At the weekend, Romelu Lukaku scored a 93rd minute goal as Inter Milan beat local rivals AC Milan 4-2. The predictable response on social media and in the press was to again question whether Manchester United made the right decision in allowing the Belgian to leave the club in the summer.
With Marcus Rashford out for the foreseeable future, United made the surprise loan signing of Odion Ighalo in the January transfer window, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer acknowledging his team needed more options up front.
Rashford was the third highest scorer in the league before a back injury ruled him out and had enjoyed a fantastic season up until that point, finding the back of the net against the likes of Liverpool, Manchester City, Leicester and Chelsea, among others. His absence will almost certainly end any hopes United had of finishing in the top four this season, unless Ighalo proves to be a revelation in front of goal.
While United would certainly be in a better position if they had someone of Lukaku’s quality in attack, it’s worth remembering the circumstances that led to his exit. Last season, he managed just 15 goals in 45 appearances in all competitions and was the 16th highest scorer in the Premier League, level with the likes of Bournemouth’s Joshua King and Burnley’s Ashley Barnes.
Lukaku made the decision he wanted to leave United in March, with his last goal of the season coming in the first week of that month. Solskjaer had played him centrally and on the right, with his goalscoring record improving under the new manager in comparison to his disappointing return in the first half of the season under Jose Mourinho, but it still wasn’t close to being good enough. After the summer break ended, the striker refused to join up with the squad for pre-season training in a bid to force a move out of the club.
At Inter, Lukaku has done well and is currently the third highest scorer in Serie A, behind Ciro Immobile and 35-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo. Josip Iličić and João Pedro, who have played in fewer games, are hot on his heels though. It’s hardly the same company that he’d hope to be surrounded in if still playing in the Premier League, with the likes of Jamie Vardy, Sergio Aguero and Mo Salah leading the way.
Those suggesting that United should have done more to beg Lukaku to stay, on the back of a poor campaign and when his mind had been made up, are living in a fantasy world. Him scoring goals for Inter does not negate the fact he struggled badly to find the back of the net in this United team and is in no way relevant when trying to argue he would be a success if still playing in this league.
Reports have suggested that United missed a digestive problem that Lukaku had, with the player himself admitting that he was overweight when in Manchester. Was this a problem that only developed at United?
Because otherwise his country and every club he has represented didn’t notice there was an issue either, and at the time, Lukaku claimed he had intentionally bulked up to suit what was required from him for Belgium. Gary Neville called him unprofessional for adding so much muscle that it hampered his ability to play as well as he should for United.
United’s mistake was in not replacing Lukaku, rather than letting him go. When you consider the fee United took for him and the huge wages his sale released, it’s unforgiveable that United didn’t sign a replacement.
Lukaku enjoyed one good season but his second campaign was poor. If he could only manage 12 league goals with one of the most creative players, Paul Pogba, behind him, imagine what his tally would have been this season – and that’s before taking into consideration he would only still be playing because he had been forced to stay.
Lukaku opted to take a club fine for training with Anderlecht over returning to Carrington. He had already rubbed the club up the wrong way when posting confidential data on social media showing the top speeds of his teammates in training, which resulted in another fine.
Lukaku’s heart wasn’t in it at United anymore. He wanted out and to make him stay would have made little sense, when also remembering his dwindling number of goals.
Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood will all likely score more for United this season than Lukaku did last year, in what has been a dreadful campaign for the club and with no midfield to speak of.
After 16 minutes of playing time for United, the first Premier League action of his entire career, Daniel James equalled Lukaku’s record of goals for the club against the top six teams. Lukaku played 1,495 minutes against Liverpool, City, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal yet managed just one goal, scoring in the win over Chelsea in February 2018.
While scoring on derby day is always important, as his recent celebration at the San Siro showed, it’s worth noting that Lukaku hasn’t scored a single goal against any of the top six in Italy this season, as history begins to repeat itself.
That’s not to say Lukaku can’t be a useful forward, because he can be, and showed during the majority of his time in the Premier League that he knows how to score. United fans would likely all prefer to have a fully fit Lukaku, not carrying the extra weight and with his early motivation and desire to impress.
But to suggest that United were foolish to sell a want away player is short-sighted and ignores the bigger picture. The club desperately need another striker, just as they did in the summer.
Lukaku wasn’t the man for the job and his form in Italy doesn’t change that.