Only Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane among currently-active Premier League players have scored more goals in the division than Romelu Lukaku’s total of 113. And no Manchester City or Tottenham fan is looking forward to those two leaving any time soon.
Strikers of this calibre are rare; they don’t come cheap. But Lukaku will leave Manchester United – and ultimately leave England – not to the applause he deserves but to widespread indifference after a poor second half to the season.
It’s an incredibly unfair and disrespectful ending for a player who’s done as he’s been asked – namely score goals – ever since leaving Chelsea. At 26, his goalscoring statistics measure up to any of the greats who have gone before him, yet he is for some a scapegoat for all the ills afflicting the club at present.
Lukaku has been singled out for criticism from large sections of the United support; an easy target for their barbs against the team. It is inconceivable that a club in United’s current predicament will be able to go to the transfer market for a striker as good – or one who has proven himself so consistently – as Lukaku.
He scored 12 times in the league last term but had no responsibility for penalties, as Kane, Mohamed Salah and Jamie Vardy ahead of him in the list had.
He had a shot conversion rate of 26 per cent, which is right up there with the very best strikers in the league, and above Kane, Aguero and Salah to name but three. And that despite the fact that he was limited to just 46 shots across the course of the Premier League season. Salah had 104. Aguero had 87. Kane had 78.
His 855 touches – in total – was the lowest of all players who scored 10 or more goals, save for Callum Wilson of Bournemouth and Leicester’s Vardy. His 122 touches inside the opposition box was about half the total enjoyed by Aguero and Sadio Mane.
Those numbers all paint a picture of a striker struggling – not simply to score – but to get anything out of the colleagues around him. At Manchester City, at Tottenham and at Liverpool, there are clearly defined methods to create chances and goals for forwards. At United, the centre forward struggles for involvement, for impact, for goals. And that means Lukaku bearing the brunt of supporter frustration and being among the first for the chop under new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
But it is baffling why United fans would be happy to see the back of him. The problem isn’t that he’s not good enough, it’s that the team around him simply cannot provide him the service he needs. He has proven – time and again – that when he gets the ball in the right areas he will score.
Some choose to lampoon his first touch or the chances he misses instead. When fit, serviced and fully motivated, there are few pure strikers in the world that can match his output. When United had their golden period under Solskjaer – culminating with their defeat of Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League – Lukaku was front and centre.
But the manner in which Lukaku fell away during most of the second half of the season was alarming. Rather than address the conditions which see proven players misfire, as is also the case with Paul Pogba, fans would prefer to see them leave.
That attitude flies in the face of the evidence that in a proper team – with proper support – Lukaku will get the job done. And moving to Inter – where Antonio Conte might well play a three-man defence like Roberto Martinez does for Belgium – there will be plenty of spaces for Lukaku to thrive in Serie A.
The truth is that Lukaku and Manchester United under Jose Mourinho were always an awkward fit. Mourinho is too risk-adverse to get the requisite number of players in his attacks to allow Lukaku to shine. With a back four and another two defensive midfielders, Mourinho’s preferred systems only really permitted four players to do the heavy lifting in attack.
While initial progress was made under Solskjaer, the wheels came off in similar fashion towards the season’s end. With Belgium, three centre backs are protected by one natural enforcer – usually Axel Witsel – allowing the rest of the team to pour forward to find gaps.
Lukaku is not always involved in the build-up but usually can be relied upon to finish. And yet the respect doesn’t flow easily. He scored twice against Scotland a couple of weeks ago, taking his international tally to 48, but the reactions on social media were all about another chance that he missed.
If people concentrated on what Lukaku can do rather than what he can’t, it would quickly become apparent that he’s a rare breed to be appreciated. And rather than make use of his extensive talents, United are instead cutting him loose.
As well as the rest of United’s transfer failures, there will have to be some introspection about why a goalscorer like Lukaku feels a parting of the ways is the right thing to do. Without confidence and without the trust of his coach, he now looks like a man in need of a fresh start. This is Manchester United. It’s supposed to be the place where top players shine. Instead, Lukaku has been maligned and marginalised. Their loss will be Inter’s gain.