Roaming Romelu Lukaku plays to his strengths as Manchester United dance their way past Arsenal in the FA Cup


Takudzwa Chikonzo reflects over Manchester United’s thrilling 3-1 win over Arsenal in the FA Cup – particularly Romelu Lukaku’s performance.

As the saying goes, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”, and as Romelu Lukaku placed his hands over his ears as he took in the dissent and monotonous groans of the home fans, Manchester United’s centre forward found his own will, his own identity, in the hustle and bustle of their 3-1 win over Arsenal in the FA Cup.

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His role epitomized the sort of tactical flexibility that has accompanied Ole Gunnar Solskjær in his time as United boss, and although they weren’t able to keep a clean sheet, the seriousness of the team’s performance would have been appreciated by the supporters especially.

The FA Cup may be United’s main hope of silverware and therefore this win can only add to the positive air surrounding the club.

Familiarity breeds positive results

This role isn’t unfamiliar to him, of course. His exploits in Belgium’s impressive win over Brazil in last year’s World Cup received glamorous reviews, Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry the think tanks behind the tactical tinkering.

At the Emirates Stadium, in providing two assists – first for the prodigal son, Alexis Sánchez, then the late Michael Jackson’s heir, Jesse Lingard – Lukaku showed a different side to his goal-scoring one and exploited the naivety in some of Arsenal’s defending.

And for all of the hullabaloo about his first touch and heaving playing style, this was Roaming Romelu at his very best – drifting out onto the right-hand side, enjoying the spaces left behind by Sead Kolasinac and taking Laurent Koscielny for a merry ride.

Although he didn’t score, that sort of willingness to stretch defences and contribute to the continued improvement of this team will sit well with Ole Gunnar Solskjær and supporters alike.

Healthy competition upfront

With Marcus Rashford’s impressive form as of late, a starting place at the front end of the pitch has not been easy to come by for Lukaku. Quietly, he has contributed coming off the bench, most notably against Newcastle United, but Rashford’s confidence cannot be underestimated or taken for granted.

However, Lukaku must continue to breathe down Rashford’s neck. He wasn’t brought to the club to warm the bench and watch from the sidelines.

A player of his pedigree should be leading the line more often than not, but such has been Rashford’s rise that it has been difficult to leave him out of the side.

And with good reason – he has been a model of consistency since being given his chance, and many would love to see him continue. It’s a healthy challenge that could bring the best out of both players, something that has been lacking as Lukaku’s place became untouchable.

Now, nobody is safe.

Solskjær brings back the feel-good factor

Eight games in, Solskjær’s reign continues with his eighth win in a row.

The players are enjoying the new energy that has been brought to Old Trafford and, most importantly, the supporters have bought into this fantasia with one of their own at the helm.

It cannot be understated how important it was to bring the supporters back onside, even if it’s for an interim period.

Whoever becomes the permanent manager will have the cushion of the supporters’ positive outlook on United’s potential on the pitch.

The board, especially, must buy into this and ensure that the next manager is someone who can also bring the best out of the players, which will, in turn, allow the supporters to enjoy being part of the United brand once again.

For too long, the fit hasn’t been right and the supporters had become alienated from the club they loved. But Solskjær has played the role well and strummed on the strings of the supporters’ hearts.

A sign of things to come for Lukaku?

Ridiculed for being a mismatch for what United needed as a real fit for the centre forward position, Lukaku now has a manager who seems to understand how to use him positively, and leverage his better qualities.

It would be easy to put Lukaku in the usual “pace and power” narrative, but this performance highlighted a more intelligent side to his game and brought the best out of the likes of Sánchez and Lingard.

And, time is on his side – he’s still only 25 – to continue his football learning, and who better to learn from than Solskjær?

If he can show the same enthusiasm as Rashford has, then United could potentially have a very potent front-line that could be up there with the very best in the league.

His first touch and link-up play still need refinement to reach the highest level expected of a United centre-forward. But for now, the positives from this performance firmly outweigh the negatives.

Kolasinac now knows not to vacate his position as enthusiastically as he did. Koscielny won’t try to play Lukaku offside like that again. And United’s supporters may start to feel like they have a real centre-forward that they can count on – a roaming number nine who sent Arsenal’s defenders on a merry dance.

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