Romelu Lukaku is having a moment. His four goals in Russia lead a Belgium team that stands just two victories from World Cup glory. Once minimized as a “flat-track bully,” Lukaku is now the toast of the tournament. He’s scoring with both feet, with power and finesse — even a diving header.
Most importantly, Lukaku has shown a sublime mix of tactical fluidity, off-the-ball movement, and vocal leadership. It might have taken some critics a while to notice, but this is a world-class player. One that should pay big dividends for Manchester United in the season ahead.
Before anyone forgets, Big Rom just had one of the best debut seasons in club history. After moving from Everton to Old Trafford for an initial £75 million last summer, he quickly proved himself a bargain with 27 goals in all competitions.
But it took a late-season ankle injury to really drive home his immense importance. United acutely felt his absence as the side sputtered down the stretch in the Premier League — and especially in the FA Cup final against Chelsea. In a match that United utterly dominated in possession and chances created, the Reds couldn’t find the back of the net without their talismanic frontman.
Now back to full health with Belgium, Lukaku’s defining moment in Russia came without even touching the ball. Tied 2-2 in second-half stoppage time against Japan, his hard-charging run into the middle channel freed up Kevin De Bruyne on the wing. Then, as De Bruyne’s hopeful pass rolled through the box, Lukaku selflessly dummied the ball through to Nacer Chadli for the winning goal.
It’s the kind of play that every young forward should watch on repeat.
Then, in last week’s quarterfinal, Belgium manager Roberto Martinez deployed Lukaku on the right side of his front three. This curveball didn’t rattle Big Rom, but instead allowed him to show off his improved movement (and surprising crossing ability) from a wide position. Having played for Martinez at Everton, Lukaku even helped Eden Hazard and De Bruyne settle into the new formation with on-field encouragement and support.
Don’t expect Lukaku to play much on the right for Manchester United, but now it’s at least an option. If Fred’s arrival heralds a shift to 4-3-3 this season, then José Mourinho could occasionally push his target man out wide to free up a central spot for Anthony Martial or Marcus Rashford. More tactical options are never a bad thing.
Impressively, Lukaku couples his fine international form with a growing leadership role. Besides helping his fellow attackers through the Brazil game, he has become a vocal leader for this Belgium side, often exhorting his teammates in the pre-match huddle.
Could we be looking at the next Manchester United captain? Quite possibly.
Michael Carrick nominally held the position last season, although Antonio Valencia most often wore the armband. Carrick barely featured after a heart scare in the fall and has now taken up a spot alongside Mourinho on the coaching staff.
Valencia will likely remain the first-choice right back — barring a fast and furious Diogo Dalot emergence. Mourinho probably lets his veteran defender keep the armband in 2018/19, but Lukaku has staked a huge claim to be next in line.
Back in March, Lukaku told Sky Sports that the manager sees him as “his sergeant on the pitch.” That’s not praise that Mourinho would offer lightly, but only underscores that Lukaku is about so much more than just overpowering defenders and holding up the ball.
“I will always put the team first ahead of myself and that’s something I told him,” the forward continued. “I said, ‘The team is the most important thing.’” Those words are music to the manager’s ears.
The only downside to Lukaku’s run to the World Cup semi-final is that he will barely get back to Carrington before the Premier League starts on August 10. World Cup summers are always a bit crazy, but a potential Belgium-England final means six United players would miss a big chunk of preseason training.
But Lukaku’s not complaining. He’s made the leap to greatness on the biggest stage imaginable.
(Imagine what he would cost now after these World Cup performances. Probably closer to Neymar money than what the club paid Everton last summer. United should count themselves quite lucky to have locked up the 25-year-old when they did.)
Romelu Lukaku already justified the hype with a record-breaking debut season at Manchester United. And, judging from his performances in Russia, he’s only getting better. The Premier League — and Europe — should be scared.