As the European transfer window moves into its final week, several big-name players find themselves in limbo, perhaps none more so than Romelu Lukaku, who seemingly isn’t wanted anywhere bar Saudi Arabia.
The Belgian became one of the few players to reject PIF’s lucrative advances, preferring to stay in one of the true big leagues rather than move to Al-Hilal, much to the chagrin of his current employers, Chelsea, who would love nothing more than to get him off the books for both FFP and squad morale reasons.
Lukaku, who pre-Todd Boehly was the Blues’ record signing having joined from Inter Milan for over £97m in August 2021, is training with the club’s Under-21 side and is said not to have spoken to new boss Mauricio Pochettino.
Having made a prodigal son return to Stamford Bridge, he quickly realised he had made an error, claiming not to be happy with how then-manager Thomas Tuchel was using him and longing for Inter once more.
It didn’t go down well at either club; he was viewed by Chelsea fans as a malcontent who wasn’t playing well and by Inter ultras as a traitor.
A loan move back to the San Siro eventually came last summer in a serious bit of transfer business by the Nerazzurri but his second stint was marred by injuries, wayward form and regularly being benched in favour of veteran Edin Dzeko for the big games.
His Champions League final misses were bad but forgivable, after all, anyone can make a mistake. His decision to have secret talks with arch-rivals Juventus were not, scuppering any chance of a permanent return to Inter and making him public enemy No.1 in fans’ eyes.
He was also slammed by club captain, ex-striker partner and one-time friend Lautoro Martinez for his actions and attitude.
It’s not as if fans of the Old Lady were much different, storming the pitch in a training match to protest against a planned move for the striker.
All of this leaves Lukaku in a very strange position in terms of what he’ll do next, his career and his legacy, which remains a curious beast.
Looking at Lukaku’s Wikipedia page, his goalscoring statistics and his transfer fees, one would assume he is one of the best strikers of his or any generation.
He has scored 280 goals in his club career, 121 of them in the Premier League, which puts him in the fabled ‘100 club’. He is the youngest player outside of the UK to join that select club. He is also the Belgian national team’s record goalscorer with an incredible 75 goals, which is 42 more than the second best in Eden Hazard, another player who finds himself at a serious crossroads.
Stats like these, and the promise he showed at Anderlecht as a kid and then throughout his career, makes it clear why so many clubs have broken the bank for his services over the years.
Everton (2014), Inter (2019) and Chelsea (2021) have all made him their club-record transfer, while Manchester United parted with £75m to bring him to Old Trafford in 2017 in their second biggest transfer deal at the time.
Until Neymar’s move to Saudi a few weeks ago, Lukaku was the player with the largest accumulated transfer fees, with £285m being spent on him.
But what have they got in return?
There haven’t been enough trophies in Lukaku’s career with his sole league title since becoming Belgian champion in 2009/2010 coming under Antonio Conte at Inter in 2020/21.
Outside of that there’s been a Coppa Italia at the same club last season and a Club World Cup with Chelsea in 2022 but he wasn’t part of the team that won the Champions League to get there in the first place.
There have been numerous runners-up medals and little else, with his legacy and career currently being more remembered for bad misses than good moments.
Even those few have been overshadowed. At United, he had the best scoring start of any player in the club’s history with 10 goals in his first 9 games but won nothing with the club, and his two biggest goals in the comeback win against PSG are largely forgotten due to Marcus Rashford’s last-gasp penalty past Gianluigi Buffon.
A lot of his early career can be tied in with United both for them and against them, with his hat-trick for West Brom in a 5-5 draw being a foot note in what was Sir Alex Ferguson’s final game in charge of the club.
He also missed a penalty in the 2016 FA Cup semi-final, being one of very few players not to slot one past David de Gea from 12 yards.
That is just one of several bad moments in big matches associated with the Belgian. His first Chelsea career ended under the returning Jose Mourinho after he missed another penalty in the 2013 Super Cup loss to Bayern Munich, which began a series of unfortunate events when it came to European finals.
He did open the scoring from the penalty spot for Inter in the 2020 Europa League final but subsequently netted the winning own goal for Sevilla later in the game. We’ve already covered the Champions League final this year, which just felt cruel in all honesty.
At international level, he’s been part of the Belgian golden generation that has promised so much but delivered so little. He played against Brazil in the 2018 World Cup quarter final but was a non-factor, like most of his teammates in the semi-final loss to France. It was the dream team’s only last four showing, with a loss to Wales in 2016 being a particular lowlight.
The Qatar World Cup marked the nadir and end of the golden generation, with Lukaku’s catalogue of misses against Croatia becoming more excruciating with each one. He wasn’t fully fit but it is a serious blotch on his resume.
The cruellest irony is that the player Lukaku most looked up to as a youngster, Didier Drogba, was almost the complete opposite of his protégé. He didn’t have the best stats but he turned up in near-every big game and final he ever appeared in.
So what now? At 30, Lukaku should be in his prime, not scrambling around for a move. His one-time contemporary Harry Kane’s big-money move to Bayern Munich is another reminder of how things have gone wrong since that ill-fated return to Chelsea.
Links with Juventus won’t go away but would they risk the full-blown anger of their fans? West Ham need a striker but could they afford his wages? Chelsea do too but would Poch even entertain it?
With the Saudi transfer market not closing until three weeks after the European one, might he be left with no other option but to join Neymar and co? It’s looking like either that or a joint retirement with Hazard.
There is still time for Lukaku to change the narrative around his career but regardless, it feels that he will be left in Michael Owen territory when all said is done – not claimed or adored by any of the clubs and fans he played for barring perhaps Everton.