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Analysis: How Romelu Lukaku fits at Inter

Antonio Conte finally has his man. Now what?

FC Internazionale Unveils New Signing Romelu Lukaku Photo by Claudio Villa - Inter/Inter via Getty Images

Inter’s most frustrating will-they-won’t-they saga of the summer has, mercifully, concluded. The club smashed their record transfer fee on Wednesday, doling out £73 million plus add-ons to sign Romelu Lukaku from Manchester United. Depending on which reports you believe, Inter is paying the fee in instalments for anywhere from two to five years.

A quick aside: this kind of structure seems to cause consternation among fan bases but is a perfectly normal part of the football business. At the top level, when the actual cash is deposited into an account is almost irrelevant. All that matters is that it’s on the books and that the club can borrow against it. And no one quite does future borrowings like the Glazers and United. The advent of FFP has tried to curtail this kind of “credit card” spending. But all it has done has made clubs invest in more creative accounting firms.

Regardless, Inter has landed its chief target. Lukaku has been sort after by Conte since his Chelsea days – Conte’s, not Lukaku’s. When the forward was terrorizing Premier League defences at Everton, Conte wanted a piece of the action. He missed out. Lukaku joined United instead.

Lukaku was effective at United, but often maligned. His first touch, or lack thereof, became consistent fodder for the viral content class. A United super-cut branding him an “awful” player has already garnered over 1.3 million views on YouTube.

Even in the deeply cynical world of the online football commentariat, branding Lukaku as awful is baseless and absurd. Did he become the player United and Jose Mourinho envisioned? No. They wanted Didier Drogba 2.0, a not always prolific striker who could take over games against the best of the best single-handedly, and make everyone around him better.

But Lukaku isn’t that guy. And once you understand that you can begin to appreciate elements of his game. He isn’t someone who brings people into play through touch and technique and vision. His passes leading to shots have dipped each of the past four years. In 2015/16, at Everton, he averaged 1.44. That dropped to 1.29 the following season, fell to 1.04 in his first year at United, and sunk to 0.89 last season, a career-low.

Here’s the thing, though. That’s fine! Lukaku helps players in other ways. His battering ram approach puts defenders on their heels. Space in front of the backline opens up and gifts more skillful players room to operate. He runs the channels. When he’s really firing, he drags a gaggle of defenders out of position. Whether it results in him playing the ball or not depends on the situation:

Does he come deep and feed people? No. That exposes his flaws.

Can he sink, spin, and create from that or finish himself? Yes.

Allowing Lukaku to embrace that selfishness -- make that channel run, try to storm between a pair of defenders -- and he will, unwittingly, be doing more for the team than if he tried to play as a knock-off Drogba. Here is Lukaku at his absolute apex: blinkers on, barrelling a pair of centre backs out the way with a combination of athleticism and self-assuredness that’s pretty damn rare:

Holy bleep! That’s good. When he’s rolling, like, really, really rolling, players bounce off him as if there’s an electrical force field around his body.

Highlight clips alone probably give Conte the tingles. He wants a player who can smash the backline in the air, make their presence felt (on the air and on the ground) and who can latch on to quick, first-time, channel balls:

Conte is looking for his next Diego Costa — the on-field one who helped him barnstorm the Premier League in his debut campaign, not the off-field issue he later deemed a distraction and tore the dressing room apart (we hope). If Conte can pair Lukaku and Dzeko, a more skillful player capable of linking the lines, he will have a physically imposing, potent front line.

The other thing consistently levelled at Lukaku: he’s a flat-track bully. Give him three, four, five chances against lowly opposition, the detractors say, and he’ll rack up goals for your mid-to-upper table club. Stick him on a super club, however, and ask him to alter the course of a title race with crucial goals against the best of the best, and he goes missing.

Frankly, there’s no arguing the point. Lukaku has failed to deliver against the big boys time and time again. In his first year at Old Trafford, Lukaku started all ten games against the rest of England’s so-called Big Six: Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Spurs, and Chelsea. He scored only once. The following year, he started six of the ten games, and failed to find the net -- Lukaku played around 20 minutes in each of the four games he did not start. One goal in 20 games over two years against the best in the league isn’t good enough, particularly compared to his overall output -- 16 goals in 2018; 12 in 2019.

It’s one thing to have your first touch let you down in a comfortable home victory; it’s another when you’re at home, under-fire, in the midst of a tight, muggy game, and your team needs you to be clinical:

Ole Gunnar Solskjaer was happy to move on. He shifted his focus to Marcus Rashford, often sticking Lukaku out-wide while Rashford occupied the centre. But that goes to an element often overlooked in his game; Lukaku is willing to do the dirty work. Dig through the “awful” compilation earlier and you’ll see some of those whiffed chances come of his own creation. He will press and run and squeeze and try. That’s the least you can expect from a player, but it’s still something.

If you’re looking to give Lukaku the benefit of the doubt, it’s this: he was asked to play a more rigid role at United. He wasn’t able to drift out to the right and jag towards the middle. He was often isolated and alone, particularly against the big sides. When he finally found himself in wide positions, there was always someone clogging his natural habitat. It’s not the most compelling case, but, again, it’s something.

And how about this: Lukaku is still only 26! Think about that for a moment. There is potential for him to develop. Or, to put it better, for him to fit better. The fit with United was iffy. They wanted him to be something he wasn’t. The pressure mounted, and he spiralled. At Inter, he is exactly what Conte wants. He runs the channels, he can control defenders and attack off diagonal balls. He adds a physicality to the front line.

The issue, however, is mileage, not age. Lukaku started 20 (!) games as a 16-year old for Anderlecht, playing in a further 12 – netting 14. He played a hair below 3,000 minutes at the age of 17. That’s a lot of miles to stick on a growing body, and a lot of time to develop bad habits. He started to look heavy at the back-end of his United run. Did he know he was done at the end of the season? Was he asked to up his weight by the club/manager? Was he nursing a knock? Or is this just the player he is now?

(For what it’s worth, he looks more svelte in recent pictures)

All of this leads to the discussion of price. £73 million is a lot of money. It’s a huge part of Inter’s budget. It limits which other targets they can seriously pursue prior to the start of the season.

Did the club overpay for Lukaku? Sure. But I’m not one to look at the bottom line transfer figure. Too much goes into that for us to know — when are the installments paid, what triggers them etc. I think of things like the overall playing budget across the squad.

Each year’s team has a different budget. My only question before each campaign: Has the club, with that budget, assembled a good squad and added more quality players than it’s lost. Yes, the club overpaid for Lukaku. But someone like Sensi looks a bargain. The total outlay for both is in the region of £100 million. What does it matter that £73 million of that was for a Lukaku and the rest for Sensi? Would it be more palatable if the Lukaku fee was £55 million and Sensi’s £45 million?

Ultimately Inter added a player who has been incorrectly branded as inconsistent. He’s anything but. He averages between 16-20 goals and beats up on minnows. In 2019, that’s probably worth £70 million -- a striker who can fire you into a Champions League spot. If he can start to deliver against the big clubs and deliver on all of his potential, the deal will jump from a good to a great one.