Romelu Lukaku. Manchester United’s new No.9. The big Belgian has signed for Man United for an initial outlay of £75m but is he worth it? That question will be answered over the coming season and hopefully many more.
There have been many articles penned since he has signed so I am not going to repeat what erstwhile journalists have already said. However the statistics make great reading. Only Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler and Wayne Rooney had scored more Premier League goals prior to turning 24.
His goal scoring record in the league last year was 25 in 37 games. That’s seven more league goals than the big man he has been signed to replace, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, scored last season. Even on loan at West Bromwich Albion as a much younger player he scored 17 in 35. That’s a goal every two games, a more than satisfactory return.
However statistics don’t always tell us the full story, so I spoke with Dave Stephens, a lifelong Everton fan and regular contributor to an online Everton fans forum group Chuffed to Be Blue and asked him a few questions, to offer an Everton perspective and moreover a balanced view on one of the biggest transfers of the summer so far.
So, it’s probably fair to say that Lukaku leaving Everton wasn’t a real surprise, but how do you feel now that the dust has settled on his £75m move to United? Were you surprised he didn’t go to Chelsea?
It certainly looked like Chelsea was going to be the side, particularly when the whole Costa/Conte text message story came out, but Utd have been put under pressure to perhaps prove their standing by making a statement signing. Once Zlatan got injured and departed it was clear that signing would need to be a striker and Lukaku was the best choice out there. I think it’s an excellent acquisition in many ways for Utd. Obviously the main element will be the goals that he will no doubt bring, but the benefits of having prevented him joining Chelsea can’t be underestimated in terms of the two clubs’ relative positions, as well as stealing a march on the other top sides. At 24 he should also prove to be a sensible investment.
His departure hasn’t really had the impact on the Everton fan base that many would have anticipated, but this is due to a certain world weariness in the whole inevitability of it all. It’s been pretty obvious he was going to go, so to get it sorted out so early in the window was generally considered to be a huge positive. We’ve been making bold statements ourselves in the transfer market this summer, so there is more confidence that we’ll be able to adequately replace him, albeit using a wider spread of goals through the team.
How do you feel he will be received back at Goodison in a United shirt next season? He has actually scored 8 more goals than Duncan Ferguson and 12 more than Tim Cahill but he has never struck me as a huge fans favourite?
It will be mixed and a lot will depend on what comments he makes between now and then. There will always be an element who’ll boo him regardless, but if he makes any disrespectful remarks to curry favour with the Utd fans, things could get quite toxic for him. Look at what happened with David Moyes, who managed to alienate an incredibly loyal fan base through his ‘career advice’ to Leighton Baines and Marouane Fellaini, burning his bridges and losing all respect. At the moment Lukaku’s probably walking a bit of a tightrope with the majority of the fans. His ‘best fans’ comment after signing was unnecessary and ill advised, but didn’t really come as a shock given his regular media spoutings when on international duty, and gives everyone an excuse to employ a bit of revisionism when it comes to his time at the club. At the moment I’d say that if he keeps things humble and respectful the majority will give him some appreciative applause before the game, then boo him every time he touches the ball!
Becoming a club legend at Everton goes far deeper than goal return. It’s more about giving the impression that playing for the club means as much as it would do for one of the fans. Duncan Ferguson for a lot of the time was a bit of a liability for us, and certainly never managed to fulfil his potential, but he has clearly been deeply affected by the club, and during an absolutely dire period was one of the only things fans could hold on to. Cahill was a model pro and could be relied upon to not only give his all for every minute he was on the pitch, but also to bring his best performances against the top clubs. Lukaku made it clear pretty much from the day he joined that he believed he was destined for better things and that we were a stepping stone, so I guess there was always a slight reticence to take him completely to our hearts. He also had the propensity to look disinterested and moody during games if he felt that he wasn’t getting the service, and that sort of thing isn’t appreciated at any club.
The term “flat track bully” has often been levelled at Lukaku. Would you say that’s fair?
To an extent, but I don’t think it tells the full story, and am also not sure it is a bad thing necessarily. It is hardly like he missed chance after chance against the better sides and he isn’t the sort of player who can create something out of nothing. However, what could easily be leveled at him is that he failed to use his best attributes when things were not going his way, and by that I mean his size, strength and pace. Alan Shearer, for example, used to bully defenders regardless of whether things were going well for his team or if chances were being created, generally making life difficult. Lukaku on the other hand could appear infuriatingly easy to play against. Ensuring you beat the teams that are worse than you is hugely important though, so I was more than happy to have a ‘flat track bully’ if that is what people wanted to call him.
Conversely, one of the criticisms levelled at Lukaku is his poor scoring rate against Top 6 sides compared to his fellow strikers. Over the last 2 seasons his scoring percentage rate against the Top six sides is 11.6%. That compares poorly to say Aguero at 20.5% and Kane at 16.7%. Again, do you think this is a fair criticism?
I’m not sure it is fair to make a straight comparison. Aguero was playing in front of David Silva, Kevin De Bruyne, Leroy Sane etc, and Kane with the likes of Christian Eriksen. Lukaku never was afforded the luxury of having someone of that calibre with him creativity-wise. It will be very interesting to see how those stats look this season when he gets a run with someone like Juan Mata, who I was desperate for Everton to sign when Mourinho arrived by the way! However, as I said before Tim Cahill managed to cause an absolute nuisance of himself against the top teams and he was in a far poorer side technically than the one in which Lukaku has been playing. Attitude counts for a lot, and it’s something that does seem to often let Lukaku down.
What do you perceive to be his main strengths?
Play the ball in front of him and he is borderline unstoppable. He is strong, quick and his finishing is as good as anyone I have seen. He absolutely relishes racing defenders or running at them with the ball, and that enjoyment is visible. He is also excellent in the penalty area, particularly finishing from pull backs. When his confidence is up, which happens when the team plays to his strengths, he has the ability to produce some excellent longer range shots and become much more of a problem for defenders. He also has surprising skill when it comes to playing quick one-twos with more technically gifted team mates. As I said previously, I suspect that he and Mata will enjoy playing together and am far more confident in the future success of that partnership than I am with the somewhat nauseating bromance with Pogba.
What do you perceive to be his weaknesses?
Treating him like a target man and playing long balls to him with his back to goal is no good at all. His first touch, although much improved, is still poor, and he clearly dislikes this style of play, getting visibly frustrated and stroppy with team mates. Like a lot of strikers he can be very self-centred and can be accused of standing around at set pieces if the ball isn’t likely to come to him, when he should be pulling defenders about.
Can you see him being used as a lone striker similar to Ibrahimovic last season or do you think he would be better suited in tandem with Rashford? Do their skills complement each other?
You’re probably better to comment on this than me, but I would imagine Rashford will be playing off the left with Mata on the right of a front three. I’m not sure I see them as a straightforward striking partnership as teams so rarely set themselves up that way. That being said, Lukaku is arguably more effective when he has someone else making runs with (for) him, and Rashford is very much the sort of player who can make space for him through his pace and mobility. Enner Valencia last year was pretty limited as strikers go, but whenever he came off the bench he made things happen by making awkward runs and freeing up space. Lukaku visibly picked up whenever Valencia was on the pitch.
Much has been made in the past about comments made whilst on international duty and showing outward signs of frustration on the pitch. How do you think he will settle at United in terms of attitude?
That is the big unknown, and a huge amount will depend on how his relationship with Mourinho settles down. They are two massive egos who have crossed swords in the past, and if Jose decides to scapegoat him things could turn ugly. Likewise if he shows he really belongs in the Champions League and improves against the top clubs, I could easily see links being made (probably orchestrated by Raiola) to Real Madrid and the cycle happening again. It is an annoying side show, but my advice is to just take his goals and try not to worry about it!
Finally, how many goals do you think he will score next season?
If he stays free of injury, which he always managed to do at Everton, then I could see 35 goals in all competitions, maybe 25 in the Premier League. Forget the revisionist nonsense that will be flying around social media; this guy guarantees goals and will be a superb signing for United.