Romelu Lukaku’s Manchester United future is in the spotlight as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer plots to maintain his 100 percent winning record against Brighton on Saturday.
Solskjaer is the first manager in the club’s history to begin his career with six straight victories and the feel-good factor is back at Old Trafford after a miserable spell under Jose Mourinho.
A former super-sub himself, Solskjaer warned his players when he took over from Mourinho that some would have to take the opportunities given to them from the bench, and Belgium striker Lukaku has been one of the losers from the switch in tactics and positive vibes that have arrived under the Norwegian interim boss.
Mourinho stood loyally by the 25-year-old despite a drop in form and productivity during a season that eventually cost the manager his job.
Solskjaer’s own decision about the forward positions was made for him when he took over at Old Trafford before Christmas, with Lukaku on leave from the club for personal reasons.
That meant the Norwegian was able to play with a more dynamic, versatile and speedy forward line for his debut game at Cardiff, and he has not looked back since that 5-1 victory.
Marcus Rashford has been the main beneficiary, starting all five league games under Solskjaer and scoring four goals while operating as the focal point of the United attack.
Behind him, Anthony Martial and Jesse Lingard have also made telling contributions, with French international Martial, in particular, appearing to benefit from an end to his fraught relationship with Mourinho.
As part of that tactical reshuffle, Solskjaer has also been able to get more out of Martial’s compatriot Paul Pogba by pushing him into a more advanced midfield position.
It has left a question mark over Lukaku’s role in this new attacking set-up.
– Substitute role –
Lukaku has played just 64 league minutes since Solskjaer’s arrival, although the striker has managed to score twice in that time and bag a goal in his only start to date under the Norwegian, the 2-0 FA Cup win over Reading.
Lukaku has been making his mark as an impact substitute but that is not the usual role of a player bought for 75 million pounds (USD 97 million), plus add-ons.
Alexis Sanchez will also present Solskjaer with an issue when he is finally fully fit from hamstring troubles that have limited him to just one start in the past two months.
Chilean Sanchez is unavailable for Saturday’s visit of Brighton alongside defenders Chris Smalling and Marcos Rojo.
The 30-year-old was sidelined when Solskjaer took over but played his way back to fitness, playing 27 minutes in the 2-0 win at Newcastle at the start of the month.
A recurrence of his hamstring injury, in the win over Reading a few days later, once again sent him to the treatment room, although he could be back for United’s visit his former club Arsenal in the next round of the cup.
Despite his recent lack of playing time, Sanchez would appear to be a better fit for Solskjaer’s preferred style of play than Lukaku, with his versatility and mobility meaning he can fill a variety of attacking roles.