This Is Huge
The megamoney EPL signings
In an off-season of earth-shattering EPL cash-splashing, Romelu Lukaku’s $130m switch to Manchester United made the biggest headlines. But will he and the transfer window’s other high-profile movers be worth the huge outlay, or will English football’s heavyweights be left suffering from a case of buyer’s remorse?
Football history is littered with players who have shone at one club, made a big-money move to a more glamorous team, only to then fail to do it on the grander stage. Taking the leap from the relatively low-pressure environment of a good but not title-challenging club to one of the league’s elite sides isn’t always as sweet a deal as it sounds. For starters, the pressure on a player is ratcheted up tenfold – the necessity to perform is constant and the media scrutiny unrelenting. “The jump is massive,” Michael Carrick said in July, talking about his own experiences of switching from then mid-table regulars Spurs to Manchester United for $25 million in 2006. “You can’t really explain to people until they’ve gone through it.” Romelu Lukaku, Carrick’s new United team-mate, faces a similar step up, having swapped Everton for Old Trafford over the summer. “I’m sure he’ll find the same thing,” Carrick added. “Having Premier League experience is a massive bonus - he’ll know how things work week to week – it’s just about dealing with all of the pressure. He will be judged like anyone else, on what he does throughout the season, and I’m sure he’s ready for that. The scrutiny will go up another level from what he’s been used to so far.” And if that hefty $130 million transfer fee and new-found status as the star striker at the world’s biggest football club didn’t weigh heavily enough on the 24-year-old’s shoulders, it’s worth remembering that the Belgian has also effectively been charged with replacing two of the Old Trafford behemoth’s legendary players. Not only was he the club’s new No.9, in place of Zlatan Ibrahimovic, but United’s all-time record goalscorer Wayne Rooney had also departed in the opposite direction, returning to Goodison Park. To silence the doubters and settle any nerves, Lukaku really needed to start this season with a bang, to get up and running immediately. He couldn’t have dreamt of a better beginning to life in a United shirt. He smashed in two goals in the Red Devils’ comfortable 4-0 victory over West Ham United – a team performance many pundits dubbed the most exhilarating from a United side since the Alex Ferguson era. That will have been music to the ears of Jose Mourinho, but what will have pleased the Portuguese boss almost as much was the nature of Lukaku’s two efforts against Slaven Bilic’s men. It proved that the big-money acquisition could fill not just one big pair of boots, but two. A new Old Trafford star had been born. Romelu Lukaku is pretty different to the majority of other top-class Premier League centre-forwards. While many of them are praised for their link play in deeper positions and were essentially converted into an outright centre-forward relatively late in their development (see Sergio Aguero, Alexis Sanchez or Harry Kane), Lukaku is the opposite. A powerful, ruthless unashamed No.9, he is perfect for the type of side Mourinho wants to build at United – physical, direct, straightforward. “A player at the highest level is always exceptional in something,” says Roberto Martinez (right), who managed Lukaku for three years at Everton from 2013-16 and is now the striker’s coach with the Belgian national team. “A player who is fantastic at everything does not exist. If you try to do everything, you will be an average player. Romelu is a finisher; he was already an outstanding finisher when he was 16 and 17 and is the same now at the age of 24. “He has always had that goalscoring threat. When he gets a chance in front of goal, the keeper has to work.”
Lukaku’s two debut strikes against West Ham demonstrated not only that goalscoring prowess, but also his suitability for Mourinho’s blueprint. The first was the type of goal that a young Rooney might have scored in front of the Stretford End, while the second was more similar to a mature Ibrahimovic. Goal No.1 came from a quick, direct counter-attack, and saw Lukaku dovetail seamlessly with Marcus Rashford, who started out on the left flank but often appeared in centre-forward positions throughout United’s league opener. The England starlet dribbled menacingly through the centre before neatly slipping the ball into the path of Lukaku, who crashed the ball past Joe Hart off the base of a post with pinpoint precision. If the first goal looked brilliant, the second looked simply effortless. A second half free-kick from Henrikh Mkhitaryan was whipped onto the head of the Belgian, who raced past Hammers defender Arthur Masuaku and nodded the ball in. The two goals may not have displayed the full range of Lukaku’s talents, but will no doubt have delighted his watching manager. Mourinho has made a point of stating he wants his team to score more goals on the break and more goals from set-piece situations this term. Right from the outset, Romelu is ticking all the right boxes. For all the goals Lukaku has scored during his time in the English game, the general consensus is that the frontman still has more to offer, and still has a lot to learn. “Was Romelu the finished article at the age of 21?” asks Martinez, rhetorically. “No. And is he the finished article now? No, though he is getting closer, and the maturity he has shown in the last six or seven months is particularly impressive. “He needs to carry on showing he can go on to become the player that he wants to be.” But what exactly is it that the Belgian hitman needs to work on? If you listen to the pundits on TV, three areas of his game are repeatedly cited. Firstly, Lukaku’s heading has regularly been the subject of scrutiny. For such an imposing centre-forward, the Belgian didn’t appear particularly dangerous in the air during his first couple of Premier League campaigns while on loan, first at West Bromwich Albion and then Everton. Last year, former Toffees team-mate Luke Garbutt revealed that Lukaku had once said he was reluctant to throw himself into aerial challenges after suffering an accident as a young player when heading a ball. He now seems to have conquered that phobia, however, and last term scored six goals using his noggin in the Premier League. The only two frontmen to nod home more were Crystal Palace’s Christian Benteke and Swansea’s Fernando Llorente – two big forwards whose threat inside the penalty area is based almost exclusively around their dominance in aerial situations. Another supposed weakness often highlighted during his Everton career was his link-up play. Throughout pre-season, though, Lukaku’s interplay with United’s attacking midfielders was encouraging. And during the European Super Cup defeat to Real Madrid he repeatedly showed an ability to drift away from the opposition centre-backs and receive balls into feet. He should also demonstrate more willingness to slip in team-mates now that he is working alongside footballers of a higher calibre than before. The third, and most loudly aired, complaint is that he hasn’t scored enough goals against the top sides. In his final campaign at Everton, only four of his 25 league goals were converted against the six teams who finished above the Toffees in the final table. But that ratio is not unreasonable considering the difference in quality of the defences he faced, and even if Lukaku is a ‘flat-track bully’, perhaps that’s precisely what the Red Devils require. United’s biggest problem last season was the number of matches they drew at Old Trafford – 10 of their 19 home league games. While stalemates with Arsenal, Everton and Liverpool were hardly disastrous, United also dropped valuable points at home to Burnley, Hull, Stoke, Bournemouth, Swansea, West Brom and West Ham. These sides, of course, are the type of teams that Lukaku was regularly destroying: from Everton’s corresponding fixtures in 2016-17, Lukaku netted nine goals in seven matches. From that perspective, Mourinho appears to have directly addressed an obvious weakness. In any case, Lukaku won’t be under pressure to score shedloads in the big matches – the Portuguese is famously pragmatic in crunch clashes and will always focus on keeping things tight and holding onto that clean sheet. In his mind, 1-0 is often enough. Lukaku will also offer United a little more tactical flexibility, and the option of playing something akin to a traditional 4-4-2 formation – at least according to one man who knows a thing or two about bringing titles to the Theatre of Dreams. “I was interested in how Jose played Lukaku and Anthony Martial upfront in pre-season,” United legend Ryan Giggs said in July. “He’ll have analysed last season and seen how in some games you need two up top, and maybe with [Juan] Mata or Mkhitaryan playing just behind. That is something we did not see last year. Jose is a winner and will see where it can improve. Tweaking the system can do that. “The main reason Jose bought Lukaku is for goals and to turn all of those draws at Old Trafford into wins,” the Welshman explained. “There will be a lot of pressure and scrutiny on him but those around him also need to step up and score a few more, too.” The best possible way to answer those lingering questions will be to keep on hitting the back of the net until United are winning the big trophies again, but there already seems little to suggest Lukaku won’t be an excellent fit at his new club. Scoring 85 league goals in five seasons with West Brom and Everton is a fine record for a forward who has only recently turned 24, and there’s been a bizarre and overwhelming focus on his weaknesses, rather than his undeniable strengths. Ultimately, though, Lukaku is a straightforward, old-fashioned type of striker, playing under a straightforward, old-fashioned manager. “I don’t think he’ll have a problem [stepping up] because I know the way he works,” Martinez says. “Rom is obsessive in his daily work. He is always looking for the perfect preparation and he won’t ever lose the goalscoring talent.” Just as the United debuts of Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo set the tone for their subsequent brilliance at Old Trafford, Lukaku’s opening-day double against West Ham suggests he is on track to prove his many doubters wrong.
“ROM IS A FINISHER A ND HE HAS ALWAYS HAD THAT GOALSCORING THREAT – IF HE GETS A CHA NCE, THE GOALKEEPER HAS TO WORK”
Above Physical, direct, straightforward: Jose has found the perfect striker for the type of side he wants to build