By 90Min
November 12, 2018

Four wins out of their last seven games in all competitions puts Manchester United in a reasonable (if not great) position form wise but the fact that the last of their victories - a shock 1-2 win at the home of Italian champions Juventus - was followed by a defeat to bitter rivals Manchester City certainly dulls the mood around Old Trafford a little.

The defeat on Sunday, in which Jose Mourinho's side were truly outclassed by their noisy neighbours, only adds to their list niggling woes. While much of the media attention is focused on José Mourinho and Paul Pogba's struggles at the club, the dip in form of striker Romelu Lukaku has gone somewhat under the radar.

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The Belgium international came on as a substitute in United's match at the Etihad Stadium, winning the penalty that briefly seemed like it might spark another comeback for Mourinho's men.

Despite his impact in winning the spot kick at the weekend, Lukaku has now endured nine appearances in all competitions for United without a goal. To put that into further context, Lukaku hasn't scored since 15 September.

Plenty of reasons have been discussed as to why his form has been so poor, with a majority of observers taking the easy route of criticising the forward's ability. Yet the least entertained of these isn't so much to do with Lukaku's quality but the one he's been missing from his teammates.

The most basic definition of what being a typical winger in football entails is having great pace and dribbling ability, so as to provide cut-backs or crosses from which strikers can score.

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United have top class wide options in Alexis Sánchez, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford and each possess speed and dribbling ability in abundance. However, what has often proved each player's downfall is the one most important quality required to fulfil a winger's primary duty and that is distribution.

Crossing statistics in the Premier League so far place Ashley Young as Man Utd's top distributor, with 62 crosses attempted. Luke Shaw comes in second with 31 crosses, while Juan Mata is third with 29.

What comes as a worry with these numbers is none of the aforementioned trio are wingers by trade and those that are aren't producing well in this department compared to their fellow teammates, choosing instead to cut inside and attempt to score.

Manchester United v Everton FC - Premier League

The underlying impact that has on a striker of Lukaku's calibre is it lessens the distribution that is a key part of his game, thus affecting his chances of getting on the scoresheet. Put simple, United's wingers neglect their main responsibility at the detriment of his.

When the Red Devils paid Everton £75m to sign Lukaku last year, they got themselves a predominantly old school centre-forward - tall, muscular, a poacher on the ground, a menace in the air - but, getting the best out of the striker was always going to rely on the quality of their distribution, particularly from the flanks.

Lukaku's last two seasons at Everton bear evidence to this, as the former Chelsea man scored a total of ten headed goals, while he has only scored half that amount since joining United last season.

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It's undoubted that wingers in modern football have evolved. No longer are these players simply required to support the team's main source of goals but they too share the responsibility of putting the ball in the back of the net.

However, part of the reason Mourinho is one of the game's best managers is he champions basic football: defenders defend, midfielders and wingers build attacks, strikers finish them. Any player who has fallen out of that line over the years has often found himself left out of the Portuguese manager's plans - little surprise that Sánchez, Martial and Rashford (gifted wingers who have all but expressed a desire to play centrally) have themselves struggled under his system.

The solution? Man Utd need an out-and-out winger. In fact, another look back to recent statistics proves that having an old fashioned winger put the Red Devils amongst the league's best distributors, figures which Lukaku would thrive under today.

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Since the 2010/11 Premier League season, just two players have recorded over 200 crosses in a campaign for Man Utd, namely Nani and Ángel Di María. Both players were wingers in their prime and what stood them out was their ability to prioritise their most basic skill of crossing before anything else.

United's current wingers could use a page out of the duo's book but looking ahead, manager Mourinho needs to seriously consider purchasing a traditional winger, as that is currently the missing link in his side's attack and it not only hampers Lukaku but the fullbacks that take on wingers' responsibilities at the risk of leaving gaps open in defence.


The closest the Red Devils have come to addressing the issue is their pursuit of Inter's Ivan Perišić last year. The Croatian's potential transfer to United fell through due to the club feeling he wasn't worth Inter's £50m valuation. Perišić, though, still represents the perfect wing option for their forward line and Man Utd should target a player of his quality in the coming transfer windows.

For Lukaku, returning to regular game time and adding to his four goals so far remains his key focus but the sooner his manager finds a player to compliment the striker's attributes, the better for all concerned at Old Trafford.

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