This Is Huge

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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

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