At almost every turn since arriving at Manchester United last summer, Romelu Lukaku’s contribution to the cause has been belittled.
When he was scoring goals for fun at the start of the season, netting 11 goals in his first 10 United games, people refused to take him seriously until he replicated his hot form against bigger clubs. Then when he was unable to affect such fixtures as Jose Mourinho’s side played a more restrictive style of football there was little leeway given to the Belgian front man.
Yet as he has gradually developed his build-up play to more closely resemble the kind of striker United have required, there has remained an insistence in some quarters that it is not enough if he is not scoring goals for fun still. Even netting 22 times by the beginning of March is considered paltry by those with short memories, and who will always use a haul recorded by Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo as a stick with which to beat every other striker.
But far beyond Lukaku just not getting the credit he deserves, he has not been getting the respect he deserves either. It is a point he himself made to reporters after his goal and assist against Chelsea last week led United to a crucial 2-1 victory at Old Trafford.
“I’ve been in the game for so long. I started playing when I was 16 and year in, year out people expect 20 goals from me,” he said. “I’ve been doing it for 10 years straight so I think I’ve proved myself. You expect a bit more respect but it’s the situation we’re in. I don’t listen to it. I just want to improve and show the people what I can do on the pitch.”
In a season which has seen various plaudits continue to flood in for the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Dries Mertens, Gonzalo Higuain, Kylian Mbappe, Paulo Dybala, Mauro Icardi and Nabil Fekir, it is curious that Lukaku has been forced to speak up about the amount of flak he’s received. Not least because he’s outscored every single one of the players in that list.
Add to that the fact Real Madrid’s first-choice centre-forward Karim Benzema has netted just eight times this term, while the Belgian’s new team-mate Alexis Sanchez has only nine but has still managed to attract an English record salary, and it is clear that the Lukaku-bashing has been misplaced.
The contrarian view might be to explain away some of those goal records, but the same light should be shed on Lukaku’s too and few seem willing to do so. This time last year Zlatan Ibrahimovic was seeing the red carpet being laid out for him in most of Manchester following his first-season exploits at Old Trafford, yet Lukaku is struggling to get similar acclaim for his return despite seamlessly stepping into the Swede’s boots at the age of just 24.
In seasons past, there will have been an almighty clamour for somebody boasting Lukaku’s kind of prowess. While he undoubtedly has rough edges about his game, he is clearly improving. He already works the channels far better than he did when first joining from Everton last summer, while his ability to hold the ball up with his back to goal has been increasingly more notable in recent months.
Onlookers are far too willing to look for negatives in response to any praise in modern football. Even the storied Manchester United have only had 11 players in their long history record 30 goals in a single season, and Lukaku is on track to becoming just the 12th to reach that mark at his very first attempt as the Red Devils prepare to head to Crystal Palace on Monday. Do we really have to qualify every goal-scoring achievement by mentioning that Messi has hit 40-plus in eight straight seasons? Can we not just give a forward the respect he deserves and have done with it instead of feeling the need to compare him with the freakish outlier that is the greatest player the world has ever seen?
Lukaku is being judged by the achievements of others more than he is being judged by his own, but it is time to show him the respect he deserves. He has already breached the 20-goal-a-season mark, has come on leaps and bounds in other areas, and has long since had Mourinho looking forward to life after Ibrahimovic with some confidence rather than trepidation. That’s one hell of a first season by anybody’s measure.