Can Lukaku fill the Ibrahimovic shaped hole?

Manchester United were always going to enter the transfer market to bring in another striker this summer. A lack of a cutting edge cost them dearly in many home games last season that were ultimately drawn and they scored just 54 Premier League goals. That was one less than Bournemouth. Their need for striking re-enforcements in the transfer window was made even more evident when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was not given a new contract after a horrible knee injury suffered against Anderlecht in April.

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Whilst moves for Antoine Griezmann and Alvaro Morata were touted, ultimately it was Everton’s Romelu Lukaku who would be the man Jose Mourinho hopes will fire Manchester United to title glory this season. The powerful Belgian arrives at Old Trafford for an initial fee of £75 million, though the sum could approach the three-digit mark due to add ons. At just 24-years-old, Lukaku has plenty of time to develop but he has a wealth of experience under his belt already, becoming the first foreign player to score over 80 Premier League goals before the age of 24. He hit 25 in the league for Everton last season, in a campaign that saw him become the first striker for the Blues since Gary Lineker in 1985-86 to score 20+ league goals.

Despite the impressive statistics however, there is the feeling that Lukaku will have to improve his game to become a success at Old Trafford. He will wear the number 9 shirt vacated by Ibrahimovic at the end of last season but will he be able to fill the gaping hole left by the legendary Swede? Last season Zlatan scored 17 league goals for United and hit 28 in all competitions but he brought a swagger that few players are able to replicate. A supreme sense of self confidence and a real winner’s mentality meant he was more to the side than just goals but a real leader in the team. Never was this better exemplified than his match winning performance in the Capital One Cup final against Southampton. Having led 2-0, United were pegged back thanks to a brace from Southampton’s Manolo Gabbiadini and had not performed particular well in the contest. Having opened the scoring with a fine free-kick, Ibrahimovic was also to finish it as his header three times from time gave Mourinho’s men a 3-2 victory. Lukaku may have scored more league goals but is he really capable of such inspirational turns?

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There are accusations against the Belgian that he does not perform in the big games. Lukaku has made 36 Premier League appearances against Chelsea, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Spurs and Liverpool in the last three seasons but in those fixtures, he has found the back of the net just five times. It doesn’t exactly make for great reading but as always when these stats are bounded around, you have to take in to count that Lukaku will now be playing with a better supporting cast and United themselves will fare better against that calibre of opposition than Everton would have. His scoring record in the last few seasons suggest that he will bring goals to Old Trafford – Having notched over 20 for Everton in each of the last three seasons.

To compare him to Ibrahimovic is also difficult given that whilst they are both big, powerful number nine’s its also worth pointing out their differences. Lukaku is happy to run in behind and play on the shoulder of defenders, using his power and whilst not lightening quick, he’s certainly more mobile than Ibrahimovic. Last season Ibrahimovic would often drop deep, leaving United without an piercing focal point up top. That’s exactly what Lukaku will be for United however, allowing the likes of Paul Pogba, Juan Mata and Henrikh Mkhitaryan the chance to occupy that space. His movement will enable United to pose a greater threat on the counter attack so from a stylistic point of view, he could be an ideal fit. And there is also the fact that Ibrahimovic was guilty of some profligate displays. He was particularly wasteful against the likes of Stoke and Burnley at home so for all the knocking of the sort of teams Lukaku gets his goals against, they’re the exact teams United struggled to put away last season.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic brought a smile to the face of many Manchester United fans last season but there were also his detractors that felt his lack of movement made his team pedestrian and predictable going forward. Now Romelu Lukaku may never enjoy the heights of the Swede’s career but he could just be the man that helps United to thrive. He may lack that touch of genius to produce something out of nothing but he does not lack the tools to score goals and plenty of them. Not so much filling the hole but making the Manchester United number nine shirt his own.

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July 12th, 2017 by Harvey T

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