When Manchester United splashed out £75million for Everton’s No.10 back in July 2017, it was met with a mixed response from fans, critics and ex-pros.
Lukaku was a certified goalscorer, scoring goals at every level no matter what club he was playing for. United had just lost Zlatan Ibrahimovic to a long-term knee injury and hadn’t yet decided to re-sign him to a new contract, meaning they were in desperate need of a new talisman to lead the line.
When he signed, Lukaku hit the ground running with 10 goals in his first 9 games for the club including in the UEFA Super Cup against Real Madrid. Then he went on one of his now annual droughts. Romelu has a period, every year and at every club, where he will go almost double figure games without a goal. He will miss chances and then eventually get back on the scoresheet before going on another run. He ended the season as their top scorer with 27 goals in all comeptitions, including 16 in the Premier League.
The following season was when we saw the beginnings of cracks in the relationship between Lukaku and the club. With Jose Mourinho struggling for results and Lukaku on the end of criticism for yet another goal drought, the fans turned on him. He was booed and even stopped celebrating goals that he did score.
One of the issues for Lukaku under Mourinho was that the team were not playing to his strengths as a striker. Lukaku has made a name for himself everywhere he has been with his excellent finishing ability inside the box but also the pace and power he has to run in behind defences and stretch them while drifting out wide. Despite that, Mourinho insisted on using him as a traditional target man – competing for flick ons and being asked to hold the ball up with his back to goal, despite a clear weakness in controlling the ball and linking up with others in the build up of moves.
So when Ole Gunnar Solskjær took over after Mourinho was sacked and said he wanted to get the opposition teams turning and facing their own goal when United attacked, it seemed Lukaku would fit in much better. But he was out of favour with the Norwegian manager. Ole’s preference was to go with Marcus Rashford as the striker for his pace in behind but also his ability to link with his teammates and float across the front-line in a fluid setup. Lukaku still performed well when called upon, famously scoring twice in the Red Devils’ famous comeback win against PSG in the Champions League.
At this point however, it was clear that Lukaku was now back-up. Regardless of what you think about Lukaku as a footballer, as a player who cost upwards of £75million with a goalscoring record like his, he’s too good to be playing second fiddle. After a long, drawn-out transfer saga in which Lukaku even trained away from the club and with his former side Anderlecht, United recouped their money and sold him on to Inter Milan where he was paired up with Antonio Conte.
Since moving to Italy Lukaku has so far scored 33 goals in all competitions, just one less than the legendary Ronaldo’s record of 34 for a debut season. Lukaku can match that record in their final game of the season after his brace helped the side make it into the Europa League final.
He scored 23 Serie A goals, only behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Ciro Immobile and has become a leader in the dressing room as Inter missed out on the title by just a single point. Inter play a much more defensive style of football that is based on quick transitions, something that Lukaku thrives off and his partnership with Lautaro Martinez has seen the Argentine linked with a move to Barcelona to replace Luis Suarez.
But it hasn’t been all fun and games for Lukaku there either. His longest drought without a goal this season was only three games, but he scored just 8 times against clubs that finished in the top half of the table. With that said, it seems to be one of those moves where everyone has come out as a winner.
Inter Milan have a top striker in their ranks and the fee looks good based on his performances and numbers, while United made their money back on a player that no longer was part of the plans for the first team. Lukaku is now playing in a side that is essentially built to maximise his strengths as a striker, while also playing in a league that suits his style to a tee. United on the other hand, have been able to use Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial together, with both in their preferred positions. They’ve also been able to bring through Mason Greenwood as a first-team regular and all three players managed to score more this season for United than Lukaku did last year.
Both parties are better off without the other at this point and while neither side will look back on Lukaku’s time at the club with great fondness, it was something that needed to happen. Just like his move away was.