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Lukaku… the flop?

Lukaku… the flop?


At just 28-years-old, Romelu Lukaku has racked up nearly £300 million in transfer fees. In fact, he’s broken transfer fee records. So why is he always on the bench?


Hi, I’m Chloe and this is the Playmaker. 

One story every day to make sense of the beautiful game. 

Today: Romelu Lukaku… the flop? 

“What Romelu has to do, and like most players have to do, and not enough of them want to, is look himself in the mirror and say ‘Is he doing enough?’ Both in training and in matchdays, because you can’t just turn up on a Saturday and expect to score goals, you have to work at it every day.”

Tim Sherwood on Sky Sports’ The Debate

With his impending move to Chelsea, Romelu Lukaku has racked up nearly £300 million in transfer fees at the age of just 28. 

At 21, he broke Everton’s club record transfer fee. He was considered one of the hottest young prospects in football, and rightly so. 

Since his debut, he’s netted 251 times in 508 club games, plus 64 in 98 for his country. He’s the highest scoring Belgian of all-time.

So why then, after just two years at Old Trafford, did he leave with his ears ringing from criticism?

“You know what? There’s a reason why Lukaku is not at a Barcelona, or a Real Madrid, or a City, or a Liverpool, or PSG. And the reason for that is because he’s not at the highest level. You know, those teams when they knew he was available from Manchester United, didn’t want anything to do with him, and there’s a reason for that.”

Steve Nicol, ESPN

Lukaku was often dropped to the bench by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer in his second season at United, even though he scored more goals per minute than team-mate Marcus Rashford.

He was called lazy, slow, and was always singled out for having a poor first touch. 

Fans and pundits all weighed in with the criticism, with some even saying they wanted more than just goals from… a guy whose job is literally to score goals. 

“Possession lost – Lukaku. I mean, that’s awful, that’s really poor. The sprint is not great compared to Calvert-Lewin, I think we know watching Lukaku he’s never going to top that list but it’s still not great, and the distance covered… and the reason why I’m comparing them is, not just to batter Lukaku’s performance, as I said I thought it was awful, but Lukaku is a striker who scores goals. He’s a great goalscorer, his goalscoring record is great. Whereas Calvert-Lewin is a player who is giving you a lot more, but isn’t giving you a massive amount of goals. And I think that’s a debate for a manager.”

Jamie Carragher, Sky Sports

And it’s clear that all of the talk around his performances began to get to him. 

Just before he left Man United for Inter, Lukaku leaked data from speed tests in training that proved he ran the second fastest in the whole squad. 

He also told the Times newspaper that there were too many things that he thought were “not right” about the way in which he was criticised.

And I mean, if you look at his record, you can see why he was confused…

After rising through the youth sector at Anderlecht, Lukaku quickly attracted attention, scoring 33 goals in 73 matches. 

And if that wasn’t impressive enough, Lukaku was still a schoolboy, having broken into the team aged just 16 in 2009. 

And so within two years, at 18, Chelsea spent big money to bring arguably the most promising striking talent in Europe to Stamford Bridge.

And in two loan spells, one for West Brom and one for Everton, Lukaku scored 32 goals in just 66 games. A phenomenal rate that caused Everton to break their club record to buy him.

“Lukaku surely, oh yes! Beautifully finished, but that’s what he does.”

Sky Sports commentary

By the time Unitd came in for him, they knew what they were getting: a prolific young goalscorer.

And the goals continued. Lukaku scored at the same ratio during his time at Old Trafford… So why all the hate?

Well, part of the answer might be in his move to Inter in 2019. 

One of the criticisms often levelled at Lukaku while at Man United had been around his weight. Gary Neville had slammed him on TV for it.

“But football players, honestly it’s like a clock ticking, they should know their bodies inside out. You get into that zone as a football player, you’re fighting weight, you know what you’re going to eat every day, you know when you can, sort of, relax, you know when you can, sort of, not eat, and when you do eat, the portion sizes – they’re absolutely scientific. Even when I was playing you get into that point, don’t you, as a football player, the routine. I’m not sure how he actually hasn’t, through this problem that he’s obviously identified himself of bulking up, hasn’t then corrected it and found a system of working during the week which is training, nutrition, lifestyle… that’s what I’m struggling with.”

Gary Neville, Sky Sports

But when he moved to Inter, the club immediately picked up on an intestinal problem that Man United doctors had simply missed. They made adjustments, and he lost almost 10 pounds in 12 days. 

But it was more than just his weight. 

From a young age Lukaku had suffered from a lot of criticism. Following his record transfer to Everton aged just 21, the Chelsea boss at the time questioned Lukaku’s “motivation and mentality”.

And towards the end of his time with Man United, Lukaku gave a really revealing interview.

“I remember the first game with Man United, we were beaten against Madrid in the Super Cup, and I scored but we lost, and there was a chance that I missed. And we played the next game against West Ham and I scored two, and then the game after I scored again, and I scored again and again, but it was always ‘Yes, but… yes, but…’ I will never get my respect. That happened at Man United when I started, that’s when I knew… whatever was going to happen people were going to look at me with eyes like this…”

Romelu Lukaku, Oh My Goal interview

No matter how good he is, he’s never quite good enough.

And part of that is also tied up with the prejudice and racism that looms over the sport. 

While at Inter, an Italian TV pundit was sacked for racism after saying teams “need to give him ten bananas to stop him”.

But sometimes the racism isn’t so overt. And Lukaku knows this. He felt it in the constant questions of him, those criticisms of him during his Man United days. Even as he continued to score, and outscore his team-mates, it was never quite enough to win people over.

So as he returns once again to the Premier League, back to the club that brought him here a decade ago, all eyes will once again return to Lukaku.

He’s 20th in the all-time Premier League scoring charts, just five goals behind Jamie Vardy, so maybe the question should not be: when will he score but, instead, when he inevitably does – will he get the recognition he deserves?

Today’s Playmaker was written by me, Chloe Beresford, and produced by Tom Kinsella.