Romelu Lukaku May Feel Pressure in Man Utd Goldfish Bowl but Will Prosper

Alex DunnFeatured ColumnistJuly 17, 2017

Reports of Romelu Lukaku's demise after 45 minutes in a Manchester United shirt have been greatly exaggerated.
Reports of Romelu Lukaku's demise after 45 minutes in a Manchester United shirt have been greatly exaggerated.Associated Press

Romelu Lukaku took a shot. It was an unremarkable shot. It was the type of shot that exists only in the moment, as fleeting and inconsequential as a bird flying past a window.

Had the architect of this left-footed shot, hammered high over the crossbar in the 74th minute of his Manchester United bow against L.A. Galaxy, been anyone other than Lukaku, no journalist with an understanding of the straitjacket a word count elicits would have bothered noting it down.

To harbour a need to discuss or dissect this shot, this shot to nothing that meant even less, feels like being compelled to pass comment on how the green grass in Los Angeles is not dissimilar to that which grows in England. Yet by Sunday morning BST, with toast still to be buttered and coffee simmering in the pot, the shot had taken on a life of its own like the talking boil on Richard E. Grant's shoulder in How to Get Ahead in Advertising. Trial by Twitter is rarely pretty.

Writer Will Self was right when he opined: "All the things that happen in the messy world of physical propinquity do end up—albeit distorted—taking place in the realms of social media: people buddy up, seduce, bully and ostracise."

Back to this shot that probably landed in neighbouring San Diego. Many have deemed it to be a signed affidavit from the player himself, confirming what was suspected already. A jet-lagged, ring-rusty Lukaku will almost certainly labour behind the likes of Wayne Rooney, Mohamed Salah and Alexandre Lacazette in the scoring charts this season because unlike the aforementioned he failed to score on his (friendly) debut.

It used to be that footballers would shrug when quizzed on how they dealt with criticism and say they didn't read the newspapers. Now with the whole world in possession of the means to metamorphose into a digital pub bore without having to leave the safety blanket of home, a footballer's phone must feel like a loaded gun in their pocket. Twitter, in particular, will forever be the itch your doctor warns you against scratching.

The late and always dry former England manager Graham Taylor put it rather well when he quipped: "Very few of us have any idea whatsoever of what life is like living in a goldfish bowl, except, of course, for those of us who are goldfish."

An overseas tour on which the club's players are routinely mobbed as though they are members of The Beatles will, for Lukaku, surely prove true the adage you can only understand just how big a club Manchester United is when you get there. 

Lukaku can't say he wasn't warned. In his first training session as a Manchester United player, a pass bounced off him. The world's media were in attendance at UCLA's Drake Stadium, so by the time the cones had been collected, footage of the slightest of errors was doing the rounds on every social media feed known to man. Years from now, explorers of California's coastline will probably unearth cave drawings of the incident.

Manchester United operate on a different plane to almost all other football clubs. A bad touch in training is news. Dwight Yorke tells an amusing, related anecdote of his first training session at United following a big-money move from Aston Villa.

Yorke found himself on the same team as Roy Keane in a five-a-side session, which is probably only marginally less terrifying than playing against him. The Irishman repeatedly over hit passes in the direction of his new team-mate. When Yorke failed to control one of them, Keane sidled over, fixed him a stare and sneered, per Daniel Taylor of the Guardian: "Welcome to United. Cantona used to kill them."

Rio Ferdinand similarly recalled how, in one of his first sessions at United, he played a safe pass to one of his team-mates. He didn't make the same mistake twice.

His captain introduced himself and the club thus, also per Taylor: "Pass the f--king ball forward.' I looked at him, his face all contorted, and he goes: 'It's f--king easy going sideways. Pass it forward.'"

Keane would have had an interesting relationship with Louis van Gaal, a man who loved a sideways move so much it's said he once ordered crab for his starter, main and dessert.

Ferdinand conceded he was taught an important lesson: "I learned from Roy that you cannot develop from being a good player to a top player if you play safe all the time. You've got to take chances. At United, everyone takes responsibility."

Keane's borderline masochistic tendencies ultimately led to his departure in November 2005, when a scathing assessment of his team-mates went too far, even for a manager in possession a turn of phrase that often acted as a verbal chainsaw in cutting down to size the highest-profile players.

"Keane has the most savage tongue you can imagine," Sir Alex Ferguson wrote in My Autobiography (h/t Glenn Moore of The Independent). "I think the dressing room relaxed when Roy left. Relief swept the room."

Relief would sweep it again if incumbent United chief Jose Mourinho could goad from any of his players even half the intensity Keane imbued daily. 

Though Yorke's signing in the summer of 1998 initially left Teddy Sheringham as well acquainted with the substitutes' bench as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, he was essentially seen more as Eric Cantona's long-term successor. That Lukaku is passing Rooney and Zlatan Ibrahimovic on the way out sets the bar similarly high.

Displaying the type of perfect timing that deserted him in his final few years at Old Trafford, reports on Sunday morning emerged of Rooney offering a word of warning cloaked as advice to the man brought in to replace him, per Simon Mullock of the Daily Mirror.

"Playing for Manchester United is a test of character. You've got to be strong enough mentally to accept the challenge. United are a football club that demands success. Romelu has to be strong enough to take up that challenge.

"If he does that then, with the ability he has got, then he will be a success. If he worries about things then it will be more difficult.

"There are standards that you have to keep when you are at Manchester United. That came from Sir Alex when I went to United and it was passed down through the likes of [Ryan Giggs], Gary Neville and [Paul Scholes]. 

"That became more difficult over the last few years, with some of the ­players who joined the club."

Plugging the gap vacated by the club's record goalscorer, Rooney, and its most prolific, Ibrahimovic (the Swede scored 28 last season, including 17 in the Premier League), is quite the ask. Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are both touched with a bit of something special, gazelle-like in their fluidity when on song and with space to bound into, but neither, at 19 and 21 respectively, is quite ready to take on the burden of being Manchester United's most reliable goalscorer.

That responsibility will fall on Lukaku, the daddy of the group at 24. It's a good job he's not short of confidence.

To take even a cursory gander through the backwaters of Lukaku's relatively infrequent but always candid interviews, it quickly comes to light he feels no need to hide his light under a bushel. Few clients of Mino Raiola do. Just like with Ibrahimovic, talk often veers toward how good he is or can become. The team around him is cast almost as hired help, like those nameless engineers who dedicate their lives to changing someone else's tires in Formula One pit stops. 

One suspects, per Christopher Hitchens' approximation of the difference between the two, Lukaku is definitely more feline than canine: "Owners of dogs will have noticed that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they will think you are god. Whereas owners of cats are compelled to realise that, if you provide them with food and water and shelter and affection, they draw the conclusion that they are gods."

Earlier in July, Football365's Daniel Storey wrote a typically assured debunking of the idea Lukaku is a flat-track bully. It is an accusation that has followed him around pretty much throughout his career. Storey concluded: "There is a nasty, snide element to the growing use of 'flat-track bully,' an attempt to demean some of the highest-performing players in the world. If you are accusing every elite striker of the same footballing crime, the chances are that none are guilty."

Even if Lukaku is more bully than a Bullseye tankard, isn't that precisely what United need? Last season, disregarding games against the top five, Mourinho's side dropped points against Watford, Stoke City (twice), Burnley, West Ham United, Everton (twice), Hull City, Bournemouth, West Bromwich Albion, Swansea City and Southampton. Lukaku scored 10 goals against those clubs last term.

For all Ibrahimovic's technical proficiency, not to mention fine strike rate, the last thing United need against deep-lying opposition defences, especially at home, is a lone frontman who frequently slows attacks down. On a technical level, Lukaku is not even on the same page as the Swede, but then United are already packed with technicians. When the occasion calls for it, sometimes there is nothing quite like cracking a nut with a sledgehammer.

The idea Mourinho mooted recently, of utilising Lukaku and Rashford as a pair, has had the few of us left who get more than a little nostalgic about the dying concept of strike partnerships complaining of having got a little dust in the eye. Having Lukaku and Rashford, maybe even Martial too, playing on the shoulder of the last man could make United almost as devastating on the counter-attack as their pals from across the city. The United's boss' recent experiment with playing three at the back would certainly lend itself to playing two strikers in tandem.

He said to reporters: "Today, Rashford was in a different team than Lukaku, but we will also try both in the same team, which I think can also work."

Much talk has centred on Lukaku's weaknesses. A suspect first touch that veers from terrific to trampoline (often in the same game), refinement needed in his hold-up play, an at times slovenly work rate (Sky Sports' Adam Bate unearthed how, in the 2015/16 campaign, the Belgian ranked last among the 503 outfield players in the Premier League for distance covered per 90 minutes) and movement that can at times lack sophistication, all combined, make a £75 million outlay seem like another prime example of English football's predilection with eating itself.

It is also rare, to the point there is no obvious precedent, that a player moves just a solitary league place (in this case, from seventh to sixth) when such an eye-watering fee is involved.

Mourinho will have looked past all that and his up-and-down relationship with the player when the pair were together at Chelsea—he once described Lukaku as "the young boy who likes to speak"—to accept goals come at a premium price. When you've got a leak threatening to bring the ceiling down, you don't haggle with the plumber over cost. Manchester United scored fewer Premier League goals than Bournemouth last season.

The Everton side Lukaku top-scored for in each of his four seasons at Goodison managed eight more than his new employers, while Chelsea, the club he rejected to join United, outscored them by some 31.

Lukaku is as close as it gets to a guarantee of Premier League goals, and that's not bad for a 24-year-old barely out of the puppy years of his career. 

"I would say people forget sometimes," Lukaku said of his age in an interview with the Daily Telegraph's Jason Burt last year. "I am only seven months older than Ross [Barkley]. I am judged differently because I have had two big moves."

Body language that can border on looking plain disinterested perhaps disguises the fact he is a pure goalscorer. Accusations of being indolent also jar heavily with the fact Lukaku is a student of the game. Before each match, a French company sends him collated clips of all of his matches and those of his opponents.

Broadly speaking, this writer takes the view of Winston Churchill when it comes to flooding opinion pieces with more numbers than words ("I only believe in statistics that I doctored myself"), Lukaku's career is such a veritable treasure chest of numerical nuggets it's hard to resist.

At the end of the season, Football365 published a statistical tome about the player that was so lovingly compiled it seems whoever curated it almost certainly tends to a shrine dedicated to the Belgian on a daily basis.

Lukaku left Everton as their all-time leading Premier League goalscorer, with his 20-plus goals in each of his final three seasons there making him the first player to do so for the Toffees since Bob Latchford in the '70s.

In 184 starts in English football, he has plundered 104 goals. An accelerated career that boasted 119 club goals before he was 23 saw him comfortably outscore Cristiano Ronaldo (97), Fernando Torres (87), Luis Suarez (77), David Villa (70), Ibrahimovic (69), Alan Shearer (65) and Thierry Henry (57) at the same age.

He joins United with 85 Premier League goals to his name; that total is more than Ronaldo's (84), Carlos Tevez's (84), Harry Kane's (78), Cantona's (70) and Suarez's (69).

Given received wisdom suggests the higher up the league you go, the more and better-quality chances you are presented with, it's worth noting Lukaku has outgunned some of the finest players ever to have graced the Premier League despite having played for clubs that have finished eighth, fifth, 11th, 11th and seventh during his time in England.

Only Sergio Aguero has scored more league goals than Lukaku over the past five years, with the Manchester City striker one of just three players to clock up 80 Premier League goals (in 128 games) quicker. Lukaku is in good company, with Shearer (102 games) and Ruud van Nistelrooy (122 games) the other two. Lukaku joins Robbie Fowler, Michael Owen and Rooney as one of only four players to reach 80 goals before the age of 24.

With a record like that, querying what he does other than score goals is a bit like pitching up at a Rick Stein restaurant and grumbling about a fish-heavy menu. 

In any case, for all the talk of his deficiencies as a link-up player, over the past two seasons combined, only Kane (62) has either scored or assisted more Premier League goals than Lukaku's 55.

Maybe Mourinho just isn't that bothered about what Lukaku does outside of the box given he last season managed to score 24 Premier League goals when stationed in it, per Squawka.

If he manages the same amount for Manchester United this season, few at the club will care if the only time he leaves the penalty area is to move his deckchair to the other end of the pitch at half-time.