Manchester United’s Romelu Lukaku has the makings of a £75m cult hero

In Depth

Romelu Lukaku cost Manchester United more than most clubs’ record signings, so can a player so expensive attain cult hero status?

The amount of money in Premier League football seems so high as to be almost meaningless, forcing us to develop different standards for what to expect from a player based on their transfer fee.

But can a player with a £75million price-tag ever be considered anything between success and flop? Well, Romelu Lukaku is beginning to test the theory at Old Trafford.

Even during his big goalscoring seasons with Everton, and his fast start to life under José Mourinho, Lukaku’s ungainly nature attracted attention.

The comment which seems to have haunted the Belgian concerns him playing like a man who is wearing jeans, and that’s a useful shorthand for someone who could score 50 goals in a season without everyone being certain that he’s world-class.

Indeed, when we’ve seen some moments of real class from him, they’ve been tempered by circumstance.

A player of his build and gait doesn’t look like he’d be the type to act with subtlety cutting in from the wing, or produce nutmegs against Brazil, but that kind of quality seems more impressive when juxtaposed with the moments that barely feel like something any footballer should be doing, let alone one with Lukaku’s CV.

 

There was a moment during Manchester United’s draw with Liverpool when Lukaku send the ball out of play with one of those “what was he doing?” touches, but few if any other players produced as many moments of real, genuine quality.

There was his delightful through-ball to Jesse Lingard, for example, giving the England midfielder his one big chance before he was forced off through injury, and then we had the cross which very nearly brought a late winner for Chris Smalling.

It’s the kind of quality one might expect from a £75million player, yet those all-too-regular moments of clumsiness means it can feel somehow surprising to see Lukaku produce the goods, despite him obviously having the quality to command that kind of fee to begin with.

 

That kind of inconsistency from minute to minute – never mind game to game – is kind of quite handy right now. After all, United fans have needed someone to step up and take on the cult hero mantle following Marouane Fellaini’s departure for Shandong Luneng.

It’s weird for someone brought in as a starter to fulfil that role, but then the same applied to Fellaini when he arrived from Everton in 2013.

And he wasn’t the first to arrive at Old Trafford as an expensive recruit and leave as something of a cult hero playing second fiddle to those who cost nothing: Juan Sebastián Veron would have similarly preferred a different story, but fans will at least have some positive memories of a man who had standout moments rather than a lasting career at the club.

Away from United, when Fernando Torres left Chelsea, he did so not solely as a player who failed to deliver what was expected of a £50million striker but also as the unlikely back-up who came in and delivered the goods at the unlikeliest of moments.

As money begins to lose all meaning, expectations begin to be formed not by transfer fees but by the expectations the players have built for themselves through first impressions.

Providing the rest of the Manchester United squad are producing the goods, even if those on top are the academy products who didn’t cost a penny, there’s still a place for Romelu Lukaku. It just might not be the place he – or anyone else – envisaged.


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