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Romelu Lukaku, Jose Mourinho

Why the return of Zlatan Ibrahimovic could help Romelu Lukaku rediscover his form

Romelu Lukaku made a fantastic start to life at Manchester United. With some doubting his ability to make the step up from Everton - where he benefited from being a big fish in a small pond - the Belgian seemed to answer his critics with 11 goals in his opening 10 games. 

However, since Jose Mourinho opted to take his foot off the gas in United’s 0-0 draw with Liverpool, Lukaku's form has dipped. He barely got a touch of the ball at Anfield, but blew the one good chance his team had to score.

While plenty of responsibility hangs with the rest of his team, especially players like Henrikh Mkhitaryan whose inclusion in the team is supposed to bring the best out of the No.9, it’s hard to excuse Lukaku completely.

Mourinho’s false claim that United fans weren’t supporting him surely hasn’t helped. The grumbling when he repeatedly failed to hold up the ball is a normal reaction to any player and certainly isn’t indicative of a fan base who have turned on their striker. Some media outlets have gone as far as to claim that Lukaku has been booed by the supporters, which is totally inaccurate.

If Mourinho was trying to motivate the player or shake up the fans with his statements about the relationship between Lukaku and the supporters, he failed.

Lukaku’s barren spell continued last weekend, and his failure to touch the ball inside Chelsea's box should set alarm bells ringing. The manager claimed in his post-match interview that this statistic wasn’t a concern, but it is in fact hugely worrying.

That’s not necessarily to say Lukaku is entirely at fault, but there are clearly problems with either the player or the way Mourinho is setting the team up if his centre-forward doesn’t get the ball in the box.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic is set to return from injury next month and will provide Lukaku with some competition, presuming he returns in good shape. Some United supporters seem to be of the thinking that this is the return of the Prodigal Son and that the Swedish striker will be banging the goals in every week.

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While he was United’s top scorer last season, many are forgetting all the sitters the Swede missed. In terms of the best chances, he missed more than any other player in the league last term. Despite being injured for the final month or more of the season, he racked up 18 big chances missed, with second-placed Benik Afobe missing 13.

Yet the return of Ibrahimovic may bring out the best in Lukaku, either through his presence on the field or on the bench. Mourinho may opt to start both players in some games. The creativity, height and strength of Zlatan should help Lukaku, just as the promise of him replacing him on the field if he doesn’t score might provoke better performances.

Lukaku currently has next to no competition for his place. Marcus Rashford has been used up front in some cup games, but in the league Mourinho likes to play him out wide. However professional or motivated a player might be, there has to be an added edge to their game when they know they are playing for their position in the team. At the moment Lukaku knows, whether he scores or not, he will be playing in the next game.

Some have written United off already, claiming that rivals Manchester City will walk away with the league title, and all the signs currently point to that. But we’re not even a third of the way through the season yet. Pep Guardiola may continue to keep his players at the top, but it’s worth noting they were top of the table after 12 games last season too. In the end, they finished 15 points behind champions Chelsea.

There’s a long way to go and the return of Ibrahimovic could be key to United. Yes, for the goals that he will likely contribute, but also for the positives that his presence could bring to Lukaku.

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