Josh in the Box

Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United side have rarely been out of the headlines this season, but usually for all the wrong reasons. From early predictions the volatile Portuguese tactician wouldn’t see out the season to scrutiny of the club’s worst start to a Premier League campaign in history, enough copy has been written about the Red Devils that a few dozen square acres of the Amazon rainforest had to be pulped just to keep up with demand.

Yet, going into this Sunday’s crunch game against their noisy neighbours, Manchester United seem to be in the midst of what you could tentatively term a patch of good form. Unbeaten in the league since September, and fresh off the back of a dramatic 2-1 win over Italian giants Juventus, the usual looming trepidation that grips United fans ahead of a meeting with City seems to have been tempered somewhat.

In fact, United looked so much like an actual football team against Juventus, it prompted everyone’s favourite curmudgeon Martin Keown to announce that it was their “best ever European performance.” Tongue firmly in cheek, we think – well, we f*cking hope – as the result wasn’t even United’s best result in Turin on a Wednesday night, let alone “ever.”

For once, an absolute spanking appears not to be on the cards. Well, actually, don’t speak too soon – Chris Smalling is likely to start, after all.

On the positive front, Paul Pogba seems to have remembered his profession is that of a footballer, Luke Shaw has continued his excellent start to the season and Victor Lindelof is finally beginning to look like a man who actively wants to keep the ball out of his own goal.

But perhaps most tellingly of all in the club’s recent resurgence is the long-awaited dropping of Romelu Lukaku.

In his second season with the Red Devils following his £75 million move from Everton, the hulking Belgian forward still hasn’t really hit the kind of form that persuaded Ed Woodward to fork out such an exuberant sum of money in the first place. And now it seems even his biggest advocate, José Mourinho, has finally run out of patience with the wayward Lukaku.

The drudgery of Manchester United’s lack of attacking impetus can be placed partly on Mourinho’s negative tactics, but a portion of the blame has to lie on a striker who still doesn’t know what his best role is. Incapable of providing the movement and link-up play of Sanchez, unable to offer the direct nature of Martial and Rashford, and – bizarrely, given his enormous size – utterly bereft of any ability to hold the ball up and win flick-ons like Fellaini, Lukaku’s days as an automatic starter have been numbered for some time.

So, over the course of United’s last three games, Mourinho has done away with the Belgian in favour of the far more mobile Sanchez, Rashford and Martial. The result? United have counter-attacked teams with pace, their three forwards interchanging seamlessly to keep defenders guessing, and – surprise, surprise – have reaped nine points from a possible nine.

In that period, Martial has come alive, contributing two goals in three outings and bagging himself a MOTM award, Rashford snatched a late winner against Bournemouth, and Sanchez has provided two assists.

In contrast, in his last ten games for United – of which he played the full ninety minutes in nine of them –  Romelu Lukaku has scored a solitary goal. One single goal that went in off his ballbag from three yards out. It was literally more difficult to miss.

Now, we feel some level of sympathy for Lukaku; it cannot be easy nor enjoyable to play as the lone forward in a Jose Mourinho side. The Portuguese tactician is so intent on remaining tight at the back that a single striker seems like a luxury at times. But Lukaku does not endear himself to the cause.

Considering he’s put on about twenty kilos of muscle since his leaner days of yore over in Merseyside, it wouldn’t be remiss to think he could now function successfully as a target man. The perfect outball for Mourinho’s defensive tactics, able to bring clearances out of the sky, hold off defenders and allow the likes of Rashford and Martial to catch up with play on the counter.

The only problem is that Lukaku is more-often-than-not chasing his own touch down the M1. And when he’s not spooning simple passes out for throw-ins, he’s losing aerial duels to Bilbo Baggins. And when he’s had enough of that, he’s trying step-overs with the same level of coordination as a newborn fawn.

It seems daft to call for reinforcements in the striking department considering how bereft of talent United are in other more pressing areas of the pitch, but Lukaku’s profligacy has become such a concern that the woeful Sanchez has managed to displace him. Since the Chilean joined from Arsenal, his form has been erratic at best, but a run in the central striking role seems to have solved two of Mourinho’s problems.

Sanchez is not only far more mobile, far savvier and much more hard-working than Lukaku, but he is finally demonstrating the sort of talent that endeared him to Arsenal fans for so long.

Thus, ahead of the Manchester Derby on Sunday, the official line from the red side of the city is that Lukaku is struggling with an injury ahead of the game. In reality, it seems far more likely that the Belgian will continue his exile for his poor form. If United are to combat Guardiola’s possession-heavy approach, they will have to do so with quick, incisive counter-attacking football. Having a seven-foot power-lifter with the first touch of a trampoline up front is hardly conducive to that.

On the bright side though, despite his struggles, Lukaku can seek solace in the fact he’s not the worst Belgian striker in the Premier League. Over to you, Christian Benteke.