Romelu Lukaku is a big NBA fan. That much was obvious in the way friend Paul Pogba teased the Belgian striker’s £75 million move to Manchester United in the summer of 2017.
Like an episode of 90210 crossed with a rap video by a teenage YouTuber, the two players documented their every pursuit from the white-marbled Beverley Hills mansion rented out for the off-season.
Afternoons by the pool, barbecues on the patio and most notably, hours and hours on the basketball court.
It’s notable because there are signs of Lukaku’s NBA fandom in his game as a footballer.
Basketball is a sport that embraces a certain positionless-ness. Players are expected to perform more than one role at one time.
LeBron James is both an offensive and defensive force, attacks are launched and quelled in a matter of seconds. In the NBA, players possess a versatility that is rarely seen at elite level sport.
Lukaku evokes this in his play. Not that many notice, though. The 25-year-old has been typecast as a physical, battering ram of a centre forward. Jose Mourinho has played a role in this, willing Lukaku into becoming a Didier Drogba-lite, someone to hit with long balls, someone to play off, someone to target with cross after cross into the box.
At a time when the out-and-out centre forward is making something of a comeback, Lukaku is misunderstood by pundits, fans and even his own manager. He is much more than just a Drogba imitation. He is more than what he has been given the opportunity to show since joining Manchester United nearly a year-and-a-half ago.
Roberto Martinez got closer than anyone to truly grasping the notion of Lukaku as a player at the World Cup. He found the net four times in six appearances, making him one of the top scorers at the tournament, but Martinez understood that his number nine could not, and should not, be defined only by his goals.
It was in the quarter-final win over Brazil that the starkest demonstration of the player Lukaku really is was served. Eyebrows were raised when Belgium’s lineup was released and the former Chelsea and Everton striker was positioned on the right wing. Many thought a mistake had been made, that Kevin de Bruyne would be used in a right-leaning role, with Lukaku up top. As always.
There was no mistake, though, and Lukaku was used on the right wing, pushing de Bruyne up into something of a ‘false nine’ position. It worked just as was intended as Belgium swept past one of the tournament favourites to make the semi-finals, with Lukaku a key pawn in Martinez’s tactical game plan.
Primarily, Lukaku’s role on the wing created space for others. Brazil’s defence was unsettled by the presence of a player typecast as a physical frontman playing out wide, but the running and directness of Lukaku also stretched the pitch, facilitating Belgium’s counter-attacking approach. He did damage and could have done more had his teammates found him more often.
It wasn’t just in the win over Brazil that Lukaku showed his true worth at the World Cup. This was the most memorable and noteworthy performance that he turned in, but right the way through the tournament the 25-year-old impressed, largely because Martinez knew how to get the best out of the attacker. There’s a reason Lukaku is the top goalscorer in his country's history, netting 12 times in 15 appearances for Belgium in 2018.
Mourinho watched Lukaku at the World Cup, he was a pundit on Russian television for the tournament, and yet he has learned nothing from the way Martinez used the forward during the summer. The Man Utd boss has the utmost faith in his number nine, playing him for almost every minute of nearly every match this season, but that has been to his player’s detriment.
Lukaku hasn’t scored for United since the 2-1 away win over Watford in September, going 10 games without finding the net. He was left out of the starting lineup for the win over Everton at the end of last month, suffering an injury that also ruled him out of games against Bournemouth and Juventus, only coming off the bench in the Manchester derby.
This run of games out of the team has coincided with an upturn in form from United, which has led many to suggest Mourinho is better keeping Lukaku on the bench. Marcus Rashford and Alexis Sanchez, it is widely believed, are more effective at getting the best out of Man Utd’s otherwise dynamic attacking line. They play to the strengths of their best players - see Anthony Martial’s recent form.
The difference between the likes of Rashford and Sanchez, and Lukaku, needn’t be so stark, though. Lukaku is at his best when he is given space to gallop into. Mourinho uses him as a frontman to hit with his back to goal, but it’s when Lukaku gets turned that he causes most damage. He should be perfect for United’s frontline, but under Mourinho we have been denied the chance to see it.
Manchester United has always been a club of great forwards. From Denis Law, to Andy Cole, to Ruud Van Nistelrooy, to Robin van Persie and Wayne Rooney, Old Trafford has hailed strikers of all types and moulds. It wants to hail Lukaku too, the Belgian is a popular figure as a personality with the United fans, but they have yet had the opportunity to.
A far better technical talent than is widely credited, a striker who is all too rarely given the chance to show his true worth, Lukaku is the most misunderstood player currently in the Premier League.
The World Cup offered a glimpse of the player he could become. In another reality, Man Utd would be the perfect place for him, the ideal platform for the Belgian to make the next step in his career. He should be a fully-fledged superstar. This isn’t another reality, though. This is a world where Lukaku is something other than he should be.