dutchman apart from Lukaku is his consistent ruthlessness in front of goal. When it comes to that,Van Nistelrooy is uniquely brutal.
Lukaku has faced similar accusations his career -- that he is not at his best in big matches, that he cannot score when his goals are most needed. He could fairly argue there is far more to his game than gracing the scoresheet. Against Japan at the World Cup, having missed a clear header earlier in the game, he was instrumental in Nacer Chadli's late winner; against Brazil in the quarterfinal, he laid on Kevin de Bruyne's goal with a superb assist. Yet Lukaku knows that his playmaking is not the primary criterion on which he can and should be judged. To that extent, he must improve.
The positive thing is that Lukaku works to develop his game like few other professionals. He was told upon his departure from Everton that his hold-up play needed work, and now it is generally one of the stronger aspects of his performances. Several pundits criticised his movement, and he improved that to the extent that he provided some of United's assists in their biggest games last season -- away at Arsenal and at home against Chelsea. If any leading forward is willing to keep learning, it is him.
Lukaku is partly in the spotlight because his teammates are not scoring freely, which puts more pressure on his own performances. Unlike, say, Liverpool -- who can call upon Sadio Mane, Roberto Firmino and Mohamed Salah -- there are not two other players he can yet call upon to be a consistent goal threat. Salah, for example, has not had the sharpest start to his season, but has still been an integral part of Liverpool's bullish opening since he can take second fiddle to Mane and Firmino. Lukaku does not have that option, and that is something to which he has long become accustomed.
The good news for him is that there is no shortage of fixtures in which he can prove this decisiveness in the final third, especially with United having just been drawn against Juventus in the Champions League. Perhaps there is also a sense in which it took him some time to get back into the rhythm of the Premier League, after such a rewarding yet grueling summer. He wouldn't be the only footballer to return to his club from national duty with a hint of fatigue.
Whatever the case, it is a pressing moment for United to begin picking up points, and for Lukaku to produce his finest form yet. With two wins and two losses from four Premier League games, the Belgium forward can do what elite strikers do for all the very best sides -- help them win the games that they do not deserve to, having played badly. That, and only that, is the true hallmark of champions.