After Romelu Lukaku had contributed to Belgium’s comfortable and confident 5-2 win over Tunisia on Saturday with two expertly finished striker’s goals Roberto Martinez suggested that the United player may have sustained an injury to the same foot that kept him out of the tail end of the Premier League season. Gareth Southgate is too polite to ever say such a thing, but he may well be a little hopeful that the forward misses what will be the Group G decider in Kaliningrad next Thursday.
The brace on Saturday took Lukaku’s recent goal tally for his nation to 23 in his last 20 matches and 17 in his last 11. It is a phenomenal tally, regardless of the strength of the opposition, and highlights both the huge improvements he and his club manager Jose Mourinho have made to his game and the potential for a significantly improved goal tally for United should the service provided improve and a game-plan better suited to his qualities be adopted. Lukaku was the spearhead for a team that created only the sixth highest number of chances on goal in the Premier League last season. United had 126 less shots than Liverpool, 153 less than City and 82 less than the fifth placed club Arsenal.
To have scored 27 times in all competitions for a side that so often required him to play with his back to goal, when his strengths are so clearly converting crosses and running onto balls in behind opposition defences, is an impressive achievement. His sense of satisfaction at his 2017/18 total for his club should be heightened by the fact that his campaign included a winter slump when his technical deficiencies and a lack of confidence, likely caused in part by the importance of converting relatively rare opportunities and the responsibility that a £75m+ transfer fee carries with it, weighed heavy on his broad shoulders. However, rather than withdraw the Belgian from the team, as his manager did with a number of other young and inconsistent members of the squad, Mourinho persisted thus allowing Lukaku to tackle his on-pitch demons and develop his all-round game. Whilst his first-touch is never likely to be as world class as Marouane Fellaini’s chest control, his technique has improved significantly, as has his belief in himself on the pitch.
Ultimately he was arguably United’s most impressive outfield player of the season, the only starter in the second leg of the Champions League Round of Sixteen tie against Sevilla who looked like he belonged at that level. At Everton Lukaku was criticised as being something of a flat track bully, but prior to his late-season injury that assessment had been, partially at least, disproven. He now plays with an air of certainty where before with every chance and ball possession there was an element of doubt. The highly intelligent 25 year-old now looks as if he knows he can challenge the goal-tallies of the Premier League’s best.
Whether that will be the case or not depends on a couple of factors. Firstly, he will need to continue his technical and tactical improvements as he approaches what should be the prime years of his career. Secondly, Jose Mourinho and United must provide him with the service on which he thrives. His four goals to date in Russia have highlighted his strengths. The first, against Panama, was a diving header from a beautiful Kevin De Bruyne cross and numbers 2, 3 and 4 featured sharp, adroit finishes from through balls onto which Lukaku had run. Two were cleverly clipped past the onrushing keeper and his first against Tunisia was an angled finish after an intelligent run which drew his marker towards the ball before a change of direction created space for him to receive a pass and drive an angled finish into the far corner of the net. After a first half against Panama in which Belgium looked toothless and Lukaku touched the ball only seven times Eden Hazard admitted to having chastised the forward and implored him to be more alive in and around the box. The response was immediate.
Of course, for Belgium Lukaku has a supporting cast of world class talents playing in an ultra-offensive 3-4-3 system to provide high-class ball in and around the box.
In contrast at United he plays in a highly pragmatic setup, which offers limited worthwhile service from the full backs in wide areas or consistent quality in central areas to create a plethora of opportunities into feet. In a creative sense this team did not function properly all season and to have scored 27 times in those conditions is a fine return. There is a sense, however, that with the right system and team fluency Lukaku could, if he avoids serious or persistent injury, challenge the sort of goal tallies delivered in the last two decades by Ruud Van Nistelrooy, Cristiano Ronaldo or Robin Van Persie.
There is no suggestion that Lukaku has the sort of technical quality that each of that trio enjoyed, but his combination of increasingly intelligent movement and positioning, pace, height and strength could make him, at his peak, just as prolific. United have a long way to go to provide such an on-field environment however. The additions of Fred and Diogo Dalot this summer have added some midfield dynamism and full back promise, but the pivotal first-team full-back positions and the troublesome right flank have yet to be addressed. Jose Mourinho has plenty of time and money to fill those vacancies and doing so will ultimately define next season. So too will finding a way to harness to talents of Paul Pogba, Alexis Sanchez, Marcus Rashford and, maybe, the want-away Anthony Martial. That is why the Portuguese is paid the big bucks, and if he can provide the solutions to his team’s offensive inadequacy then the full potential of Romelu Lukaku could be unleashed. At international level he is showing his class, although tougher challenges lay ahead in Russia.
Gareth Southgate, with an array of Belgian talent to nullify, could be forgiven for secretly praying that the rapidly improving United forward is not available or selected in Kaliningrad this week.