There have been few memorable performances by opposing players at Old Trafford that truly resonate with United fans but I’m sure we can all remember the odd one or two. Ronaldo’s performance for Real Madrid in 2003 springs to mind, where after bagging a hat-trick, he received a standing ovation from the fans whose team he’d just annihilated, such was the awe he’d inspired.
There are also two Arsenal players who’ve transcended the bounds of tribalism to reach out across the segregation and become etched into legend by many Reds for their displays at the Theatre of Dreams. Igor Stepanovs ‘performance’ against United in 2001 was so bad, Kevin Gallacher, who was co-commentating on the game for Sky Sports, labelled it the ‘worst performance by a professional footballer’ he’d ever witnessed as the hapless Gooner helped to gift Dwight Yorke a hat-trick as the Reds ran riot 6-1. Stepanovs looked like a man who’d won a competition to play at Old Trafford, couldn’t make it so asked his blind grandma to take his place, the story of how he ended up at Arsenal is well worth a read. As if inspired by such an insipid display, just over a decade later Johan Djourou gave a performance so bad it made Stepanovs look like Franco Baresi’s better older brother. It’s almost slipped under the radar over the years when we look back at the 8-2, just how p*ss poor the Swiss international was that day. It was an exercise of inability mixed with indifference to produce a performance of quite remarkable awfulness.
Unfortunately for United fans the recent Manchester derby didn’t give us a Stepanovs or a Djorou in the City side, but it did give us a performance by one of our own that was so inept it almost made you wonder if there was anyway it could have been worse – the FA report from the post-match tunnel fracas may answer that question.
Romelu Lukaku had the sort of 90 minutes against City that made Patrice Evra’s United debut look positively masterful. The Belgian striker not only missed an absolute sitter from six yards, sent another shot into the Stretford End when put through on goal on his weaker foot and dithered so badly on the other occasion he was put through on his stronger foot that he didn’t even get his shot off, he was also directly responsible for both of City’s goals. It was like Stephen King had decided to pen a book about the Manchester derby and chosen Lukaku as his protagonist.
Lukaku’s demise- and I don’t use the word lightly – has been startling and it’s in danger of causing United’s season to implode as the man trusted with being the focal point of the Reds’ attack now seems more suited to peeling the half-time oranges. After scoring seven league goals in his first seven games at the club, Lukaku has now managed just one in his next eight, that coming during the rout against lowly Newcastle. If it were just goals missing from the former Evertonian’s game that would be worrying enough, but it’s much more, he looks bereft of confidence, his touch is dreadful and his decision making Nani- on a bad day-esque. If it weren’t for the fact he’s big, strong and fast he’d be bringing absolutely nothing to the side, which considering his part in two of City’s goals last weekend, may actually be an improvement.
Watching Match of the Day after a United loss is up there with catching chlamydia in the list of things you just don’t need to do, as two former players who usually have no affinity for United rip apart the team’s performance with the sort of glee you’d see from kids visiting Santa’s grotto. This Sunday though it was hard to argue with Alan Shearer or that other bald lad who used to score penalties against us for the scousers as they tore into United and Lukaku.
It was mistake after mistake, followed by embarrassing miss after embarrassing miss during the ‘analysis’ and we can argue the ABU brigade are picking on Lukaku but the fact is the Belgian looks so out of sorts, there’s a part of me wondering whether if it does transpire he battered half the City coaching staff in the tunnel after the game, maybe a short ban wouldn’t be the worst thing for him, just to take him out of the firing line of the media and the fans who are beginning to turn.
I say part of me, because that’s all it is – ‘part’ deep down, I’m of the belief that Lukaku is good enough for United and will turn this slump around. First of all you don’t score 150 odd goals by the time you’re 24 by being shit at association football, Lukaku obviously can score goals, he was doing it two months ago literally every week, he’s just lost his confidence for whatever reason and each game is making it worse not better.
Secondly we’ve seen it all before. Messrs Andy Cole and Teddy Sheringham both arrived at the club with huge expectations and took a season or two – or three – to truly find their feet, coming from a ‘big club’ like Spurs, Newcastle or Everton doesn’t ever fully prepare you for what life is like at Old Trafford. A player goes from being adored, pestered and watched in his own town to having every move, game, goal, or misplaced pass scrutinised by millions of fans around the world. It’s not even close, not to mention the expectation rising from ‘doing well’ to ‘being a vital part of your team becoming the best in the land’ which is what the demand is like at United.
Lukaku faces more pressure than Sheringham and Cole ever did, as he cost far more, even adjusted for inflation, joins a team where a bad season is finishing seventh not second and thanks to social media, has fans all over the globe who are able to directly criticise you without setting foot inside Old Trafford. It ain’t easy being United’s star striker but there is light at the end of the milk covered tunnel. United’s next six league games feature the likes of Bournemouth, Burnley, Southampton, Leicester, WBA and Everton, sides Lukaku is more than capable of regaining his mojo against, more pertinently Paul Pogba will return after West Brom away next week which can only help any striker who plays in front of him.
Pogba’s absence isn’t the be-all-and-end-all, but it does affect Lukaku as it deprives him of his best team mate and one who can often play the ball into the strikers feet the way he likes, not just hoofed up to his head with zero players remotely near him to profit from a knockdown, which is what we’ve seen of late.
There are obvious flaws in Lukaku’s game, his touch is worrying as his lack of a right foot but the raw talent is there, the eye for goal is there, not to mention the fact he’s shown positive signs in his link up play – the flick of for Martial vs Spurs, his part in Lingard’s first goal at the Emirates, he just needs a bit of support both on and off the pitch.
The goals will come as long as the chances are and in the mean time the fans can do what they did when Andy Cole was struggling, get behind him and show him why it’s not just trophies that have made Manchester United great over the years, either that or we can hope the opposition sign a Stepanovs or a Djourou, then the goals are guaranteed.