Romelu Lukaku had an absolute nightmare on derby day, with memories of his perfect start a distant memory.
He couldn’t have enjoyed a better beginning to life at Manchester United following his transfer from Everton. He scored in his debut against Real Madrid, then continued to find the back of the net in practically every game.
Then, against Tottenham Hotspur, he failed to get on the scoresheet, but it was his brilliant header that assisted Anthony Martial’s winner.
At the time, Lukaku had seven goals and three assists in 10 league games and the fans were delighted with him. His inability to hold up the ball on a couple of occasions against Spurs had lead to grumbles from the crowd, but no more than would be the case for any player.
The fans were disappointed that United had given away possession, rather than personally having an issue with the striker. However, with the scoreline at 0-0, Mourinho opted to bring on Jesse Lingard for Henrikh Mkhitaryan, with Martial still on the bench.
When Mourinho did finally bring the Frenchman on, it was for arguably the most dangerous looking player on the pitch, Marcus Rashford. The fans wanted Martial on, but they wanted to see him playing up front alongside the Frenchman, not in place of him.
United were playing a back three with wing-backs. They had two holding midfielders. The fans wanted to see one of them taken off as United chased the win, so the announcement of the substitution was booed.
After the game, with Mourinho clearly having his nose put out of joint by the fans’ reaction, and hearing the grumbles for when Lukaku lost the ball, the manager claimed that the fans weren’t supporting the striker. Had he honestly interpreted the boos over the substitution to mean they had wanted Lukaku to be taken off?
Or did he honestly believe a few grumbles, which plenty of players have been on the receiving end of (none more than Lingard) without any comment from the manager, meant a lack of support for the striker? It was odd.
“I would like the supporters to explain to me why they don’t support him so much because he gives everything,” Mourinho said.
Fans who were inside Old Trafford that afternoon were left scratching their heads, puzzled at what he could possibly be getting at.
A couple of days later, ahead of United’s Champions League game against Benfica, Mourinho was still banging the same drum.
“The fans paid their ticket, they are free to express themselves the way they want to express,” he said. “But my job is to protect my players and I think Romelu is one of the players that should be untouchable in terms of the respect from everyone.”
The idea that Lukaku needed Mourinho to speak out to ensure that he was respected was bizarre. The fans had very little reason to complain given how regularly he had been banging the goals in at that point.
Yet these comments from Mourinho sparked some large media outlets to claim Lukaku had been booed by United fans.
But… but… nothing had happened!
When Lukaku was interviewed, he was asked to respond to his critics. He was being told the United fans were on his back and he was asked how he felt about it.
“I think a lot of people are judging me as the finished article,” Lukaku said. “I’m 24 – you can’t judge me as the finished article.”
It’s no surprise that the striker has felt under pressure or has suffered from lacking confidence after being made to believe the fans were against him.
Lukaku has scored just twice in the nine games since Mourinho told the world that the striker didn’t have the fans support. Whatever the manager was trying to achieve in speaking out over a non-event, he failed.
The striker looks like a shadow of the player he was at the start of the season. That’s not to say he hasn’t played an important role in the lead up to several goals in this barren time, especially in the win over Arsenal at the Emirates, because he has, and that is a valued contribution, but not the prime job of a striker.
The return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic was supposed to keep Lukaku on his toes and bring back the goals but it hasn’t worked out that way. He missed a great opportunity to equalise for United against Manchester City on Sunday, having already been guilty of the poor clearance that gifted their rivals the winner.
Lukaku is clearly a brilliant striker. His goals tally speaks for itself, particularly when you consider that he was scoring for teams with players much less gifted than the likes of Paul Pogba, Rashford and Martial to set him up.
He is only 24 and is already Belgium’s top goal scorer, and plenty of those goals were scored at a time when they weren’t the decent international team they are viewed as today.
But that doesn’t mean he’s untouchable and that doesn’t mean he should play every week irregardless of form, particularly when United have two young players who have been enjoying great form and have their eye on his no.9 role.
At which point does Mourinho bite the bullet and allow Rashford or Martial to play as the main striker?
Or when does he give Ibrahimovic a starting role?
Knowing Mourinho, and how stubborn he is, United supporters might be in for quite a wait. And if was to get wind of any United fan calling for Lukaku to be dropped, he’d likely interpret that as a lack of respect for the striker.
He’s wrong though. United fans like Lukaku, they want him to do well, but then also don’t see why he should be guaranteed a starting place when other forwards could do a better job than him, at this moment in time.
Instead of creating rifts with no foundation, maybe Mourinho would have better luck in bringing the best out of Lukaku if he rested him for a game or two.
United fans shouldn’t hold their breath in waiting for that to happen though.