Despite a difficult end to his spell at Manchester United, Romelu Lukaku’s goal-soaked 2020 has reinforced his position as one of the world’s best strikers.
The phrase ‘your type’, made infamous to the point of inanity by reality television, can be incredibly misleading. Take United and Lukaku for instance.
When the Belgium international moved to Old Trafford from Everton in July 2017 it was a move that seemed to suit both parties perfectly; United were signing a goalscorer with a proven pedigree, while Lukaku had the chance to establish himself as the leading striker at an elite club.
Two years later, the milk had soured significantly. Despite a record of 46 goals across his two seasons at United, rumours surrounding his fitness and professionalism abounded and new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer decided to cut his losses.
After his departure to Inter Milan, Lukaku told NBA player Josh Hart’s LightHarted podcast that he felt unprotected by United.
“A lot of stuff has been said where I didn’t feel protected,” he said. “I felt like a lot of rumours, ‘Rom going there’, ‘They don’t want Rom’, and nobody came out to shut it down.
He added: “I told them it’s not good for me to be at a place where I’m not wanted. We’re not stupid. They consider us dumb but we are not dumb. We know who is doing leaks and stuff. I told them, you can’t be working like this, it’s better for me to go now.”
The feeling was mutual. Gary Neville tweeted: “He admitted he was overweight! He is over 100kg! He’s a Manchester United player! ‘He will score goals and do well at Inter Milan but unprofessionalism is contagious.”
Lukaku’s form since joining moving to Italy has proven Neville both right and wrong. Lukaku has scored 48 goals to date for Inter, equalling Ronaldo’s record of 34 goals in his debut season for the club. To this extent, Neville was bang on.
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His jibe about Lukaku’s professionalism was wide of the mark. Soon after joining Inter, the club doctors put him on a strict diet based around fresh fish and green vegetables after it was discovered he had a digestive problem.
The striker admitted his metabolism had slowed having being asked to bulk up by national team manager Roberto Martinez for the 2018 World Cup and was finding it harder to shift extra pounds. Nowadays, Lukaku is back to his lean best.
Another indication that the San Siro has been a more caring environment than Old Trafford has been his treatment by Inter manager Antonio Conte. Despite being the kind of man who relaxes by listening to a soundtrack of pneumatic drills, Conte has never doubted Lukaku’s commitment.
It was suggested the Italian manager left Juventus in 2014 because the club’s board would not sign Lukaku and he also moved for the striker as Chelsea boss, only to miss out to Manchester United and turn to the world’s saddest footballer, Alvaro Morata.
Again, the feeling is mutual. “Conte is always there at the sidelines, encouraging every player to do the work,” Lukaku* told Sky Sports. “When I was looking around me no one was moaning, everyone was getting on with it.
“So for me, it was something special, because sometimes coaches are on the sidelines making jokes because you can’t do it.”
"Conte is always there at the sidelines encouraging every player to do the work."
— Sky Sports News (@SkySportsNews) January 24, 2020
Not that things have been plain sailing in Italy. Soon after his arrival, Lukaku was racially abused during an away match at Caligari. Incredibly, Inter’s ultras released a statement defending the abuse and claiming that monkey chants were not racist.
Yet his goalscoring has continued unabated. During their Champions League match against Borussia Monchengladbach, in which defeat would have left Inter staring down the barrel of elimination, Lukaku stepped up to drag his side to all three points.
The first finish, in particular, was a classic of the striker genre. Latching onto a through ball by Marcelo Brozovic, Lukaku ignored the close attentions of Gladbach defender Denis Zakaria until nudging him away.
Doing so allowed the striker enough time to adjust his feet and fire a shot past the reach of Yann Sommer. It was a typical Lukaku finish, somehow combining placement and power to leave the opposition goalkeeper clasping at thin air.
Romelu Lukaku scored twice for Inter in a vital 3-2 win over Gladbach in Group B.
Clinical as ever ❄️ pic.twitter.com/Is4VbwlF8l
— Football on BT Sport (@btsportfootball) December 1, 2020
Neville’s glee when Lukaku left Old Trafford has proven misplaced. In his absence United have continued to toil, alternating between impressive victories and maddening defeats with a consistency that has left neutrals crying out for Solskjaer to remain in the job.
The reasoning that Lukaku’s departure would make United a more slick outfit going forward has proven only half-true; on the counter, the pace of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford can be frightening, but they have been far too easily blunted, especially at Old Trafford, without an alternative option.
Meanwhile, Lukaku continues to do what he’s always done – score goals. It’s worth noting that his strike rate for Belgium remained consistent throughout his struggles at United and rebirth at Inter. He is by some distance the country’s all-time leading goalscorer; form may be temporary, but his class has remained permanent.
Misconceptions that Neville crystalised have now surely been corrected. It simply seems as if Lukaku, just like the rest of us, needed some TLC.
*Buy Romelu Lukaku and thousands of other players on Football Index. 18+, UK and Ireland customers only, begambleaware.org. T&Cs apply.
By Michael Lee