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Romelu Lukaku's future in doubt as striker finds himself out of fashion
Manchester United forward wanted by Antonio Conte at Inter
Last Updated: 24/07/19 12:05pm
Romelu Lukaku's scoring record is hugely impressive so why are the top clubs not desperate to sign him? Adam Bate examines why the Manchester United striker suddenly finds himself out of fashion.
Romelu Lukaku's statistics stand up to scrutiny. With 113 Premier League goals, the Manchester United forward is among the 20 top scorers in the history of the competition. Only 11 players have reached the 100-goal mark in fewer games than the Belgian and only four men have joined that 100 club at a younger age. There really should be no case to answer.
His standing is not as high as it once was. He is coming off the worst season that he has endured in English football for seven years. But even his tally of 15 goals is nothing to be embarrassed about. On the face of it, Lukaku has done more than enough in his career to justify his status as an elite-level striker. He is 26. He is in his prime. Yet, doubts remain.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is determined to set Manchester United on a new path, one with energy and adventure at its heart. But Lukaku does not appear to be part of those plans with the club seemingly happy to sell him to Antonio Conte's Inter. If he does leave, his exit will not even merit the fraught reaction that followed Ander Herrera's departure.
The appetite to claw back the money spent on Lukaku in 2017 is a reflection of the fact this transfer was not a success. But it is more than that. It is also a recognition that Lukaku, for all his qualities, for all the visceral joy of watching him bully opposition defences, and for all his obvious intelligence, finds his role at the top of the game under threat.
When Lukaku first arrived at Chelsea as a teenager, his dreadlocked appearance encouraged the lazy notion he could become Didier Drogba's replacement at Stamford Bridge. In truth, he was a very different player. One often happier coming deep or drifting out to the right flank before cutting inside on his left foot, than leading the line himself.
But as the years have passed and Lukaku's body has developed, his mobility has become more restricted and that target-man role that had once not suited him has instead become the only natural option for him. Unfortunately, he has morphed into exactly the type of player who is now seen as surplus to requirements at some of the biggest clubs in the world.
Lukaku has found himself out of fashion.
Jose Mourinho craved that reference point up front so much that perhaps he envisioned this transition from the outset - it was certainly a feature of many of his best sides. That was surely in his thinking when he persuaded Lukaku to become Zlatan Ibrahimovic's successor at Manchester United rather than return to Chelsea to play for Conte.
The problem for Lukaku is that while Mourinho and Conte both won the Premier League with this focal point in attack, Diego Costa performing that role for both men, this point man is seen by many other top managers as an indulgence now. Flexibility in the forward line is the priority. Speed of movement is regarded as non-negotiable.
Solskjaer sees this whirl of activity up front as a key component in what made United great and can do so again. Using Marcus Rashford as a centre-forward helped him to unleash the counter-attack once more. Liverpool's success, meanwhile, owes much the fluidity of their own forward movement with Roberto Firmino often interchanging with Mohamed Salah.
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Sergio Aguero was never the most traditional of target men anyway, but even he has been forced to adapt in order to survive and thrive under Pep Guardiola. At Arsenal, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang has the pace to be effective on the flank as well as in the middle, while over at Tottenham, Harry Kane has the passing range to drop deep.
Lukaku's numbers in front of goal are respectable even in this company but there is another statistic that has been noted by those within the game. It is the one that reveals he covers less ground than any of these other Premier League forwards. Indeed, there is no out-and-out striker in the competition who ran as little as Lukaku did last season.
He averaged 8.67 kilometres per 90 minutes, while Firmino was up at 11.05 kilometres. Perhaps that gulf is to be expected given the Brazilian's style of play and his role but the contrast with other top-six rivals is alarming too. Kane covered more than a kilometre per 90 minutes more. Every single striker at a rival top-six club covered at least 700 metres more.
It is significant because it reveals not only why Lukaku does not fit the demands of Solskjaer's United but why he is not an obvious fit for the other top teams too.
Such is the energy of Europe's finest sides, the systemic movement that is on display, there are even those wondering whether players as wonderful to watch as Lionel Messi and Neymar are causing structural problems for their sides defensively in the biggest games. Lukaku is not in that class and that leaves him especially vulnerable in the modern game.
It remains to be seen whether this greater focus on movement represents the future of forward play. Football is too cyclical to make that claim with any great certainty. But in a sense it is not really the point. This is the present. It is a problem that Lukaku finds himself facing in the here and now as he searches for his place in the game.
Conte will utilise him. He will tweak his system and construct a team that will seek to make the best use of Lukaku's talents. It would be no great surprise if Serie A proves to be a good fit. Lukaku's language skills are such he is sure to adapt well to life in Italy.
But the choice of Inter is an apposite one. The very fact Lukaku's future lies with a team that boasts a big reputation but finds itself in the midst of a difficult period having not won a title since 2010 is revealing. Those clubs at the forefront of the game have moved on from Inter and it seems they have moved on from Lukaku as well.
He has played for some of English football's great clubs but, rather appropriately, he has done so in the wrong era. The result is Lukaku's title win with Anderlecht as a teenager remains the only piece of major silverware he has won in his career to date. Perhaps that will change at Inter. But the signs are Lukaku is out of fashion. A man out of time.