Lukaku may be back to his best after a complicated career so far
Romelu Lukaku has angered a lot of people in recent years. To others, he’s become a bit of a joke.
At 30, the Belgian striker is not suffering the sort of decline many others have at a similar point in their careers, but he is also facing questions about his overall legacy and whether he has fulfilled his potential. For all his success across his career, some of it still to come, it is more than legitimate to suggest that when he does eventually say goodbye to football, there will be a sense he had more to give.
In some ways, that is incredibly harsh. Lukaku has played for some of Europe’s biggest clubs, scored goals everywhere he’s been and moved throughout his career for huge money as a result. He’s been vital to the trophy-laden success of some teams, broken records and long been among the best in his position as a striker who can transcend different styles and approaches to the game. He is also the all-time top goalscorer for Belgium, still adding to his tally with two more goals this week. So why does he still have to probe himself, and why is he not receiving the love that perhaps some players who achieve half of what he has do?
In part, that would be because he has not grasped opportunities when they have come his way, and then arguably not shown humility in the face of that. He left Anderlecht for a first spell at Chelsea as a teenager in 2011; not for the first time, he would profess to being a fan of the Blues, and Didier Drogba in particular. But opportunities were few and far between at that stage; he went on loan, first to West Brom and then Everton, cutting his teeth in the Premier League.
His blend of power, pace and finishing turned him into one of the most lethal players in England. By the time he returned to Chelsea in 2014, Jose Mourinho was there with Diego Costa. The pair would go onto win the title together that season and Lukaku, keen to avoid stunting his own momentum, waved goodbye to Chelsea and made his move to Everton permanent. It wouldn’t be the last time he would cross paths with Mourinho, though.
There was always a sense that Chelsea may regret that decision, but for Lukaku, it proved the right call. He stayed for three more seasons, scoring 53 league goals, before stepping back to elite level, summoned by Mourinho to Manchester United. He cost £90m but looked like being the perfect focal point for Mourinho’s drive to re-establish United as a force. In his first season, Lukaku scored 16 goals as they finished second, but Mourinho was sacked the following December and he wasn’t trusted by his replacement Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. The writing was on the wall for him at Old Trafford.
Joining Antonio Conte at Inter was a logical next step. Lukaku had proved himself consistently when a team played to his strengths. He did so again in Italy, winning Serie A in his first season and netting 47 goals across two league campaigns. But similarly to when he moved to Everton, there was a sense that heading for Italy was a reset, a chance to find his feet at a step down from the very top. There was another gear for him to find and it took him back to Chelsea in a deal worth £97.5m.
Thomas Tuchel had just led the Blues to the Champions League six months after replacing Frank Lampard, and he’d done so without a recognised striker. Lukaku was seen as the final piece in their puzzle for getting back on top in the Premier League. It felt like the perfect match, but turned sour very quickly.
Like at Manchester United, Lukaku wasn’t suited to Tuchel’s high energy, fluid approach. It had been noted that the fact he was strong but lean earlier in his career was no longer the case; perhaps there was too much muscle on him and it changed the way he played. But he didn’t knuckle down; an unauthorised interview with Italian media about his unhappiness at his situation was the beginning of the end for him. He’d drop down a level again with a return to Inter, but this time there was no way back.
Life in Italy wasn’t as good as before; the opportunities for regular games weren’t there and his goal tally suffered. Had he lost his touch? Perhaps that’s harsh, but a disastrous World Cup with Belgium was followed by a poor performance in the Champions League final left his reputation at an all time low. The fact his second spell at Inter was just a loan complicated matters further; unwanted at Chelsea but a prime candidate for a big sale to recoup money for their own new projects, it left Lukaku in a tough spot.
Flirtations with Juventus, bitter rivals of Inter, burnt bridges. There was no place for him at Chelsea; he was training with the reserves and new boss Mauricio Pochettino barely acknowledged him. So where next?
For the third time, Mourinho entered his path. With Tammy Abraham suffering a serious knee injury. Lukaku was signed on loan by Roma and after six goals in 10 Serie A games, there are hopes of a permanent deal.
Lukaku is back firing again, showing his quality in a supportive environment. But the constant theme of this career has been a failure to thrive in adversity and, ultimately, that could cost him when people come to write up their views on his career.