Many Red Devils fans were glad to see the back of the striker but Belgium’s all-time record goalscorer will soon be missed at Old Trafford
Romelu Lukaku should make his official Inter debut on Monday night at San Siro against Lecce.
He will be lining up for a team that wants him and playing for a manager that has long pursued him in Antonio Conte. It will be in total contrast to the life he’s left behind at Manchester United, with the club and the Belgium striker having decided to separate due to irreconcilable differences.
It still seems remarkable that United, their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and executive vice chair Ed Woodward were so easily willing to give up on Lukaku, who is one of only three currently active players to score more than 100 Premier League goals, along with Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane.
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Lukaku would appear to be exactly the kind of player United needed. If they had kept him happy and motivated, he could have rewarded them in the only way he knows how – by scoring goals.
However, the situation was allowed to deteriorate to such an extent that Lukaku, United’s top scorer last season, was frozen out of the first-team picture at the end of the 2018-19 campaign, and eventually cut adrift.
At that point, a move was best for all concerned but there is more than a hint of a missed opportunity about Lukaku and United.
If they had played to his strengths more consistently, they would have seen a better goal return. He still managed 42 goals in 96 outings for United, adding another 13 assists, but there is little-to-no fondness for the all-time Belgium record goal scorer among the Old Trafford faithful.
It’s as if they didn’t know the asset they had on their hands, meaning Solskjaer will need to fill the hole that Lukaku leaves in the team, both in terms of his goal output and his ability to worry centre-backs.
Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial have played around 350 United games between them, more than enough to get a sample size, and have not come close to matching Lukaku’s menace in front of goal. But it will be left to those two to carry the goalscoring burden for Solskjaer, who has no alternatives from the bench.
It is an alarming oversight to leave the team so short up top, whatever you think of Lukaku’s merits, and one which down the line could have fans questioning the reasons for giving up on the 26-year-old so quickly.
It wasn’t an easy final season for Lukaku, who had to endure long scoreless streaks at various spells, as the team struggled under first Jose Mourinho and latterly under Solskjaer.
Lukaku, along with Paul Pogba, was cast in the role of culprit for United’s poor form, when the reality is that they were never going to play the right kind of football to coax goals from him.
There is a reason why nobody has scored more goals for Belgium than Lukaku and why he has been so prolific in the last three years there under Roberto Martinez. It’s because of the style of play.
With Belgium, who defend with a back three, Lukaku is one of a swarm of attackers who seek the numerical advantage in the opposition half. They move the ball around, disorientating the backline, until the gap opens, a free man appears and Lukaku can sweep home.
Belgium attack regularly with six or seven outfield players, meaning Lukaku gets the space he needs to face the goal and take his chances. His involvement in those kinds of moves was far less at United, where the heavy lifting in attack was left to a group of three or four, and where he was expected to drop deep and lay the ball off. Those are not his strengths and never have been.
Conte knows what kind of player he’s buying, an out-and-out goal scorer, and Lukaku will probably top the scoring charts in Serie A this season.
Like Belgium, Inter will play with a back three. A reshaped midfield featuring Nicolo Barella and Stefano Sensi will pull the opposition around the pitch and make the space Lukaku needs to thrive. They will push Juventus close for the title, with Conte knowing what it takes to prepare a team for the summit and Juve coach Maurizio Sarri instead used to fighting for lesser prizes.
Inter will be getting a hungry, motivated Lukaku, one who was pushed around and disrespected at Manchester United, and who will be desperate to show them the error of their ways.
The last-minute jibes delivered towards Lukaku over his weight as he exited Old Trafford by the likes of Gary Neville were cheap and designed to wound. They won’t, though. Lukaku is a headstrong character who has been dealing with insults over his size since his early teens.
These are nothing new and ignore the fact that Lukaku is by no means fat; he instead carried a little more muscle than United would have liked.
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As a youth he relished when opponents would lose the physical battle against him, and he enjoys the feeling of being bigger and stronger. United, no doubt, would be aware of this, but it’s easier for the club to wash their hands of Lukaku and demean him as unprofessional.
The fact of the matter is that United had one of the brightest Premier League goal scoring stars of the modern era in their midst for two seasons and badly misused him.
The benefits, instead, go to Inter and Conte.