When a 24-year-old becomes a marquee signing for a club of Manchester United’s stature from a smaller club, it is usually seen as a massive thing for the player and a risk for the buyers. However, in the case of Romelu Lukaku and his move from Everton, it seemed natural and even a long time in the making. The Belgian striker has been on the cusp of greatness throughout his career, but he has now finally got the opportunity to perform as the main man in an internationally acclaimed club side week in week out for the first time in his career. With his prime years ahead of him he has plenty of time on his side, but this rise to the top echelon of football could have come even sooner.
The first sign that he was destined to make it big was when he moved from RSCA Youth to RSC Anderlecht’s academy side at the age of 15. There have been plenty of images doing the rounds on social media of a young Romelu towering over everyone in youth team games, looking like a man against boys. It’s clear that he was and still is the sight of physical brilliance, but he was a lot more than just a big target man. This is highlighted by the fact that he made his first-team debut for the Belgian giants at the tender age of 16, having already represented his country at under 15 level four times, scoring once.
It only took Lukaku until the season after that debut to become a regular in the first team. He managed to bag 19 goals in 45 matches across all competitions, including four in 11 Europa League matches, helping Anderlecht win the league and get to the quarterfinals of the European competition. That isn’t too bad for somebody who was still 17 at the time, although one thing that will disappoint him is that this is the only trophy win he’s had as a prominent figure in a club to date.
Many youngsters have had a good first season but failed to kick on, but that definitely wasn’t the case with Lukaku. In the following season, he scored 20 league goals, despite his side being unable to retain the league title. However, the form showed throughout that season was enough to get big European clubs calling and after two Belgium Pro League matches in the 2011-12 season Lukaku was signed by Chelsea for a fee of around £20 million.
Upon his arrival at Stamford Bridge the Belgian, who was still 18 at the time, was dubbed by many as the heir to Didier Drogba’s thrown. His physical strengths paired with an undeniable ability to put the ball in the net being the main reason for the comparison. The one thing that this did show though was that Lukaku was being touted for big things the moment he stepped through the door. However, with £50 million man Fernando Torres, Didier Drogba in the incredible form that helped Chelsea win the Champions League and the exciting Daniel Sturridge, who was 22 at the time, all ahead of him there really wasn’t much of a chance for young Romelu to get first-team minutes.
There were signs of his talent in his first season with the Blues, even if it was only shown on one occasion. Lukaku won the man of the match award in his first ever Premier League start on the final day of his first season in London. The game was a 2-1 win over Blackburn Rovers, with the Belgian assisting John Terry for the game’s opening goal. Despite taking his opportunity to impress, it was clear to see that his lack of game time was taking its toll on a young man who was used to getting plenty of minutes after his time with Anderlecht. When Chelsea lifted the Champions League in his inaugural season, it is said that Lukaku refused to touch it as he didn’t feel like a winner.
His first chance to impress himself upon the Premier League came in the form of a loan spell at West Bromwich Albion and it’s fair to say he was raring to take it. Just eight days after moving to the Midlands club he scored his first goal in the black and white stripes, coming off the bench to score the last goal in a 3-0 victory over Liverpool. He then added to that at the first attempt, scoring the only goal in a win against Reading on his full debut for West Brom.
However, the game that showed his ability to steal the show in big games came in his last match as a West Brom player. It was Sir Alex Ferguson’s swansong after a 27-year tenure as Manchester United manager. He came on in the second half with his side 3-1 down after a dominant display from the Red Devils. In the 50th minute he curled a right-footed effort into the bottom corner from outside the box, in the 80th he slotted the ball past Anders Lindegaard with his left foot in a one-on-one situation, then scrambled the ball in with his head in the 86th minute to complete a perfect hat-trick, making the score 5-5. Despite the varying quality of the goals, the fact that he was able to do this in a game that would go down in Manchester United history highlighted the fact that he had not just the talent, but also the mindset to perform for a club of their stature.
On the back of this game and a season in which he scored 17 goals in 35 league games, many thought that Lukaku would have been given a chance by Chelsea. However, this wasn’t to be the case. He played in two Premier League matches for the Blues and came on in the UEFA Super Cup final against Bayern Munich, missing the decisive penalty in the shootout after all nine takers before him, had scored. This, perhaps unfairly, seemed to be a defining moment in his Chelsea career and he was sent out on loan on the summer transfer deadline day. His destination would be Goodison Park this time around. In this season Lukaku scored 15 times in 31 league matches and was among the most important players in the side that broke Everton’s all-time points record for a season and finished in fifth place.
Some felt that this form would finally persuade Jose Mourinho to give the Belgian a chance, but again that wasn’t the case. The permanent move to Everton that followed meant that Lukaku joined the list of players, including Kevin de Bruyne, Mohamed Salah and Juan Mata who were outcasted and eventually sold by Mourinho before eventually showing their promise in the Premier League at Manchester City, Liverpool and Manchester United respectively.
While there were usually doubts about whether most players who left Chelsea around this time had the quality to play at the top level, this wasn’t the case for Lukaku. His £28 million move to Everton, which broke the Toffees’ transfer record, as brilliant business for Everton, but also a chance for Lukaku to escape Chelsea and begin to get a real opportunity to show what he was capable of with guaranteed game time.
It’s safe to say that he took this opportunity, scoring 87 goals and also assisting 29 times in 166 matches for the Evertonians. In the 2014-15 season, he was given the chance to prove himself on the European stage for the first time since his Anderlecht days. Of course, he took the chance to showcase his quality again, scoring eight times in nine matches, including five goals in two knockout round legs against BSC Young Boys. In his four seasons with Everton, he scored 15 or more goals every year, apart from his second campaign in which he got 10.
In the summer of the 2016/17 season, there were plenty of rumours linking the Belgian with clubs such as Bayern Munich and Chelsea, but he stayed at Goodison for the season, having his best campaign in an Everton shirt. He bagged 25 Premier League goals in 37 matches, a record only bettered by Harry Kane, putting him ahead of Alexis Sanchez, Sergio Agüero, Diego Costa and Zlatan Ibrahimovic -who he will link up with when the Swede returns from injury- in the scoring charts.
While Lukaku has shown his worth with Everton, he has also done so to a certain extent on the international stage. He has 63 caps and 28 goals overall for his country, with 13 goals in 12 World Cup qualification matches. However, when it has come around to the biggest stages he hasn’t produced as much as some may have expected. At World Cup 2014 he didn’t play over an hour in any of the four games he featured in and was left on the bench for the entirety of the game against South Korea. His only goal of the tournament came in their 2-1 win against the USA in the Round of 16.
He had a lot more game time in Belgium’s Euro 2016 campaign, in which they also played five matches, but once again he only scored in one game, bagging two in a 3-0 win against the Republic of Ireland. Outside of this, he failed to get a goal against Italy, Sweden, Hungary or Wales. Belgium’s stars have been widely criticised for failing to capitalise on their golden generation to make a real challenge when it comes to the major tournaments and Lukaku is one man who will be expected to do better in Russia this summer.
This is just one thing that Romelu Lukaku will need to deal with as his reputation continues to grow in the footballing world. He has now joined his close friend Paul Pogba at Old Trafford and has settled in well there, scoring three in his first two Champions League games for the club, bagged against Real Madrid in the Supercup as well as in all seven of his first league games apart from the win against Leicester City. There are parts of Romelu Lukaku’s game which have been criticised, such as his first touch and link up play, but this is something that he will iron out and hone under the eye of Jose Mourinho at Old Trafford as well as Roberto Martinez and Thierry Henry while on international duty. He undoubtedly has the ability to succeed. Now, as the star striker heading Manchester United’s pursuit of their first league title since Sir Alex Ferguson’s departure and of Belgium’s golden generation he also has the platform. Now all he needs to do to fulfil the greatness he’s capable of is to win trophies and plenty of them.