What a season it has been for Romelu Lukaku. After bouncing from Chelsea to West Brom to Everton, the Belgian striker seems to have finally found his permanent home at Manchester United. With 27 goals in 50 appearances, Lukaku has not only been a major catalyst behind the Red Devils securing a second place finish in the league, but also a prime reason why José Mourinho will potentially close his sophomore year at Old Trafford with another trophy. In a matter of months, Lukaku has developed into a world-class striker, shattering preconceived notions that he wasn’t worth the £75 million transfer fee from Everton.
Lukaku began this year’s Premier League campaign stronger than ever, finding the back of the net 11 times in in 10 appearances. At that point, United and neighbors Manchester City were level in points on the table and a real competition for the trophy was still at bay. Then, his form took a concerning turn. In the 19 matches that followed prior to and during the festive fixtures, Lukaku only managed to score four times. As if it couldn’t get worse, Luaku was also to blame for three goals during that spell, including those blunders against City in December.
Sure, in that match Lukaku was mostly left up top alone, lacking confidence to score even when presented with glaring chances. At that period following the 2-1 defeat against the eventual domestic champions, in his career Rom had only nabbed 15 goals over a 62-match span against Big Six clubs. With a past record of underperforming against these bigger sides, would we see the same Lukaku who failed to meet similar expectations at Everton, and only managed one career start at Chelsea?
Thankfully, we were all wrong. Despite his dip in form during the middle of the season, Lukaku remains United’s most elite offensive player, and rightfully deserves to be considered over Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial for the role of main striker. While the other two forwards have certainly established a unique style fitting to Mourinho’s standards, they do not rival Lukaku’s athleticism or consistency. When it matters most, United fans are accustomed to seeing their strikers step into that leadership role, and in recent months the 25 year-old has done just that.
This is why it makes his recent ankle injury all the more upsetting. After bossing the offense earlier this month against Arsenal, Lukaku was forced off the pitch in the 50th minute, diluting what was otherwise an excellent second half of football for him. Since the sprain meant an end to his Premier League matches for the year, Marital and Rashford accepted the responsibilities of the main striker position. However, Rashford has been the only one successful in capitalizing on goal-scoring chances, grabbing the game-winner against Watford last Sunday.
Despite securing second place this year, their best position since winning the title in 2013, United failed to produce memorable performances in their final three matches, including a shock 1-0 defeat against Brighton, lifting the Seagulls out of relegation. Even if the last matches of the season were inconsequential by Mourinho’s standards, it reveals a larger theme: Romelu Lukaku, when in form, is the best asset to United’s offense, and any match without him demotes the Red Devils to a second-rate squad.
Usually quick to nurse previous injuries, this particular problem presents an even faster recovery timeline, as this weekend’s FA Cup final against Chelsea requires Lukaku’s full 90 minutes. While reports suggest that he’ll be ready before Saturday’s showdown at Wembley, it’s unclear if he’ll begin the match on the bench. This week’s return to training since sustaining the original sprain serves a glimmer of hope for anxious United fans.
Speed, power and depth are just a few of several remarkable attributes Lukaku has corrected in his freshman year at Manchester United. Most importantly, the team’s top scorer has found his way onto his manager’s good side, which is not something most of his teammates can attest. After a desolate cycle that pitted him as enemy number one at Old Trafford, Lukaku’s surge in confidence these last few months has translated into goals, defensive stops and man of the match honors. While Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford can cause some real damage to Antonio Conte’s team, Manchester United’s success in José Mourinho’s second year could not have been achieved without Romelu Lukaku, and the main striker role justly deserves to remain open as we await his return.