In the summer of 2017, Romelu Lukaku’s move to Manchester United came on a wave of promise after a prolific four-year spell at Everton. The common belief amongst the Old Trafford faithful was that United’s superior service, from players like Anthony Martial and Antonio Valencia, would enable Lukaku to surpass his performances at Everton.
Ultimately, 2017/18 will go down as one of the Belgian’s worst seasons as a professional. Though 16 league goals is no disgrace for anyone, the perception that 20 goals is the watershed between also-ran and terrace legend gives others some justification in criticising Lukaku. That unwritten rule certainly seems to be followed at Old Trafford, though at a personal level, it certainly was on the more disappointing end of Lukaku’s spectrum, with 2014/15 marking the last time Lukaku underachieved so badly.
Certainly, few can forget the bile to which Lukaku was subjected on various Youtube channels, in the aftermath of United’s home derby defeat to City last December. Nearly one year and a World Cup later, Lukaku still has yet to really return to favour amongst the crowd, but his Sporting Index buy/sell price to finish 2018/19 continues to rise. Not coincidentally, Lukaku’s trajectory amongst a demanding fanbase is also once more upward, after the Belgian bagged the opener at Watford on Saturday evening.
That goal marked Lukaku’s sixth goal in his last five matches for club and country. However, maintaining that form into October, when the league table begins to take meaningful shape, will be crucial to him getting the momentum necessary to make 2018/19 a real success. This is especially true, given that United play at home no less than four times in October, with the latter two being standout matches against top Group H top seeds Juventus, and the visit of Lukaku’s former club, Everton.
While it is all very well for Lukaku to punish the likes of Watford, Brighton and Burnley, the successful winning over of his sternest critics depends on his destruction of better opponents. As of September 2018, Lukaku’s last league goal against one of United’s fellow top six peers came on 25 February, when United beat a badly-ailing Chelsea 2-1 at Old Trafford. Worse yet, his last away goal against such a team came in March 2017, as Everton went down 3-2 at Tottenham.
Though it is only natural to put a spotlight on £70m man Lukaku, the onus is as much on his lieutenants Jesse Lingard and Alexis Sanchez to provide the goods. Try though Lukaku might to ‘atone’ for last season’s disappointing haul, the fact remains that Alexis Sanchez – ostensibly the ‘support striker’ in Jose Mourinho’s latest default XI – is still nowhere near the player he needs to be to forge a meaningful partnership with Lukaku. The Chilean had assisted just one Lukaku goal prior to the September international.
Deployed, on the opposite flank to Sanchez at Vicarage Road, Jesse Lingard has been England’s most improved player over the course of this calendar year. However, he has yet to consistently give Lukaku the sort of service that would make him the better all-round support striker Mourinho clearly wants him to be. Lingard, though without equal in terms of agility, still gets bullied by bigger opponents. A standout example of this was his anonymous performance against Croatia in the World Cup, and United fans will do well to remember that Lukaku cannot make magic happen on his own.
In terms of pure mathematics, Lukaku is now well on course to break the 20-goal barrier in the Premier League. There are also no particularly deadly runs in the fixture list that could derail Lukaku when on form, and thus it should be appreciated that much of whether (or not) Lukaku surpasses his efforts of 2017/18 depends on those around him.