Romelu Lukaku’s Man Utd conundrum – & why Everton was his perfect home

Seb Stafford-Bloor

Roberto Martinez thinks that Romelu Lukaku needs to leave Manchester United.

He’s right, of course, because Lukaku should never have been promoted that high in the game in the first place. He’s good enough for what United currently are, the weakest of all the top-six sides, but not the accomplished forward they need if they’re to return to the game’s summit.

So where next for him? The plan is to find a situation built to his tastes, a side who would place him at the centre of their systems. Realistically, there are very few Champions League-qualified clubs who would place him on that kind of pedestal, but under the right conditions and surrounded by complementary attacking players, he could very effective indeed.

Ironically, it’s difficult to come up with a better solution than Everton. With the offensive diversity within Marco Silva’s side, not to mention dead-ball supply on tap, Goodison Park would not only provide Lukaku with the deferences he craves, but also the opportunity to restore his reputation.

It won’t happen. Even if the possibility existed, who could really blame Everton supporters for holding a grudge?

There were points during his time at Merseyside when it seemed as if Lukaku couldn’t get through an international break without giving an inflammatory interview. Whether that was Raiola’s influence or not – and it is a trait shared among his clients – he was always plotting his next move in public and, intentionally or otherwise, that was incredibly disrespectful.

As was his celebration of his first goal against Everton, for Manchester United at Old Trafford, when he spread his arms and looked mockingly up into the away corner. It passed without notice at the time, but it was strange in retrospect. Some Evertonians grew frustrated with Lukaku, but it was still a surprise to see him being so hostile and provocative.

And premature, because that goal occurred in the middle of his only rich vein of United form. In the beginning, when the team was running free and easy, before Jose Mourinho had made the legs heavy and the minds dull, Lukaku played as if he belonged at Old Trafford.

The summer of his move, the conversation had pivoted around how well he might adapt to the added expectations and how he would cope with the less forgiving environment.

Initially, he did so magnificently well. In time, though, that early promise faded and, two years later, his transfer looks like a serious error of judgement. Even within a side which isn’t particularly gifted, Lukaku isn’t a first-choice in any of the attacking positions.

He may point to the circumstances which have afflicted United over these past two years to explain that. He could also, quite rightly, name a host of other players who have suffered in a similar way and who, as a result, have experienced the same kind of regression.

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Valid asterisks though those may be, these were some of the adversities implied during that debate about big club suitability. One aspect of the challenge is to cope with pressure. To score goals, win games and satisfy supporters who, typically, are intolerant of underperformance.

Another facet, however, is having the resilience to withstand the kind of melodrama which flows through the corridors of that kind of club. United are dysfunctional at the moment, that’s certainly true. But so are Chelsea, so are Arsenal, and so are Real Madrid, Paris Saint-Germain and, to a lesser extent, Bayern Munich and Barcelona.

There is always a confected crisis. Always.

The implication is that success at the very top of the game is predicated on more than ability. Manchester United are less a football club and more a 24/7 rolling sports channel, meaning that any player who wears the shirt has to be able to withstand their focus.

They need to accept that the contents of their weekly shop will be photographed and itemised by the Daily Mail. They need to understand that all of their social media posts will be searched for hidden meanings and, if possible, tenuously linked to all the rumour and conjecture.

Most importantly, those players need the emotional capacity to separate themselves from that world whenever their form fluctuates.

Consider, for instance, the average internet response to a missed chance during a pivotal game. Think, also, of the emotional incontinence that tends to provoke on Twitter or Instagram.

Are these prices worth paying for wealth and fame? Maybe, but they still provide a stern examination of a person’s resilience.

The perils of ambition

Which, indirectly, poses an interesting philosophical question: is it better for a player to chase the financial rewards and status found in that rare, unforgiving air or, if he recognises certain vulnerabilities within himself, is the better option to construct a career from continuity and familiarity?

In Lukaku’s case, perhaps it was the latter. From a technical standpoint, he’s unsuited to playing for titles. He needs more than one chance to score and, in the kind of games which matter, there are no guarantees of even getting that.

Moreover, when that profligacy was viewed through Manchester United’s lens, when it was viewed as an obstruction to their imperatives, the effect on him was inevitable: his confidence gradually shrank in front of goal and, over time, he became more comfortable creating chances for others.

It’s unkind to refer to that as an abdication of responsibility, he can on occasion show a rare and valuable playmaking craft, but it was still not what he was bought to do.

In contrast, Everton was a club where he could miss. Where he could have good days and bad days, but ultimately find solace in the limitations of the team as a whole.

As well as in the side’s status, of course, because while they too have ambitions, expectations and games which are considered must-win, those demands are on a different scale.

Perhaps this episode has spoken also to the emotional need of a player. Not the ability to withstand criticism, but what a particular footballer requires in a relationship with a club to perform at his very best.

In retrospect, it’s possible to reframe Lukaku’s many come-and-get-me pleas to a general sensitivity. Maybe, in a similar light, that strange moment against Everton at Old Trafford was really a manifestation of an unfulfilled need to be appreciated.

That’s generous, perhaps, but still plausible. While some athletes appear impervious to the crowd and are unaffected by what they sing, some are more aware and, sometimes, dependent on that reassurance.

It’s why, for instance, it’s so much easier to be a home-grown player than it is a big money signing. One is a crowd-favourite by default, the other must provide constant proof of his value. While that situation doesn’t apply to Lukaku, the nature of that kind of relationship – in which there isn’t as much doubt, in which a replacement isn’t just a balance transfer away – appears far more conducive to his success.

Most likely, he’ll soon be at Inter Milan. Antonio Conte is supposedly a fan and United will do little to discourage that interest. But at San Siro, too, he’ll find few of the nourishing comforts he seems to depend on.

Inter are very much still Serie A’s basketcase club, destined to fail no matter what they try, and that will obviously be a challenge. More troublingly, though, Lukaku will almost immediately be compared to Mauro Icardi, whose technical abilities are really from a different world.

If Icardi leaves, which he most likely will, then Lukaku could hardly have set himself a tougher task: at a club whose fans have ideas well above their station, in place of a rarely gifted forward with whom he doesn’t compare favourably.

A footballer’s career is his own business. In this case, perhaps Lukaku should be admired for putting himself in a position to be challenged and having such ambition.

The suspicion, though, is that his eventual legacy will be to perpetuate an existing cautionary tale – that, tor a certain type of player with particular psychological traits, the right club isn’t always the biggest.

Sometimes, in fact, joining the biggest club is the quickest way to devaluation and distortion.

By Seb Stafford-Bloor

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