In the summer of 2017, Romelu Lukaku was arguably the most coveted striker in the Premier League. As it became clear he would leave Everton, champions Chelsea and Manchester United duly entered a bidding war for his services. In the end, Lukaku decided to reject his former club and join United for £75m.
The consensus was that United had played a blinder. A smug Jose Mourinho claimed provocatively: “It is only natural that he wants to develop his career at the biggest club.”
After scoring on his debut against Real Madrid and 11 times in his first 10 games, Lukaku initially lived up to the lofty expectations. Mourinho noted at the time that Lukaku was “grabbing his opportunity with both hands.”
Since then though the chance to prove himself as an elite striker has slipped through Lukaku’s fingers, with Monday night’s FA Cup tie at Chelsea offering him more a shot at redemption than filling the home faithful with trepidation about what their former striker might produce.
The reality is that Chelsea will justifiably feel they have little to fear from a striker whose stock has plummeted over the last year, the nadir of which arrived on Tuesday against Paris Saint-Germain. Under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Lukaku had already found himself pushed to the periphery, but this was a damning indictment of his standing at the club. Starting on the bench was disappointing yet expected, but what must Lukaku have made of Solskjaer leaving him there when first Jesse Lingard and then Anthony Martial were forced off with injury? It took until the 84th minute with United losing 2-0 in their biggest game of the season before Lukaku was finally brought on.
A few days later Solskjaer said that Martial and Lingard’s injuries would mean chances in the coming weeks for “Alexis [Sanchez], Romelu, Chongy [Tahith Chong] or Angel [Gomes]”. With all due respect to the two youngsters Chong and Gomes, bracketing Lukaku with them must have felt a bit like telling a middle manager that they, along with the work experience kids, would be considered for a vacant role.
How has it got to this point with Lukaku? How has he gone from being compared with Sergio Aguero and Harry Kane to being lumped in with Chongy and Angel?
The decline started shortly after Lukaku had scored that 11th goal in his 10th United game in September 2017, after which he scored just once in his next 12. Talk began to circulate that Lukaku was suffering from a crisis of confidence, with criticism of his inability to score against the biggest teams proving especially hurtful. A glaring miss against Manchester City that December following similar profligacy against Chelsea and Liverpool cemented the perception that he was a “flat-track bully”.
Added to this was the sneers from football purists that Lukaku’s first touch was not becoming of a world-class target man. Too often balls would bounce off him in a manner more befitting a Sunday League striker than an elite centre-forward. Lukaku managed to regain his composure in time for the second half of last season – finishing the campaign with a creditable 27 goals from 51 matches – but suspicions lingered that he was not what United needed if they wanted to mount a successful title challenge.
The start of this season reinforced those doubts. Invariably playing against massed defences sitting deep, Lukaku appeared to lack the ability to find space in tight areas. By the time Mourinho was sacked in December, Lukaku had managed just six goals in 22 games for the season.
Through a combination of injuries, post World Cup-fatigue and concerns over his weight gain, Lukaku found himself not even in the United team, let alone worrying about his goal return against the biggest sides. Mourinho was so bemused by Lukaku’s collapse that one of his last acts as manager was to visit Belgium during an international break in search of answers. Adding to the feeling of malaise were issues in his personal life that saw Solskjaer grant Lukaku compassionate leave shortly after taking over as caretaker manager.
A refreshed Lukaku returned with three goals in three matches, but he has since not scored in his last seven and has only started one league game – at home against Burnley when Solskjaer chose to give some of his first-choice players a rest. Well and truly fluffing his chance to impress, a leaden-footed Lukaku was mercifully hooked after 67 minutes with United trailing 1-0.
Mourinho’s departure was supposed to liberate Lukaku, but instead it has underlined how far he has fallen. Solskjaer is playing precisely the sort of direct, lightning-quick football that should in theory suit Lukaku. But in reality the new system has exposed Lukaku’s sluggishness, emphasised by the form of United’s pacy front three Martial, Lingard and Marcus Rashford. Lukaku, by comparison, has looked static and short of explosivity, as well as – according to Sky Sports pundit Jamie Redknapp – “really lacking confidence.” It is early days but the fear for Lukaku is that Solskjaer’s tactics will suggest he is not being nimble enough to play the sort of high-energy football favoured by most of Europe’s top clubs. Lukaku’s best performance under Solskjaer actually came from a wide right position against Arsenal, where he looked more comfortable facing up defenders than backing into them.
Perhaps that is where he will be stationed in the future, but even so it has not been a sequence of games to do much for Lukaku’s reputation. And if we look at the season as a whole, Lukaku’s decline has been almost as steep as the well-documented demise of team-mate Alexis Sanchez.
Monday night then provides a rich opportunity for Lukaku, assuming he starts against Chelsea. A good performance and a goal could be precisely the jolt he needs to restore his flagging confidence. At 25, Lukaku has plenty of time left to fulfill his potential, but with his team-mates liberated, he appears to be stagnating.