He may have signed on loan for Roma, but there have been curiously few suitors for Romelu Lukaku this summer. Why wasn’t the Belgian more in demand?
In the 2013 UEFA Super Cup, nine perfect penalties had been taken, with Bayern Munich leading Chelsea 5-4 in the shootout. Up stepped Romelu Lukaku, whose tame effort was saved by Manuel Neuer, securing the trophy for the German giants.
Lukaku had recently returned from a loan spell at West Brom aiming to be part of José Mourinho’s plans. Four days after that penalty, he was loaned out to Everton.
The next line in stories like this is usually “and he never looked back”, but Lukaku’s career has almost been exclusively looking back, having had more reunions than a 90s US sitcom, though he has usually at least scored goals wherever he has gone.
Ten years on from first parting with Mourinho, Lukaku is back under his charge at Roma, and not for the first time since that Super Cup defeat in Prague. However, with all due respect to Mourinho and the Giallorossi, it is curious that there wasn’t more competition for a striker with Lukaku’s impressive record.
There have been plenty of clubs on the hunt for a striker this summer. Bayern eventually landed Harry Kane, Real Madrid lost Karim Benzema and hoped to replace him with Kylian Mbappé, only to settle for Joselu, Manchester United spent quite a bit of money on relatively unproven Rasmus Højlund, while Paris Saint-Germain opted to bring in Gonçalo Ramos.
The so-called traditional number nine seems to be in vogue again thanks to the likes of Kane, Benzema, Robert Lewandowski and of course, Erling Haaland, and all the big clubs appear to want one.
It therefore feels like something of a mystery as to why there was seemingly so little interest in Lukaku, who has been available all summer. Such has been the extent of overlooking the Belgian, even his own parent club, Chelsea, have reportedly been searching high and low for a striker despite having him on their books already.
It may be that Mauricio Pochettino simply didn’t see Lukaku fitting with his style of play, but you would have thought Chelsea would take all the help they could get in front of goal.
Last season, only four teams in the Premier League scored fewer than their 38 goals, and no-one underperformed their expected goals (xG) as much as Chelsea, whose xG in the league was 49.9, meaning they scored almost 12 goals fewer than they should have. In fact, they scored 20 fewer than Brentford, despite taking 76 more shots.
Back in the days when Chelsea used to spend lots of money on hoovering up all the young talent they could (hmm…) they invested in a young Lukaku from Anderlecht. However, despite an impressive loan spell at West Brom in 2012-13, and an appearance in the aforementioned Super Cup, he was loaned and eventually sold to Everton.
During his time on the blue half of Merseyside, Lukaku scored 87 goals in 166 games, which convinced Mourinho to reunite with the player for the first time, taking Lukaku to Manchester United in 2017.
He made a good start to life at Old Trafford, scoring 27 goals in all competitions in his first season as United finished second in the Premier League and reached the FA Cup final. His second season is largely remembered as a failure though, leading to relative indifference to him being sold to Inter the following year. He still scored 15 goals despite being in and out of the team, and it had looked as though he might get back on track under then-interim boss Ole Gunnar Solskjaer when he scored six goals in three games in late February/early March 2019, including a brace in the famous 3-1 UEFA Champions League last-16 second-leg victory at PSG.
However, they would prove to be his final goals for the club before heading to Serie A. He excelled at Inter, scoring 54 times in 87 games in all competitions across two seasons, and 47 in 72 Serie A games, before moving back to Chelsea in another big-money transfer.
Things started well back at Stamford Bridge, where Lukaku scored four goals in his first four games, before things dried up. His 15 goals in 44 games in all competitions in the 2021-22 campaign included just eight Premier League goals, and despite costing Chelsea around £100m, he was allowed to head back to Inter on loan just a year later.
He didn’t have as much success as in his first spell there. It still wasn’t bad though, scoring 14 goals in 37 appearances, only 20 of which were starts. His numbers may not have been as impressive in the last couple of years, but we’re talking about a player who has accumulated around £280 million of transfer fees during his career and is only 30 years old.
Lukaku still played a part as Simone Inzaghi’s side reached the Champions League final. However, that game perhaps summed up why some struggle to see him as the elite striker that his goal record suggests he is.
Shortly after Rodri scored what would prove to be the winner for Manchester City in Istanbul, Federico Dimarco hit the crossbar with a looping header at the other end, before heading the rebound against Lukaku, who inadvertently blocked it. Hardly his fault but it would inevitably count against him, as would his own glorious chance to equalise in the 88th minute.
Robin Gosens headed a cross into the middle of the six-yard box, but Lukaku’s own header from point-blank range (below) hit Ederson’s leg and eventually made its way behind for a corner after rebounding off Rúben Dias. The chance had an xG value of 0.48.
That reputation for not being clinical enough on the biggest stage had already been amplified by his notoriously wasteful performance off the bench for Belgium as they were eliminated from the group stage of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In a game against Croatia his country needed to win, Lukaku came on at half-time and had a total of five shots, four of which were deemed to be big chances. He did not score any of them, including the one below that was given an xG of 0.62.
Kevin De Bruyne crossed from the left and Dejan Lovren accidentally flicked the ball away from goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic, leaving Lukaku an open goal to head into, but he diverted his effort over the bar. In fairness, there had not been much time to react, and the situation was exacerbated by him missing further big chances later on that meant he ended the game with an individual xG of 1.73, and no goals to show for it as his country crashed out in Qatar.
High-profile moments like those have arguably led to Lukaku’s reputation being undermined among football fans, but you would like to think those involved in the game would be able to see beyond these incidents. A player who scored 47 Serie A goals across the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons combined should not be defined by a few bad moments in big games.
In fact, Lukaku has quite a few notable goalscoring accolades to boast. He has scored 75 goals in 108 games for Belgium in all competitions, and still has a chance of becoming only the fourth player ever to reach 100 international goals before he retires (after Ali Daei, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi).
Back in club football, Lukaku has reached double figures in nine of the last 10 seasons in all competitions. Only Lewandowski (10) has done so more often in Europe’s big five leagues in that time. He is also one of only three players to score at least 14 goals in each of the last 11 seasons in all competitions from Europe’s big five leagues (along with Lewandowski and Wissam Ben Yedder).
Lukaku is also in fourth place in a rather impressive list of players with the best minutes-per-goal ratios in Serie A since the 1994-95 season (min. 10 goals). His average of a goal every 132 minutes in Italy’s top flight is bettered only by Christian Vieri (108), the Brazilian Ronaldo (110) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic (127).
That is presumably why most of the interest this summer in Lukaku has come from Italy. He reportedly and surprisingly turned down another return to Inter, seemingly in order to try and secure a move to Juventus. However, Juve fans went to the lengths of protesting the possible signing of the Belgian on the pitch at the Allianz Stadium during a pre-season friendly.
After reportedly turning down big-money offers from the Saudi Pro League, Lukaku was finally handed a lifeline by a familiar figure, reuniting with Mourinho once again at Roma on a season-long loan deal.
Lukaku has 43 goal involvements in 76 games under Mourinho across his time at Chelsea and Manchester United (33 goals, 10 assists). He linked superbly with Lautaro Martínez at Inter, so if Mourinho can pair him as effectively with Paulo Dybala, it could leave a lot of clubs wondering if they have missed a trick.