On 11 July, Romelu Lukaku finally became a Manchester United player, with club manager Jose Mourinho successful in his bid to wrest the Belgian powerhouse away from the lure of Stamford Bridge. Mourinho was, of course, the very man who deemed Lukaku surplus to requirements at Chelsea just three years ago. Regardless, having beaten his old side to Lukaku’s signature, the ‘Special One’ now boasts one of Europe’s deadliest finishers in his front line. Concisely put, this is a turn of events which gives people more of an incentive than ever to back the Red Devils.
Manchester United endured an indifferent season last term, winning the EFL Cup and Europa League, but finishing a mediocre sixth place in the Premier League. Indeed, in finishing sixth, the once-mighty Manchester United also finished as the lowest ranked of the Premier League’s perceived ‘big six’. Furthermore, United’s total of just 54 league goals was rightly seen as a meagre one by fans of a club that once had an iron grip on English football’s most coveted prize.
Lukaku is exactly what United needed at key junctures last season, and to illustrate just how much United lacked a powerful finisher, Chelsea (powered by the skilled, if occasionally temperamental, Diego Costa) won the 2016/17 title with 85 goals. While the acquisition of Zlatan Ibrahimovic last summer proved something of a masterstroke, Manchester United Football Club now has a talisman for the future, as well as the present.
Bookmakers foresee instant impact
As these markets show Manchester United’s odds of a title win have fallen to just 10/3 ahead of the new season. This makes the Red Devils second favourites behind hated local rivals Manchester City, but (curiously) ahead of a championship-winning Chelsea side, which was just one win short of at least equalling the aforementioned record points total. Sceptics may call it a coincidence, but Lukaku’s move to Old Trafford, in lieu of Stamford Bridge, has directly correlated with this shortening of odds in favour of United. Clearly, this is a reflection of the expectation that surrounds the young Belgian.
The bookmakers are further justified when Lukaku’s form over the past two seasons is analysed. Prior to securing European football in late April, Lukaku’s former club Everton seldom wanted for league goals in 2016/17. Of the 62 plundered by the Toffees last term, just over a third came from the boot or head of Lukaku. Tellingly, United’s new ‘talisman’ has now scored a total of 43 goals in his previous two Premier League seasons, even though he experienced one of his worst individual runs of form in the last ten games of 2015/16. For the 24-year old Lukaku, a current career average of 0.46 goals per game is encouraging, and with Lukaku already an established international striker who still has yet to hit his absolute prime, this bodes well for United in the long term.
Lukaku – a red goal machine?
With a domineering physique, Lukaku will change the existing dynamic of United’s squad in a very significant way. Although a home-grown, well-drilled and harmonious midfield was a crucial part of United’s successes in the 1990s and 2000s, the presence of a distinct ‘target man’ was also a vital part of the Red Devils’ dominance. In their respective primes, players such as Eric Cantona, Andrew Cole and Ruud van Nistelrooy all became distinguished for their ability to finish spontaneously and render the opposing defence useless. Yet, within such inspirational figures lies a warning: while Lukaku is as lethal as it gets in front in of goal, his hold up play with his back to goal must improve drastically if he is to ever truly repay the £75m spent on his signature.
For the first time in his career, Lukaku will at last have a sustained period of first team football under the management of Jose Mourinho and assistant Rui Faria. It is worth remembering that without the hard work and tactical nous of Faria, Chelsea could never have become famous for setting the (still unbroken) record Premier League points total of 95 in 2004/05. Given the rich history of Mourinho and Faria as a duo, Lukaku’s oft-criticised work rate, and lack of initiative on the turn, has every chance of being addressed. In such a scenario, United would once more become a true force to be reckoned with.
Tamhas Woods is a BJTC-accredited sports journalist with a Masters in Journalism from Staffordshire University.