While the rest of the world was discussing the relationship between his transfer fee and his first-touch, Romelu Lukaku was provoking the wrath of the Beverly Hills Police Department. At the time of writing, the allegations against Lukaku seem to amount to nothing more than a young man over-enjoying himself with a few of his friends. Unless anything more serious is reported, this can be filed away as a cheeky anecdote and be forgotten about.
Unfortunately, the discussion surrounding Lukaku’s true value promises to last a while longer. The end of the transfer window is still seven weeks away and will presumably deliver other players to over-analyse, but the Belgian will become the focus of a tedious, week-to-week debate which will never go away. After all, Manchester United play their football under a high-beam spotlight, constantly on television and never out of the news. Even at Everton, Lukaku suffered regular attempts to distill his goalscoring record from his technique, but now those efforts will be doubled; every missed chance will have the power to alter perceptions, every clunky touch will shift the mercury.
There’s nothing revelatory about that: such is life for a £75m forward. In this case, though, it will become particular fractious. Lukaku was already a divisive player and painting him in Manchester United red will cause the sabres to rattle like never before.
Get ready Romelu, the waves of schadenfreude of building out at sea.
Large transfers are no longer the big news that they once were. Fifteen years ago, paying £50m for a player was unimaginable and yet, now, it’s almost a standard fee for any desirable player. Consequently, while most players must still suffer discussions of their worth, the depth of analysis afforded to their individual transfers is far more shallow. The concept of a large fee weighing heavily on a player’s shoulders may remain unchallenged, but the speed of football’s news cycle leaves little time for its proper discussion.
In this instance, how will Romelu Lukaku cope with being a high-priced Manchester United player?
Lukaku is more exposed than most to these pressures. In a way, he’s something of an oddity. While much of his game is under-developed, his ability to regularly change the score exists in relative isolation. He does miss good opportunities and, as Gary Neville suggested last week, his record against the better Premier League sides isn’t what it might be. At Everton, that wasn’t much of a problem. It may have been noted and discussed, but it was an issue always overridden by his volume of goals. It was a trump card: any criticism of Lukaku was immediately invalidated by his strike-rate.
That’s no longer the case. Manchester United may play through the same fixtures as Everton, but the perception of their health is far more informed by their performances in the marquee games. With due respect to Everton, at no point in their recent history have they been expected to take points from the country’s biggest teams. Though their near failures at the Emirates, Stamford Bridge and the rest are numerous, they don’t live particularly long in the memory; they were never season-defining fixtures.
At Old Trafford, the ratios are inverted. Either Lukaku shows his worth in those Sunday 4pm games or he will be seen as a failure. Anonymity in that kind of fixture tends to fester in the mind and scuffed shots and bobbled touches also endure. One of the issues faced by Paul Pogba last season, for instance, was his failure to produce a signature moment in that sort of game – no thirty-yarder crashed in off the bar at Anfield, no gutting pass to win the Manchester derby. Pogba played far better than was assumed in 2016/17, but left little impression on games of emotional importance. It wasn’t the only reason for the unrelenting pressure, but it was certainly one of them.
The pertinent question is not over Lukaku’s fee. Nor does it relate to the disparity between his finishing and the rest of his game. Instead, his success at Manchester United will be defined by whether his confidence can survive the emotional erosion. Including international appearances, he has been involved in almost 400 senior games in his career to-date and, according to most typical development curves, that would suggest that he is now playing close to his peak. What he is now is all he is likely to be, so how will his character survive the attritional coverage that his playing style will inevitably draw? If, as expected, the chasm between his contribution and goal-return continues, the criticism will be fierce and Lukaku will need a character forged out of iron to remain unaffected. This won’t just be a test for his ability, but a challenge for his resilience.
It might also be a task made harder by Marcus Rashford. Though generally accommodated in wide positions by Jose Mourinho, Rashford’s future is as a centre-forward. He’s young, English and local and, just like at every other club in the country, there will be supporters at United who will be very quick to offer him as an alternative if Lukaku doesn’t start well. That’s an unwinnable PR battle: the youth product is always the crowd favourite. Rashford is not Lukaku’s equal, but he will be the stick with which the Belgian and his manager will be beaten if this doesn’t go well. Mourinho will again be charged with neglecting youth players and Lukaku will be presented as a short-term vanity signing.
That wouldn’t be fair on him, but that doesn’t really matter: the emotional pressure is really the same – and it’s just another minor challenge Lukaku will have to stand up to.
The fee isn’t important here. Most supporters accept that the market is grossly inflated and the concept of economy disappeared some time ago. What matters for Romelu Lukaku is the speed with which he adjusts to becoming a Manchester United player and how he adapts to what that entails. He’s moving from a club where it was okay to have bad games and for his imperfections show to one where, within reason, it really isn’t. At Everton he was just a frequent topic of discussion. At United, because of their relationship with the footballing public, him and his game will actually become an active target.
It’s different and his transfer will only be a success if he’s capable of withstanding that change.
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