It was a wonder Romelu Lukaku managed to open the scoring against CSKA Moscow. “He hardly moves,” said Michael Owen before Manchester United’s crushing 4-1 victory, “but because he’s so big and powerful, he just barges people out of the way.”
When evidence to the contrary was provided within four minutes – Lukaku collecting possession in his own half, playing a sublime through ball into the path of Anthony Martial with his weaker foot and racing into the penalty area to convert the subsequent cross – Owen read from the same tired script.
“I don’t think he does much,” said the pundit at half-time, describing a goal where, again, the striker won the ball in his own half, released a player down the wing with a perfectly weighted pass, then burst into the penalty area to score.
Considering all Wayne Rooney had to do in his later years to earn praise in this same shirt was amble back into midfield and launch an angled pass out of play for a throw-in, Lukaku has every right to feel aggrieved. This is a player whose immense talent is being misinterpreted and summarised in the same terms with each passing game: Big, strong, power.
As they have been all season, three other words were far more apt against CSKA: Intelligent, incisive, incredible. Lukaku did indeed bully the home defence, but only in the same way a child genius would outsmart a rather more dim classmate. The Belgian out-thought this haphazard defence more than he out-fought them.
Lukaku was eager to get straight down to business in Moscow, for there rarely is any waffle with the Belgian, but Martial revelled in the foreplay. He bamboozled this defence, using every weapon in his significant arsenal to exact punishment. Only one player made more crosses (3), and no-one completed more dribbles (6). Five chances were created; two were converted.
The brilliance of Lukaku has been surprising – few expected the striker to boast a record of ten goals in as many games – but the magnificence of Martial is all the more impressive. The Frenchman thrived as a big fish in the small pond that was Louis van Gaal’s tenure in his debut season, but found himself crowded out with Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s arrival last campaign. He was more rough than diamond.
But in Lukaku he has the perfect foil. The Belgian has delivered goals but the biggest improvement he has offered this United side is a more selfless, mobile focal point, and Martial is reaping the benefits. The 21-year-old scored or assisted 16 goals in all competitions last season; his tally from August to September is already 10.
If Jose Mourinho can keep the forward “happy”, it would be a wonderful achievement. Victor Lindelof has played nine more minutes than Martial in all competitions so far this season, the Frenchman being drip-fed his opportunities. The manager is keeping the supply limited enough to keep Martial hungry.
The result is the sort of free-flowing football that suggests that a 1-0 win against Southampton – the kind of result which typified their first season under Mourinho – is now the outlier. United have scored four goals or more in five of their ten games this campaign; Louis van Gaal managed it four times over his two-year tenure.
At the forefront of it all is Lukaku, the lead protagonist, the Hollywood star, the man who “hardly moves”, yet is embarrassing defenders throughout Europe now he is on the biggest stage. Martial has been little more than a supporting character this season, but has made the very most of his screen time.