With Romelu Lukaku’s time at Manchester United likely to come to an end after just two seasons, how will his time at Old Trafford be remembered?
The Belgian striker has not played in pre-season and has been left out of United’s 26-man squad for a friendly against Kristiansund.
United have rejected a £54m bid from Inter Milan, but talks are ongoing – with Lukaku seemingly not in manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s plans. Juventus are also reportedly interested.
No trophies, but a better goalscoring season than Eric Cantona ever managed. How has his much-heralded big move come to this after only two years?
Is he judged unfairly?
Part of Lukaku’s problem has been the high expectations following his £75m move from Everton two years ago – the joint-fifth most expensive transfer ever at the time.
When Lukaku moved in 2017, he was only the fourth player to score 80 goals in the Premier League before turning 24 – after Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Wayne Rooney. His goals came for West Brom and Everton, having failed to score for Chelsea in a few cameos.
That was after scoring 33 Belgian top-flight goals for Anderlecht, including winning the Golden Boot at the age of 16 in 2009-10. The Belgian title he won that year remains his only major trophy.
“I think he’ll fit well. He’s got the temperament to handle the big situations,” former Everton midfielder Leon Osman told BBC Sport at the time.
“He’s a big character off the pitch. He does believe in himself. He has a big self-confidence. He got criticised at times at Everton for not tracking back, but Manchester United won’t have an issue with that.”
In goalscoring terms his time at United has not gone badly – although he is set to leave England without winning a single trophy.
Lukaku has scored 27 and 15 goals in his two seasons with United. Of the other strikers at Old Trafford, Marcus Rashford’s highest total in a season is 13. Anthony Martial’s best campaign was 17 goals – but that was back in 2015-16, when he first joined the club.
In his debut season, Lukaku became one of only 11 United players to hit 25 goals or more in a campaign since 1992-93. Cantona, Andy Cole and current manager Solskjaer (25 each) are among the strikers who never matched Lukaku’s 27-goal tally in a United campaign.
However 26% of his United goals – 11 out of 42 – came in the first two months of his Old Trafford career.
Does his playing style count against him?
United’s style of play over the past few years has been difficult to fathom – with signings not appearing to fit any long-term strategy. But things might be changing.
When Lukaku joined United under Jose Mourinho, the manager’s tactics appeared to suit the big Belgian in that first 27-goal season.
But his nine goals following Mourinho’s sacking and Solskjaer’s appointment in December came in two three-game bursts, including a spell of playing on the wing.
He netted against Bournemouth, Newcastle and Reading around the new year. And then scored doubles in successive games against Crystal Palace, Southampton and Paris St-Germain in late February and early March.
Lukaku missed the last two games of the season and has not featured once in pre-season because of injuries – although some media reports suggest he has already recovered and is just being left out.
Solskjaer has a clear idea how he wants United to play this season. He plans to use three attacking midfielders behind a centre forward – and wants them all to have pace and the ability to interchange.
That approach is unlikely to suit Lukaku, whose playing style has previously led to suggestions he is lazy.
Is that unfair? He covered less distance – albeit not dramatically so – than two of his three fellow United forwards last season. But he covered more ground and made more sprints per game than Martial.
How does he compare to other Premier League centre forwards who tend to play as out-and-out strikers? He was behind Tottenham’s Harry Kane, Manchester City’s Sergio Aguero and Chelsea’s Olivier Giroud in terms of distance covered last season. But he attempted more sprints than Aguero and Kane.
Will United miss him?
For all his goals in England – he is in the top 20 Premier League scorers ever – there is every chance United will not miss him at all.
They have a better win percentage when Lukaku has not been in their starting line-up in the past two years – both under Mourinho and Solskjaer. They have won 62.5% of games when he has not started, compared to 55.8% with him in the XI.
If Lukaku does leave this summer, United are not expected to sign a replacement and they could go into the season with Martial, Rashford, Alexis Sanchez and 17-year-old Mason Greenwood.
Jesse Lingard could be another option.
Martial and Rashford have both played as the lone striker in pre-season – as well as in the wider role in the three behind the striker. Greenwood has played frequently and Solskjaer says he “has a chance to start against Chelsea” on the opening day.
Seen as a more instinctive finisher than Rashford, Solskjaer says loaning Greenwood out “has never been on my mind… he is flying”.
Sanchez, who has had a rotten time at United, has not featured in pre-season training either because of playing for Chile in the Copa America.
His record of five goals in 45 games for the Red Devils does not point to a big season ahead – but there seems little prospect of him leaving Old Trafford, not least because of his hefty wages.
Lukaku has dropped from joint fifth to 14th on the list of most expensive transfers ever in the past two years.
And perhaps the most damning indictment of his time at United is that they could make a loss on him in an era when transfer fees have exploded.