Jose Mourinho says he is unable to rest a “tired” Romelu Lukaku because of Manchester United’s lack of attacking options.
Lukaku started his United career in free-scoring form but has managed only four goals in his last 19 games and was criticised for his role in goals conceded against Manchester City and Burnley.
“He has played 90 minutes for 20 matches in the Premier League,” said the United boss.
“For any player that is absolutely incredible, but if you are a central defender or holding midfielder, certain positions where you can control your energy or positional play a bit more, you can resist, survive.
“But for a striker in the Premier League, to play 90 minutes for 20 games, I have to be very grateful for his personality and his character.
“He needs a little rest. Has he been unlucky in our box in recent matches? He was in the picture – I’m not saying he was a direct influence – for some of the goals we conceded. But that is a consequence of a player that really needs a little rest, or a consequence of the moment, the occasion.
“The guy is fantastic for me and for the team. He gives absolutely everything and I have no criticism.
“Can I give him a rest? No, I can’t.”
Mourinho partnered Lukaku with Zlatan Ibrahimovic for the first time against Burnley but the latter was substituted at half-time.
The Portuguese has not ruled out playing them together again but says they need to be at their “best level”.
“It can happen but both need to be in their best moment, and they are not,” he said.
“One is not because the situation in his team didn’t allow him to have any rest and he is giving absolutely everything in every minute.
“We just managed to give [Lukaku] a little rest in cup matches and even so he was on the bench in emergency situations. Champions League was the same, we had to fight to the last match for qualification.
“The boy is tired. He is physically a monster but he is not a machine.
“Zlatan is a man with an incredible injury, an injury that a 20-year-old man would suffer – imagine a man 36-year-old and so many miles in high-level football, so it’s not easy.
“We played them together against Burnley and will do that in more matches if we need to do, but I think for both of them to play together, they need to be at their best level.”