Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford's lack of goals poses a tricky problem for Jose Mourinho
Old Trafford was not dubbed the 'Theatre of Dreams' by Sir Bobby Charlton as an invitation for Manchester United's adversaries to touch down at Greater Manchester and go on to realize their dreams. If anything, it was intended to be a theatre of nightmares for the visitors; fuelled by the temerity that an abundance of goals would put any opposition in their place.
Living up to that billing would have been quite the exercise but the Red Devils seemed motivated to maintain shape and keep up appearances. Wins came with a sense of familiarity and the Stretford End lapped it all up with a sort of arrogant entitledness.
The Premier League has never really endured a spell where a scarcity of strikers was conducive to a lack of excitement. Over the past few years, the likes of Harry Kane and Romelu Lukaku flew in the face of initial expectations and made a reputation for themselves as ruthless hitmen who made a habit of pulverizing opposition defences.
Harry Kane has kept it going for 4 seasons and has now laid a rock solid foundation for a 5th consecutive impressive campaign. However, Romelu Lukaku's goals have dwindled to a trickle. While Harry Kane has gone from strength to strength, the former Everton frontman looks to be letting his flaws define him.
As a result, the goals have dried up at Old Trafford. If earlier the teams visited Old Trafford hoping to still wander about the turf after the 90 minutes to gather their lost bearings, they now show up with megaphones singing battle cries and brimming with hope.
To compound the doldrums at Old Trafford, Manchester United's homegrown pride Marcus Rashford has been having an abysmal spell in front of goal. The youngster who is tipped to go on to be one of the finest strikers of his generation has often acted too hassled when presented with sumptuous opportunities and has buried his confidence six feet deep when he should be flying high as he is waved on by the Trafford faithful.
But there's a twist in the tale. Neither Romelu Lukaku nor Marcus Rashford has struggled for their national teams. In fact, they have been quite the opposite. Romelu Lukaku has scored 14 goals from 14 goals for Belgium this year. He scored 4 in 6 games in the World Cup, 4 in 2 in the UEFA Nations League and has maintained a steady and impressive rate of 6 in 6 in other international friendlies.
Similarly, Marcus Rashford is starting to become a regular feature for Gareth Southgate's side. Rashford, whilst not being the main goalscoring outlet for the Three Lions has still managed to score 2 goals in 4 UEFA Nations League appearances in addition to the 2 he scored from 6 appearances in friendlies having started only 3 of those.
Though the problems appear to be quite similar on paper, the solutions for both are practically very different. While both have struggled to put easy goalscoring chances away to the point that they are expected to not convert when released into advantageous positions, their roles, in the Manchester United setup, are quite different from each other.
That Jose Mourinho is taking longer than bystanders to recognize this is perhaps Manchester United's biggest problem. In fact, swapping their parts would serve United better; in fact, it's difficult to even fathom any worse from 2 talented Manchester United strikers who should be operating close to their primes.
Romelu Lukaku thrives for Belgium by virtue of having incredible ballers like Kevin De Bruyne, Dries Mertens and Eden freaking Hazard feeding him perfectly weighted delicacies into his path. Lukaku's physicality is not all about being the incredible Hulk among puny humans. Or to put it differently, he works better when he's not limited to being the landing strip for speculative missiles hurled into opposition territory.
For a man of his stature, Romelu Lukaku has incredible pace and shepherds the ball well when driving into roadblocks. If you look at Manchester United's good form during the initial weeks of last season, you could see that Lukaku would drop a lot deeper than he does of late and in fact, starts off many counter attacks, be it by deftly sliding the ball into the path of a winger or by taking charge of the situation and going headlong against backpedaling defenders.
However, the big Belgian seems to have lost touch with his old self. Banished to the station in and around the final third, Lukaku's pretty impotent as his stats would suggest. The Manchester United no.9 is neither great at aerial duels nor good at finding space in the area. His first-touch has gone down the tubes and that probably has got a lot to do with the lack of confidence stemming from a lack of goals.
Sure, Lukaku's build affords Jose Mourinho the opportunity to play a target man in addition to Fellaini and that also bore a rare fruit as they scraped past Young Boys in a game they hardly deserved to walk away with points at all. Just why Lukaku's tasks are not being altered to fit the craftsman is baffling.
Mourinho should know better than this. He should know better than not to flail his hands in frustration and blow raspberries when a 21-year-old misses an opportunity and is going through the toughest spell in his short career.
In that now famous comeback win against Newcastle United that more or less helped keep Mourinho at the helm, the Manchester United players were constantly looking over at the touchline. After the game, Mourinho himself said that he gave the players more freedom and benefitted from it. As a result, Manchester United players went about their football and scored 3 goals.
Marcus Rashford is now looking at the touchline intermittently and that's the last thing he needs at this point in time. Mourinho's old-school methods are starting to get predictable and there are indications that it is getting to Rashford. That Mourinho's patience with him is wearing thin. That this one might prove to be the penultimate, decisive miss. That he has failed to deliver on the faith that has been invested in him so lavishly as Mourinho himself claims every now and then.
Add that to Mourinho's general condescending attitude towards the young generation, warranted or unwarranted, Marcus Rashford's head could get noisier than the Heathrow Airport. Rashford's last goal for Manchester United came against Bournemouth. It was scrappy. He had missed an easier one before that.
He missed several chances against Everton. Where he should have been celebrating a hattrick, he walked off the field with his head bowed. It's become ever so difficult to spot a smile on the Wythenshawe born youngster's face these days.
It would be unfair to ask Mourinho to not demand goals from Rashford because, despite his age, he has played 3 full seasons now for Manchester United and has proved on multiple occasions that he is more than capable of the remarkable.
Rashford's finishing has suffered recently but he is still quite a handful for defenders. Rashford's still got that electric pace and the skill to outwit defenders. Conditions just need to be tweaked a little to bring his productive streak back. Jose Mourinho and the fans need to get behind him and keep him going because that boy wonder can power through this and when he comes out, and he will come out, the other side, he will only be stronger.
Mourinho is more scrutinized and called out than any other manager in Europe and maybe he is still doing right by Rashford at Carrington. But we will not get a good picture until Manchester United's sufferings goes off demand across the world and the British media stops distorting our visions with marketable speculation. For now, it continues to pay a lot of bills.
The Portuguese will not change things on its head. That's just not how things work with Jose Mourinho. But what he has to do now is help both Lukaku and Rashford play to their strengths- something he has managed to do effectively in the past.
Both strikers are not unfamiliar with slumps. Lukaku has endured worse last season and it won't be long before he gets a goal at Old Trafford that could so easily mark a watershed moment. But if things continue to be the same, the task at hand for Romelu Lukaku and Marcus Rashford will be no easier than a broke magician with no accessories no less a rabbit, forced to pull one out of a hat.