How do you improve on scoring just 26 goals at home in an entire season? You sign a £75m striker. Football is a simple game sometimes and in acquiring Romelu Lukaku, Manchester United may have answered Jose Mourinho’s most pressing concern.
Too many points dropped to the likes of West Ham United scuppered United’s last Premier League campaign, which was subsequently sacrificed for victory in the Europa League. By scoring twice here, with Anthony Martial and Paul Pogba’s late strike crowning a 4-0 victory, Lukaku not only extended his own healthy scoring record against the Hammers but eased fears of the same old problems rearing their head.
Lukaku and Nemanja Matic were handed their league debuts by Mourinho but United’s other summer signing was not included in the match day squad. Victor Lindelof’s pre-season performances could be described as shaky at best, with the £31m acquisition from Benfica looking a touch daunted by the new badge on his chest. Quite how dropping him for the league opener will help with that remains to be seen.
His teammates made a scrappy start to their new Premier League campaign, being dragged into a midfield battle of enthusiastic tackling with their visitors, but United gradually began to enjoy more and more time on the ball in the final third as the half progressed. Yet despite their dominance, they struggled to fashion efforts on Hart’s goal. After the struggles to score at home of Mourinho’s first year, returning season ticket holders could see a familiar pattern emerging.
The best of their few early chances came when Juan Mata slipped in behind, inviting on-loan Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart out to block the shot. The rebound fell to the feet of Lukaku but, six yards out, he appeared to stumble over his own size 13½s before Slaven Bilic’s defence cleared their lines. Mata was through again shortly after following a lovely looped pass over the top by Pogba, but the Spaniard’s square pass for Lukaku at the far post was cut out.
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The momentum was building but a breakthrough still felt some way off until just after the half-hour mark and some direct running from Rashford. Picking the ball up in his own half, the teenager set off charging at a muddled bunch of retreating defenders, making a cute shimmy to his right before playing the pass to slice through the West Ham line. Lukaku’s finish was emphatic, rebounding in off one of the uprights, and he rightly took the attention as a goal-scoring debutant, but Rashford’s quick, direct running made it.
Too often last year, United’s attack was cumbersome, particularly at Old Trafford. Zlatan Ibrahimovic was an excellent role model for the dressing room and a match-winner on his day, but he could slow United’s counters down and had a bad habit of missing good chances. Lukaku can, on occasion, perform just as awkwardly, but he has the lick of pace that no 35-year-old forward can match.
On this early evidence, United now have a focal point whose talents suit their desired style of play and one who can bring out the best of those around him. Rashford was slipped in shortly after the interval and left Pablo Zabaleta, another ex-City player making his debut for the visitors, for dead. The youngster’s effort was off target but it was a warning shot.
United and Lukaku’s second followed minutes later and was a reminder of the striker’s power rather than pace. Henrikh Mkhitaryan’s free-kick from the left hung high in West Ham’s box but there was only one man likely to meet it, with Lukaku’s simple header sending the ball past Hart and into the bottom-right hand corner.
He could have had a third but for Zabaleta’s timely block on the hour mark and Rashford came close to a deserved goal, striking the foot of the post with a teasing effort from the left flank. Eventually though, United’s victory was capped off with two examples of the new, fluid attacking play we can expect to see at Old Trafford this season. First, in the 87th minute, substitute Martial slotted past Hart after quick-thinking from Mkhitaryan had sent him through. Then, after being central to much of United’s pretty play, Pogba decided to go it alone, carrying the ball forward unchallenged before angling a shot past Hart. By that point, West Ham’s heads had already dropped. They will not be the only team to leave Old Trafford bruised and well-beaten this season.