So a fee for Romelu Lukaku has been agreed between Inter Milan and Manchester United. The most expensive striker in the club’s history is on his way after two years at Old Trafford.
How will his contribution to the club be remembered?
Lukaku arrived from Everton in a summer where Jose Mourinho was also linked with a move for Alvaro Morata. It appeared that the Belgian was first choice. Seventeen goals for West From (including a hat-trick against United in Sir Alex Ferguson’s last game) and 87 goals for Everton suggested the potential of the player was very high.
At the same time, it was clear he had rough edges. There were concerns over his overall ability, his first touch, his quality as a true goalscorer and somewhat derogatory slights about his ‘intelligence’. Such was that criticism, that his arrival at United coincided with supporters pre-disposed to defend and get behind a player already with many doubters.
Lukaku scored on his debut against Real Madrid in the European Super Cup but missed an easier chance than the goal he scored. It became a pattern; it summed up his time at Old Trafford. He would miss easy chances, he would miss difficult chances, he would score when you might not expect. When he did score, it was often with such emphatic quality that you would be left confused about his lack of conviction with other chances.
27 goals in his first season might easily have been forty, and this despite not having a genuinely quality consistent source of delivery. Mourinho had banked on partnering Lukaku with Ivan Perisic but Ed Woodward backed out of the deal as Inter Milan asked for £10m more than he was willing to offer. United were left with no wingers and didn’t play a crossing style. Blame could be given to both Woodward and Mourinho; Woodward, for reneging on the agreement to sign Perisic, and Mourinho, for wanting a striker with limited ability who would be rendered so powerless without that supply line.
Lukaku had to adapt to that, and struggled. He also had to work on developing his own game and few would argue that he has genuinely come on in the two years he has been at Old Trafford. There were indeed concerns that he was among the players who ‘downed tools’ when things were tough and the player’s lack of professionalism appears to vindicate that opinion.
Andy Cole is the most famous example of a striker who was fairly one-dimensional when he arrived (though his dimension was pretty impressive), and after two years Cole’s own future was in the balance. But he worked hard on his game, on linking up with team-mates, on being of more value to the team. He is rightly regarded as a legend of the club. Lukaku possibly does not have the same instinct of a goalscorer that Cole had; he clearly does not have the same instinct for self-improvement, which appears to be at odds with his single-minded attitude.
On quality alone it was clear he hadn’t done enough to lead the line and after 18 months, there was no objection when he was axed as a regular starter after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer came in. United’s play up front was instantly more vibrant and entertaining; their ability to score goals was improved in the Belgian’s absence.
Initially Lukaku responded well. A man of the match performance at Arsenal in the Cup and two crucial goals in Paris seemed as if they were a springboard.
But, as is symptomatic of many players in this United squad, Lukaku did not appear to view this so much as a springboard as he did money in the bank; less, motivation to put in these performances weekly and more an apparent feeling of self-justification that he had already proven his case.
United can ill afford to carry players who feel they have done enough when the club is struggling in 6th place. It is dispiriting to see someone throwing their arms in the air at the quality of the service (however justified that may be) when the quality of the player has hardly been anything to write home about.
A sale was clearly best for all parties and United have been more than happy to allow Lukaku and indulge his open flirtation with Inter Milan; the player reportedly wore blue and black gear deliberately on the club’s tour in pre-season. The club were not unreasonable in their demands; they wanted their money back, they were not asking for more than that, and Lukaku’s ego was surely satisfied by that situation.
It is not United’s fault that Inter Milan did not want to pay that number initially. United even entertained talks with Juventus to take a player they had not expressed interest in previously in exchange; when the lack of attraction appeared mutual, the move for Paulo Dybala fell apart.
Lukaku’s response was to post training routine results on social media, upsetting members of the squad. He was reprimanded by Solskjaer for this and told that he should train with the under 23 squad while his future was sorted out. It seemed a fair stand to make; why should Solskjaer spend time trying to smooth over relations and make excuses for Lukaku to the likes of Luke Shaw, and risk upsetting the defender, for behaviour that wasn’t justified?
Lukaku’s response to that was to fail to report for training; worse still, he was pictured training with former club Anderlecht, in their gear. He was fined for this.
Inter Milan have come in with an offer that meets United’s asking price and Lukaku is on his way. It makes the events of the last ten days feel completely unnecessary; they were anyway. It’s an unsavoury end to a difficult relationship. Concerns that Lukaku was among the players who were not committed in the proper way appear to have some grounding when considering the behaviour of the last few days.
Perhaps Lukaku was acting the way he was to try and force the situation and lower United’s asking price to get him out of the door. One wonders why he has been so urgent in his desire to leave; Juventus were not sufficiently interested to offer the asking price, so he is not escaping to a better club or significantly stronger team. It’s a convenient time for Lukaku to escape with his reputation mostly intact to the general public; his statistics represent a striker who scores goals, and to most observers, having done that with such a lack of quality service makes you wonder what he might do alongside Perisic at last.
The truth is that he had flattered to deceive and United supporters are more or less impressed that the club managed to get, effectively, the price they wanted, and just about all of their money back on a player who was threatening to be another Alexis Sanchez. Supporters were frustrated with the player’s limitations and it spoke volumes that 17 year old Mason Greenwood was ahead of him in the pecking order. Lukaku’s nose would have been put considerably out of joint by that fact when the season started.
A parting of the way is for the best; I hope Lukaku adapts to Italy better than he adapted to United, but the bitter nature of his departure from the club means he will not be fondly remembered, nor will fans be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt when it comes to his underwhelming time at the club.
All that remains to be seen is where United will get the goals from now. Marcus Rashford (21) will have to improve on his best tally of 13. There will be hopes that 23 year old Anthony Martial at least matches his debut season of 17 goals if they are to feel he will fulfil his potential. Then there is Greenwood, arguably a better instinctive finisher than either of those two, but with the inexperience that will make it frankly ridiculous to expect him to suddenly lead the line at United. Then there’s Alexis Sanchez.
Clearly United require the sort of experience that Zlatan Ibrahimovic provided, though perhaps not in a prominent and dominant way that will come at the potential expense of the development of these promising young players.
The rumoured signing of Mario Mandzukic makes sense as a player who will improve the quality and attitude of the front line and won’t expect to play every single game. United are running out of time to sign Mandzukic or a player of that ilk; Fernando Llorente has been linked, but concerns over his own quality have to leave you wondering if it’s better off just taking the chance with the players at United’s disposal if he is the only option.
People will talk about Glazernomics and the £70m from the Lukaku deal that could go towards a player but anyone thinking reasonably and sensibly will understand how difficult it will be to negotiate a high-profile transfer for that sort of fee before 5pm.
The real issue stems with the lack of decisiveness and conviction which has associated this move; Lukaku’s future should have been resolved early on in the summer. If that is not United’s fault because of Inter’s dallying over the fee, then the club should have prepared for this eventuality. It appears that they have not, which only strengthens concerns about how the club is run from the top.
As Paul Parker mentioned on the podcast this week, United are somewhat at the mercy of just who will take a chance on these players. Alexis Sanchez’s future should have been cleared up; if there were no takers, perhaps he would have been more appealing on a free transfer, and United might have been better taking the hit on that. They haven’t, and stand to continue to pay the consequences when it comes to negotiating contracts.
No matter how the rest of the day pans out, it was clear that it is time for Romelu Lukaku to go. He was worth more in terms of fee than he was in terms of contribution and he was beginning to have a negative effect on morale. United might well get most other things in the window wrong, but this is the right move.