Missed opportunities and too many draws – an apt diagnosis of Manchester United’s 2016-17 Premier League ailments.
Jose Mourinho hopes the cure is to be found in Romelu Lukaku, who for £75million will feel the pressure to deliver at a club where expectations remain burdensome.
The issues that blighted United last season left them sixth in the table, with redemption sought and found in knockout competitions.
February’s EFL Cup triumph was followed by Europa League success, where the silverware mattered much less than the bonus prize of Champions League qualification.
A top-four spot was considered a secondary concern once the prospect of a back-door return to the European big-time loomed more sharply into view, but such concessions may not be tolerated again.
If a return to domestic supremacy is to be achieved in the face of stiff competition from across Manchester, down the M62 on Merseyside, and from London’s primary trio, a prolific goal-getter was an essential buy.
But is Lukaku the answer United were looking for?
26 – Romelu Lukaku’s 26 goals in all comps last season was the most by an Everton player since Gary Lineker (40 in 1985-86). Crisp. pic.twitter.com/oYJEiBJU5Y
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 6, 2017
CAN HE FILL ZLATAN’S BOOTS?
That urgent need for a striker was evident even before it was decided that Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s future lay away from Old Trafford.
The charismatic Swede shone brightly in his one season in red, his 17 league goals representing almost a third of the side’s tally.
At 35, he was never the long-term solution that Lukaku – 11 years his junior – could prove to be.
— Zlatan Ibrahimović (@Ibra_official) February 27, 2017
The Belgian, who was sold by Mourinho when the pair were together at Chelsea, has delivered on his immense potential at Everton and enjoyed double-figure returns in five consecutive seasons, which encompasses a spell with West Brom.
He scored 25 top-flight goals last term for a Toffees side that finished below United. On the stats alone, there should be little doubt over the merits of signing Lukaku.
But at United, perhaps more so than at any other club, there is a demand for even a proven talent to prove themselves again. Others have wilted under that pressure and Lukaku could also struggle if the goals do not flow from the off at Old Trafford.
BETTER THAN MORATA AND GRIEZMANN?
United’s pursuit of a headline forward signing took them down several dead ends before their raid on Goodison Park, which appeared to catch title holders Chelsea somewhat by surprise.
The most heavily linked player was Real Madrid’s Alvaro Morata, who looked primed to make the switch only for a reported breakdown in negotiations between the clubs to scupper the deal.
Like Lukaku, the Spaniard is only 24, but has cut his teeth in the more salubrious surroundings of Real Madrid and Juventus, coming nowhere near The Hawthorns.
That demonstration of an ability to perform under the demands that come with playing for a club such as Madrid was a clear tick in the box for Morata, and applies also to Antoine Griezmann.
Granted, Madrid’s other standout club are not on the same level as Los Blancos, but in his time with Atletico Griezmann has competed for LaLiga honours and featured in the Champions League final.
Lukaku has no such experience under his belt and yet those are the occasions on which United have their sights set.
PRESSURE TO DELIVER IN THE BIG GAMES
Critics of Lukaku suggest he does not deliver on the biggest stages, in the matches against the toughest opponents, in moments when his goals are most needed.
The facts do support the theory, with Lukaku having scored only four of his 25 goals against the end-of-season top six.
He drew a blank in both meetings with his new employers and suffered a repeat double dose against his old club, too.
Such stats do give credence to the sceptics’ views.
If United are to challenge at home and abroad, they will look to the likes of Paul Pogba and Lukaku – for whom they have paid a combined £164m – to find a way through the best defences.
If you pay top dollar you demand maximum return. And away from the cosy surroundings of their Los Angeles playpad, from where their frequent social media posts have bordered on the cringeworthy, they will need to prove United’s investment was prudent.
The jury is still out.
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