Romelu Lukaku: Manchester United's unsung hero
The race for the Premier League title has long been over. While earlier it had seemed like both the Manchester teams were going to be in a race for English football's top prize, it turned out to be rather one dimensional with Manchester United's "noisy neighbours" running away with the title with relative ease, as United fell more than 10 points behind the league leaders.
The Red Devils were fancied in a race for the league title. However, they are currently in the race for second place instead. United have now seemingly clinched on to the second position by defeating Liverpool on Saturday.
Marcus Rashford scored two goals and was a constant thorn in Liverpool's defence. Other than the young speedster, one man who also played a key role in United's victory was the big Belgian striker, Romelu Lukaku.
Against their bitter Merseyside rivals, the former Everton man registered an assist and it was his pass that set-up the second goal. 'Big Rom' would have certainly etched himself a place among the United supporters, as he valiantly fought, bullied and often got the better of Liverpool's centre-backs.
Dejan Lovren, who was quite vocal about going up against Lukaku before the game, was particularly tormented by the Belgian all night long.
Lukaku has been brilliant in the recent weeks and has produced two brilliant performances against high calibre oppositions such as Chelsea and Liverpool. He is also currently United's top scorer. Generally, this should warrant him praise but on the contrary, he has only faced criticism.
Has Lukaku really been poor?
Lukaku has faced the major brunt of criticism for United's attacking troubles this season. The Red Devils haven't really been poor offensively, though they have had troubles in fluently attacking against the "big six".
However, it's not just against bigger teams, the Reds from Manchester have also faced troubles against certain lower ranked teams like Huddersfield Town, Newcastle United, Stoke City, etc.
United's occasional goal scoring problems can't solely be blamed on Lukaku. It can be argued that he hasn't been the only United forward who has often displayed poor finishing skills.
Other forwards such as Saturday's hero Rashford, Anthony Martial and even star signing Alexis Sanchez have been rather poor in front of goal. For instance, in the league this season, Rashford had a shooting accuracy of 53% and has scored just 6 goals, Martial has performed significantly better with a shooting accuracy of 63% and has got on the scoresheet 9 times.
The towering centre-forward has been somewhat of a sleeper hit. He started the season in hot form and quickly broke a club record by scoring in his first nine appearances for the club.
However, things changed and his purple patch soon abandoned him. Games passed on and his scoreless streak continued. He soon started scoring again but wasn't able to keep pace with the likes of Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah.
Lukaku has now scored 14 goals in the league but also has 7 crucial assists to his name. The numbers aren't spectacular but aren't quite average either. His biggest criticism has been that he is often ineffective during big games.
He was a highly prolific striker for Everton and guaranteed 20 goals a season. He often used to bully the defences of the "big six" sides for his previous clubs.
What has gone wrong for him at the Theatre Of Dreams? Or is he just a flat track bully?
The problem lies in Manchester United's attacking system. Jose Mourinho has always been infamous for a "defence first" approach. The Portuguese gaffer always sets up his teams, not to concede, to be organised and to leave little space behind.
His system is often criticised for not giving creative players enough freedom. However, Lukaku's troubles haven't really been caused by Mourinho's defensive approach. It's because of the way the team usually initiates an attack or a counter-attack.
Whenever facing a top quality opposition, United usually set-up deep and try to hurt their opposition on quick counter-attacks. As soon as they win possession, which is usually in their own half, the ball is sent either over the top of the defence for Lukaku to chase, or a long ball is hit towards him to help to get the team upfield.
Lukaku either chases the ball down tries to cut inside and look for a pass into the box or he simply holds the ball and lays it off for a teammate.
For instance, United's first goal against Liverpool on Saturday was scored in a similar way. David De Gea took a long goal kick aimed at Lukaku, who dropped a bit deep to win the headed challenge against Lovren.
The Belgian's flick-on header then brilliantly set up Rashford for the first goal of the evening. He had similarly set-up Martial's winner against Tottenham Hotspur in October 2017.
When they face a low ranked team, the opposition usually sits deep and tries to defend, which hardly leaves any spaces in between for United players to run into. Hence, in order to create space, Lukaku very unselfishly wanders off towards the edge of the penalty box.
This forces one of the oppositional centre-halves to follow him, leaving plenty of space in between. In this situation, if the ball is played to him he either lays it off for an onrushing Antonio Valencia or simply puts the ball into the penalty box.
For instance, this tactic was brilliantly showcased in the team's 2-1 defeat to Huddersfield Town earlier this season. Lukaku ran towards the edge of the penalty box to collect the ball, which led the Huddersfield defender to follow him. He then put in a brilliant cross for Rashford to score.
Lukaku's playing style was previously a bit different. In Everton, and during his early days as a Red Devil, the playing style of both teams was completely suited to his needs.
Being in a team that plays with blistering pace, power and uses quick through balls or put in early crosses, certainly suits his style as a goalscorer. For Everton, he scored a lot of goals running off the shoulder of the last defender to chase a through ball that would help him score.
During the early days of this season, Manchester United were playing with pace, vigour and were utilising a lot more through balls than they currently do.
Hence, Lukaku was scoring a lot more goals, a lot easier. However, they have tweaked their style to be a bit more defensively resolute which has, in turn, led Lukaku to make some changes as well. Hence, his creative side is relishing this new role and his increasing number of assists validates this.
The unsung hero: Deserves respect!
The former Chelsea man has undeniably been Manchester United's unsung hero. He received plenty of criticism for his dismal performance against Manchester City. However, he has since then recovered quite well.
He has been churning out good performances on a much more consistent basis and is developing into a complete striker. He already possessed the predatory instincts required to score goals and has now added the vision and altruistic nature of a playmaker to his game.
He might not have scored against the all the top six sides but his performances against high calibre opponents have become increasingly better. He registered a goal and an assist against Chelsea, another assist against Spurs, bossed the defenders against Arsenal and Liverpool.
Hence, it proves that he is definitely not a flat track bully either, and can get the job done against the big boys as well.
He has often been insulted and trolled by rival fans, but even many United fans have often been too critical of him. With his constantly increasing confidence and continuously improving skills, "Big Rom" will continue to prove his critics wrong.
His contributions have often gone unnoticed, as other players have been showered in all the glory. However, the fact is that he is currently one of the best players in the league and deserves much more respect than he actually receives.
He can certainly be relied on to get the team back in a game, and to win it. He is Manchester United's silent guardian - one the club, and the team desperately needs.