It all happened so quickly. One day, Manchester United were reportedly close to a deal for Alvaro Morata. The next day, Romelu Lukaku had shacked up with Paul Pogba in a luxury Los Angeles villa, where the two friends made a social media show of becoming Manchester United players together. It was like an episode of Cribs mixed with LeBron James’ infamous ‘The Decision.’
But when all the social media impressions and retweets settled, Manchester United were left with a £75 million striker who had struggled, up until that point, to make an impression at the very top level. Lukaku’s Premier League record was in no doubt, but against the big teams on the big occasion the Belgian had a habit of coming up short.
Whether that reputation was fair or not, this is something Lukaku has addressed in his first season as a Man Utd player. Not only has he bagged 26 goals in his first season for the club, but he has come up with some big performances in some big games. Take the FA Cup semi final against Spurs, for instance, when he contributed an assist. Or the season-defining clash against Chelsea in February, in which Lukaku scored one and assisted another.
Goals don’t the full story of Lukaku’s influence at Old Trafford. Categorised as a penalty box operator during his time, the Belgian has contributed so much more. Lukaku is a more rounded forward now than he was when he first arrived at Old Trafford nearly a year ago. Only Paul Pogba has made more assists for Man Utd than the Belgian striker this season.
His assist for Jesse Lingard’s winner in the aforementioned win over Chelsea demonstrated how Lukaku is so much more than just a finisher, holding up the ball, turning back on his marker and whipping in a perfect cross for his teammate to head home. For Mourinho’s Manchester United, Lukaku is more than just a frontman. The £75 million transfer fee paid to prise him from Everton now looks fair value, if not a bargain.
Yet the 25-year-old still doesn’t get the credit that he deserves. Lukaku isn’t viewed in the same way as someone like Harry Kane, despite his goals to game ratio over the course of his career comparable to that of the Spurs striker. The Belgian wouldn’t suit the play of teams like Liverpool or Manchester City, but that doesn’t mean he is any less of a player.
What’s more, Lukaku has become Mourinho’s on the field lieutenant, or “sergeant” as the Belgian himself puts it. “I think the manager in his mind thinks that I’m like his sergeant on the pitch, and that’s strange for a striker because it’s usually the midfielders,” Lukaku said in an interview earlier in the season. “He has been really good but I think he knows I have that soldier mentality. I think the work rate I am delivering to the team is a lot and he knows he can come to me whenever. I will always put the team first ahead of myself and that’s something I told him, I said ‘the team is the most important thing’.”
In many ways, Lukaku has come to embody what Mourinho wants from his players, which is ironic given that the striker was cast aside by the Portuguese during his time at Chelsea. He has a natural drive, an ability to self-manage and more than once has demonstrated a loyalty to the Portuguese coach. He sets the precedent for any players looking to thrive under Mourinho. Take note Anthony Martial, Luke Shaw et al.
This Saturday’s FA Cup final gives Lukaku one last chance to underline how far he has come in the space of a season. Against his former club Chelsea, the Belgian can save Manchester United’s season in the eyes of many, giving his team a piece of silverware to show for their efforts. Maybe then some will take note.
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