The 2018 World Cup should have been a watershed in Romelu Lukaku’s Premier League career. Typecast as a battering ram of a frontman to hit with long balls and crosses into the middle at club level, the striker showed his true nature for Belgium. Indeed, Lukaku was a major factor in the Red Devils’ third place finish in Russia. The real Lukaku, that is, not the one English football fans had watched for years.
Roberto Martinez, more than anyone else, recognised Lukaku’s natural qualities, giving the striker space to run into rather than asking him to knock down high balls and feed off scraps in the six yard box. He was even played to great effect as a right winger in Belgium’s quarter final victory over Brazil.
Such performances surely gave Jose Mourinho something to think about, but when Lukaku returned to Manchester United he was deployed in the same old way, restricting his natural game. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, the man who replaced Mourinho in December 2018, couldn’t see beyond Lukaku’s typecasting either, selling the Belgian at the first opportunity because he believed him to be unsuitable for his new approach.
The irony is that Lukaku would have thrived in Solskjaer’s fast and furious, counter-attacking system. It would have unleashed him in the way he was during the 2018 World Cup. Thankfully for the 26-year-old he’s now working under a manager who understands the traits of a player who has always struggled to find a footballing home.
Inter now looks to be that place for Lukaku, with Antonio Conte getting the best out of the forward. Rather than being used as a lone frontman and attacking apex to bring others into the game, Lukaku has been partnered with Lautaro Martinez and given the freedom to drive towards goal himself. It’s little coincidence that he is enjoying the season of his life.
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If Inter are to win their first Scudetto in a decade this year (they are currently top on goal difference ahead of Juventus), Lukaku will have more than played his part, scoring 17 times in 23 league appearances this season. The Belgian has proved the difference countless times, netting match winners in games against Bologna, Napoli, Udinese and a few others.
Many of the goals Lukaku has scored haven’t exactly been of the sort expected of him in the Premier League. In fact, the Belgian has netted a number of long-range drives, also making a habit of dribbling past opponents with ease. One wonders what Mourinho, who misjudged Lukaku at Chelsea and Man Utd, makes of his former player’s recent performances for a manager who also cleaned up his mess at Stamford Bridge.
Conte’s decision to partner his £74 million summer signing with Martinez was inspired. The Argentine is the perfect foil for Lukaku, with the two a formidable force on the counter attack. Martinez also has 11 Serie A goals to his name this season and has impressed to such an extent that Barcelona are now reportedly monitoring the 22-year-old as a long-term successor to Luis Suarez.
In Lukaku, however, Inter have a player to build around. At 26, the move to San Siro came at the right time for the Belgian with Conte also the perfect manager at this stage of the striker’s career. “I think I had to rediscover myself,” Lukaku explained in a recent interview, reflecting on his summer switch to Italy. “Last year was difficult for me on the professional side, because stuff was not going how I wanted and I was not performing as well.”
Had Everton not played hard ball in the summer of 2017, Lukaku likely would have linked up with Conte at Chelsea. The Italian has long seen Lukaku as a player he could harness and so it has proved this season. “I heard people say Lukaku was a donkey. I heard all sorts not even that long ago,” the Inter boss passionately pointed out after a Lukaku-inspired win over Lazio. “It’s easy to speak highly of Lukaku now, but if we look back to a few weeks ago… I always said Romelu was a rough diamond that needed work to smooth him out.”
That diamond is certainly shining now with Conte building his title-challenging team around the 26-year-old. This season, Lukaku is showing why so many in the Premier League had him badly wrong. Unfairly typecast in the past, the Belgian has finally been given a platform to showcase his true self.