Romelu Lukaku walks into the big club storm

Words By Seb Stafford-Bloor Illustration by Philippe Fenner
December 1, 2017

There are parts of the Romelu Lukaku debate which aren’t being debated at all. As seems always to be the case, many people decided a long time ago what kind of player Lukaku was and what sort of future he was heading towards. An imminent great or a stat-padding fraud; those have always been death do us part positions.

The more pertinent discussion has been regarding how he might cope with the big club life he has seemed destined for since leaving Anderlecht. Goals at West Brom were once thing, as they were again at Everton, but there’s been a curiousity as to how he might function when the lights are brighter – whether his talent could survive in the rarest of airs.

The answer? Not sure.

Seven goals in his first seven appearances for Manchester United appeared to end the discussion about his suitability, but one in the last eleven has set it ablaze again. The entry of Zlatan Ibrahimovic – he of the ego and the preference for one-forward systems which orbit entirely around him – has added a further drum of petrol.

In a way, the world seems weighted against Lukaku. His recent seasons at Goodison Park were asterisked by concerns about his general output and worth beyond the penalty-box. Accusations about his performance in “big” games were never slow in arriving, either. Now a Manchester United player, the debate seems to have shifted: his all-round play may have improved, but the focus has shifted back to his scoring tally. The goalposts have been shifted.

And that big game problem? Well, any forward wanting to rid themselves of that tag should have paused for thought before working with Jose Mourinho. Lukaku made little impression against Liverpool or Chelsea, but his manager created that poverty. The Portuguese doesn’t want to win those games nearly as much as he desires not to lose them.

But then, this is what people meant when they talked of the thin air at the top of the sport. They were referring to a situation in which the basis for judgement wasn’t necessarily always going to be reasonable and a place in the game where, sometimes, a forward is only one or two fallow months from losing his own crowd and have his status re-drawn.

Entrenched opinions are like that: they go quiet rather than disappearing and have a habit of returning at the slightest encouragement.

Lukaku deserves more acclaim than he’s receiving. A motivated self-learner who has very obviously studied his own weaknesses and sought to cure them, the between-the-lines detailsreveals the extent of his success. Only Henrikh Mkitaryan has created more goals for Manchester United this season than he has, he is averaging more shots per game than at any other point in his Premier League career, and those who watch United regularly will tell you that his work-rate is that of entirely different player. No, Lukaku was never lazy, but in the past he often carried himself as someone unsure of his duties without the ball. No longer. He is evolving into a true team player – and those improvements are exactly what any supporter would want from a player upon whom their club had spent £70m.

But, alas, that criticism isn’t getting any quieter. The lack of goals is a problem and, while a luxury for Mourinho, the presence of Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford, plus the self-aggrandising spectre of Ibrahimovic, is unhelpful. For the first time since leaving Chelsea for the first time on-loan, Lukaku is really under pressure. He remains appreciated by the large majority of United fans, but that loud, fundamentalist minority has begun to stir. As have the media, from within which several I told you so articles are likely imminents. Entrenched opinions are like that: they go quiet rather than disappearing entirely and have a habit of returning at the slightest encouragement.

Manchester United face Arsenal on Saturday and 1-in-11 will become 1-in-12 if Lukaku doesn’t beat Petr Cech. It will be another disappointment, irrespective of what else he does, and another citation for that ‘big game’ entry on his Wikipedia page.

Is that fair?

Does it matter?

The justifications behind criticism are – unfortunately – incidental. The effect it has on a player is less so. As such, the challenge for Lukaku now is to keep his own shoulders unburdened. The work ethic and appetite for the game which has brought him this far most not be stifled by what he would likely see as an hypocrisy and he must keep pursuing the balance in his game which would make this discussion null and void.

The ability to do that is what will allow him to belong at this level. A lot of players possess the ability to play for Manchester United, but not many own the pyschological characteristics which allow them to thrive in that shirt, in front of that fanbase, and on that stage.

And this, for Romelu Lukaku, is the time which will show whether he has those rare traits. This is the critical junction in his career and the moment which will determine the tone of his peak years.

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