“You’re a grown-ass man, deal with it.”
That was Romelu Lukaku’s instruction when many of his Manchester United team-mates were wilting in the face of Jose Mourinho’s confrontational brand of man-management. But it seems the Inter Milan striker might consider taking some of his own advice.
Since leaving for Italy at the start of the month, Lukaku has gone into great detail over the premature end to his United career. The Belgium striker felt neither wanted by the manager nor appreciated by the supporters. And perhaps there is some justification to be found among his list of gripes. But none of Lukaku’s complaints acknowledge that, as the person best placed to alter people’s perceptions, he failed to offer tangible evidence that he was being harshly judged at Old Trafford.
His goalscoring record at United isn’t bad. Nor does it demonstrate the kind of prolificacy required to put Lukaku among the company he apparently feels he deserves to keep. He netted 28 goals in 66 Premier League appearances, and 42 in 96 overall. In the race for the Premier League Golden Boot, he finished sixth in his first season, and joint 16th last year on the same tally as Ayoze Perez and Luka Milivojevic.
In the league, he netted once every 179 minutes – one every two games – which puts him just above Louis Saha and Michael Owen in United terms, but some way behind Andy Cole (156 mins per goal), Dwight Yorke (155), Dimitar Berbatov (154), Zlatan Ibrahimovic (150), Robin van Persie (142) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (128).
Last season was the seventh consecutive campaign that Lukaku reached double figures in the Premier League, with only the last two years spent at a big six side. That represents some admirable consistency – but is it enough?
Goalscoring, ultimately, is how Lukaku should be judged and his ranking among that group of United centre-forwards offers an accurate summary of his contribution in two years at Old Trafford. Only in one of those seven previous seasons did he crack the 20-goal barrier, which was his final year at Everton that earned him his big move to United. Lukaku’s record there, while commendable, did not justify the £75million price tag or meet the needs of a side aiming to claw its way back to the top.
So really, it is little wonder that no-one from within the club, be it Ole Gunnar Solskjaer or Ed Woodward, spoke out in an effort to make Lukaku “feel protected”. Solskjaer made clear very early that Lukaku’s style was not conducive to the way he wants his United side to play and that being the case, it would suit neither player nor club for the centre-forward to sit on the bench. Solskjaer cannot be blamed for looking to move Lukaku on, nor can Woodward when Inter were willing to give United close to their money back.
Lukaku also took umbrage at the accusation that he is just not suited to this United side. “A lot of people don’t think I should be part of that system,” he said on the LightHarted Podcast. “That’s my feeling from the conversations that I have, I just know.
“For me, the thing that makes me laugh a lot is… how the hell is sh*t going bad in my team, but when I play in my national team, it’s good? And I’m happy.
“We all know that international soccer is different than club football but the playing style we play in the national team is the one we want to play at Man Utd. So is it me? Or do we need to have a conversation from man to man and tell each other the rules?”
Most centre-forwards would be happy playing with Kevin De Bruyne and Eden Hazard. On his way to becoming Belgium’s highest scorer, Lukaku has scored 25 international goals in the two years while United have been paying his wages. An impressive stat, but one that deserves context. The list of sides Lukaku has scored against: Gibraltar, Greece, Cyprus, Mexico, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Costa Rica, Panama, Tunisia, Scotland, Iceland and Switzerland. Only two of those sides feature in the top 30 of FIFA’s rankings.
In five games against Portugal, Brazil, France, England and Holland in that same period, Lukaku has scored no goals and assisted only one. That is the sort of stage United would be looking for their players to thrive upon in the international arena.
Lukaku felt scapegoated by United supporters – but at least he didn’t feel like he was being singled out. “It is Pogba, it is me or it is Alexis. It’s the three of us all the time,” he said. “They have got to find somebody to blame… If they want to put the blame on me, you know what, f*ck it, do what you gotta do.”
The United players are fortunate that Mourinho carried the can for as long as he did. For once he had gone and the post-Jose euphoria had worn off, there was plenty of blame to share around the squad. And given the depths United plumbed at times last season, is it really so unreasonable for fans to shine a light on their two most expensive players ever and another trousering the highest salary ever paid by United – or indeed any other Premier League club?
Lukaku, Pogba and Sanchez are easy targets – but that doesn’t invalidate the condemnation. Shushing criticism has always been part of Lukaku and Pogba’s schtick but United supporters have grown tired of the flow of dismissive comments with no actions to back it up. In Sanchez’s case, he just doesn’t appear bothered either way.
Lukaku can’t have it both ways. You cannot claim to feed off criticism – or ‘BS’ as he regularly describes it – then complain when it arrives, and certainly not when it is justified.
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‘Not bad for a fat boy’ he captioned an Instagram post last week in response to more criticism over his bulk. It is a debate that has dogged Lukaku throughout his United career. “Criticism about my physique? That’s some BS! Yeah, that’s some BS,” he told Bleacher Report last November. Just a couple of weeks before he admitted that he knew months before he was too heavy for the Premier League.
Many supporters might not be privy to all the nuances of elite performance, but it is not likely to escape anyone’s attention when their centre-forward turns up overweight. Nor did fans miss that Lukaku was playing for long periods of last season with “not enough intensity”, which he acknowledged himself. Lukaku was not alone in that respect but saying ‘I don’t think I was the only one playing bad’ offers no mitigation.
His frustration is understandable. He felt that joining United was his big chance to reach his “destiny” in becoming one of the world’s top strikers. But for a variety of reasons, many of which Lukaku should accept responsibility for, he was unable to achieve the targets he set for himself or those expected of a £75million centre-forward at Old Trafford. Taking potshots at United, their supporters and his critics won’t change that. Nor does it alter the perception that perhaps Lukaku’s skin is not as thick as he would have us all believe. The scrutiny isn’t about to get any less intense in Italy with Inter.