On the opening weekend of the Premier League season, all eyes were on three expensive strikers who had changed clubs over the summer.
Alvaro Morata signed for Chelsea, Alexandre Lacazette signed for Arsenal and Romelu Lukaku signed for Manchester United.
Arsenal’s opening game of the season was on a Friday night against Leicester and Lacazette scored after two minutes. The following day, Chelsea lost their first match of the season 3-2 at home to Burnley, but Morata got on the scoresheet.
Social media was filled with plenty of comments about United’s new striker, with the pressure on him to score. Journalists and rival fans claimed that Morata was the more intelligent player, while Arsenal fans hailed Lacazette’s skilful feet in contrast to Lukaku’s apparently poor first touch.
Over to you, Lukaku. Less than an hour in to his Premier League debut for United (forgetting that he had already scored his first goal for his new club against Real Madrid in the Super Cup final), he had two goals to his name.
Fast forward six months and the Belgian now has 22 goals for United, which is more than Morata and Lacazette have scored combined for their respective teams.
That’s not to say it’s been plain sailing for him, with his goal against Chelsea on Sunday his first against a top six club this season, but 22 goals and eight assists is a good return from 40 appearances.
What has been impressive is how often Lukaku has played a role in the run up to his goals too.
Whether it’s holding the ball up or playing a one-two with another forward, Lukaku isn’t just in the right place at the right time to put the ball away in the six-yard box. He contributes to the goals he’s scored, as well as those of his teammates, even if unable to claim the assist.
He’s now two goals short of joining the Premier League 100 club, which is impressive when you consider he’s spent most of his time in England playing for mid-table teams. Presuming he reaches his century before he’s 25, only Michael Owen, Robbie Fowler, Wayne Rooney and Harry Kane will have reached the tally at a younger age than him, seeing him beat the likes of legendary strikers Alan Shearer and Andy Cole.
“I just need to keep working hard,” he said following victory over Chelsea. “I think I have got a nice record. I’ve scored a lot this season and I just want to keep going. I know that I can improve, and I want to improve and really work hard.
“I started playing when I was 16. Year in, year out people expect 20 goals from me. I’ve been doing it for 10 years straight, so I think I’ve proved myself. You expect a bit more respect but it’s the situation we’re in. I don’t listen to it. I just want to improve and show the people what I can do on the pitch.”
In the summer, it had appeared as though Morata was going to United and Lukaku to Chelsea, yet out of nowhere, Jose Mourinho swooped in for his first-choice target, leaving the Spaniard moving to the London club. The decision made by the United manager was scoffed at by some, with pundits and rival fans claiming that Chelsea had signed the better player.
European football journalist Mina Rzouki told BBC 5 Live: “I would pay £20m or £30m more if I had to and I would bring in Morata. That is because I would always prefer an intelligent player in my team. Even if he doesn’t score as many goals, even if he doesn’t do whatever he needs to.”
This was a fairly dismissive claim to make though, of a man who speaks six languages and works tirelessly on improving his game.
Roberto Martinez, his former club manager and current international boss, spoke about Lukaku’s intelligence back in 2013.
“The first time I spoke with him I realised that he was not a typical centre forward, power whatever,” he said. He is a thinker. He is a really knowledgeable man and is someone who looks at games in a very different way.”
In 2016, Lukaku was interviewed by Thierry Henry for Sky Sports and spoke of the lengths he goes to in order to improve.
“I have a lot of clips on my computer of different types of strikers and I spend hours, and hours, and hours watching it,” Lukaku said. “I try to learn what their strongest points are, pick out a little bit and work on it in training. I love watching football. I love studying other players.”
Henry puffed out his cheeks at one point in the interview, exclaiming, “it’s refreshing to see how bright you are.”
Lukaku has yet to prove that he’s able to shine up front in the same way that Ruud van Nistelrooy or Cole did, but he’s already achieved more than either player had at the same age. As much as Lukaku wants to learn, some things can’t be taught, but he’s still so early on in to his career.
Judging on their debut seasons, there’s no denying that United signed the better striker out of the three last summer, but there’s more for Lukaku to be done before the season ends.
His big game goal must be a weight off his back, even if he claims otherwise, and now he needs to add to that. With games against Liverpool and Manchester City on the horizon, as well as important games in the Champions League and FA Cup, the big striker has to keep getting on the scoresheet when it really matters.
That’s not to say that Mourinho should persist with him no matter what, with Anthony Martial deserving of further chances in that role following his performance in what was arguably United’s best game of the season, their 2-0 win at Goodison Park.
Yet Lukaku is currently enjoying a great run, with seven goals in his 10 appearances of 2018, and with his boosted confidence, must continue to perform to prove he is a big club player.