José Mourinho was at his most succinct. For the ninth time in 10 matches his £75m striker had failed to find the net. “He didn’t score,” the Manchester United manager said. “I don’t care.” The Portuguese can be a master of deception and diversionary tactics. Sometimes, however out of character it may appear, he is simply voicing an honest opinion.
Because when Romelu Lukaku was averaging a goal a game, Mourinho’s mantra was that it did not matter. When his biggest summer signing opened his league account against West Ham, his manager averred that there was “no pressure from me”. After Lukaku struck in the win over his former club Everton, Mourinho said: “He knows that for me there is no pressure for goalscoring.” When flood has given way to drought, United’s manager has displayed a consistency of argument.
His demands stretch beyond putting the ball in the net. His talismanic strikers, from Didier Drogba to Diego Costa, have been scorers but also warriors. No one else was named in his evaluation of Lukaku’s display against Brighton on Saturday but there were echoes of his quintessential centre-forwards and an old United attacker alike.
There are recurring themes. Mourinho cherishes a commitment to the collective. He calls for individuals to subsume themselves to a greater cause. He wants champagne footballers to display the work ethic of water carriers. He likes an absence of ego in the way they approach their defensive duties.
Lukaku ticked his boxes. “In the last minute he was fighting and running back like he was in the first minute so I think it is also a mentality question,” his manager said. United’s winner stemmed from a contentious corner. The way Lukaku won it, Mourinho suggested, was “phenomenal”. Much of a penalty-box poacher’s best work came near corner flags at either end of the pitch.
On a day when the left-back claimed the winner – “I think the rule is if it is on target then they give you the benefit of the doubt so I’ll launch an appeal for it to be my goal,” said Ashley Young, whose deflected shot was debited as a Lewis Dunk own goal – the supposed finisher finished up as an auxiliary full-back; it was Mourinho, after all, who turned Samuel Eto’o into an ancillary right-back in Inter’s 2010 Champions League victory.
“The way Romelu ends the game making tackles in the left-back position: that is the mentality I want,” Mourinho said. It brought back memories of the man with whom he traded clubs in the summer. In the days when his energy appeared endless, that used to be Wayne Rooney’s party trick; if many a defender is a frustrated forward, Rooney seemed a wannabe left-back, forever materialising in Patrice Evra’s domain. It was seen as evidence of an irrepressible appetite to be involved.
The former Chelsea and Everton forward Lukaku has not always appeared to be a kindred spirit. He ranked 503rd and last among outfield Premier League players for average distance covered in the 2015-16 season. He used his physical attributes in explosive bursts forward, not frequently tracking back. Yet a player long compared to Drogba may have adopted the approach that once made his childhood hero pivotal for Mourinho at Stamford Bridge.
It is a question of attitude. “And unfortunately not every player is the same,” Mourinho elaborated. “Players are men, men are different. Men are unique cases. Some guys are capable to go into the limits of their efforts and some other guys, even with a lot of talent, they don’t manage to do that, so Romelu for me was fantastic.”The paradox, perhaps, is that Mourinho judges managers, especially those with inferior records to him, on their results, but not forwards on their goal returns. Yet his history validates that line of thought. His success has not been dependent on a striker scoring. His centre-forward has never won the Golden Boot in the seasons when he won the Premier League.
The concept of his strikers taking on new responsibilities in deeper roles was also highlighted by the sight of Marcus Rashford masquerading as No10. “Marcus did not have a happy match at all,” said Mourinho. The 20-year-old completed one of his 13 crosses. It almost brought a goal for Lukaku. That could have altered perceptions. But not Mourinho’s: his assessment of Lukaku is not based upon goals.
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