It doesn’t feel long ago that many were questioning whether Romelu Lukaku could do it at the highest level. It doesn’t feel like it because it wasn’t. Lukaku’s time in English football - first at Chelsea, with a loan to West Brom, then more prominently at Everton and Manchester United - felt a case of ‘almost, but not quite’. He didn’t become a first team starter at Chelsea. He wasn’t able to propel Everton into a regular European side. United didn’t become a title-winning side with Lukaku leading the line. He only once broke 20 league goals in a season. It seemed a little anticlimactic.
But the moment he set foot in Serie A, everything just seemed to click for him. The goals are the headline, with 23 and 24 in the last two seasons. Unlike at United, he’s taking the penalties, and that obviously helps. But he’s become a much more rounded player, causing defenders all sorts of different problems in a way he couldn’t quite before. Antonio Conte seemed to just get how to help Lukaku thrive from day one. And he brought his Inter form to the Euros in Belgium’s first game against Russia, and surely has a strong case as the best individual performer in the tournament so far. So how has he become so dominant now when his Premier League form was patchy?
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A big part of the story has been understanding just what he is. Standing at 6’3 and being so well built even as a teenager, he brings with him certain preconceptions. His managers in England – Steve Clarke, Roberto Martinez (now of course at Belgium), Jose Mourinho and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer – all responded to that in different ways. Clarke - strangely - got the best out of him at West Brom. Lukaku was clearly a cut above his teammates, so the gameplan would at times be ‘give it to Romelu’. He’d have to be the complete striker, doing the lot, and he thrived at it. Martinez, too, wanted Lukaku to offer a range of skills. He’d run in behind, hold the ball up, link well and obviously score goals. Everton’s struggles under Martinez often meant he would have to carry the side, which he did excellently in his final season if less well the year before.
But it was Mourinho who had other ideas. United had just come off a season with Zlatan Ibrahimovic leading the line. What Mourinho wanted was another target man who could hold the ball up, then bring runners into play. We saw him bulk up physically to try and become this all focal point in the mould of Didier Drogba. He did a solid job of it, but never looked entirely comfortable in the role. So much of what made him tick was deliberately stripped out of his game.
Lukaku might look like a target man, but he’s in many ways a very different profile of player. The player he is most reminiscent of is Ruud van Nistelrooy. Like the Dutchman, he has great body strength and a deceptively good dribble on him. Van Nistelrooy’s famous goal against Fulham, in which he took the ball all the way from the halfway line, feels like the kind of strike Lukaku would love to score. But what they both share the most is an instinctive understanding of space. He’s arguably the best striker in the world right now at recognising which channels to run into every time. Both Inter and Belgium have understood this, and play directly to his strengths. His goal in the Milan Derby last February summed up his trademark move. The Belgian drove forward with the ball at his feet, sees the space open to his left before the opposition defenders, and is able to drag the ball into that area to open up a great shooting opportunity.
We saw those exact qualities against Russia. His first goal was a classic poacher’s finish, being more alert to the situation than anyone else and capitalising on a defender’s mistake. The second was one where he ran in behind to great effect, showing the quality Manchester United wasted by attempting to convert him to a target man. But it was in between where he nearly pulled off his trademark. The ball broke to him into space and he dragged defenders wide with him, opening up room for Leander Dendoncker to break into the box. Lukaku played Dendoncker in well, but the Wolves player blasted his shot over the bar. It was classic Lukaku, but this time in service of someone else, showing he can offer more than simply goalscoring.
Fortunately, he has a manager who understands these qualities and how they have developed over time. “He’s not the same player he was three years ago,” Martinez said recently.
Now he is able to create many more spaces for his teammates and we need to make the most of that with the national team too
Martinez has given Lukaku licence to link more and use his ability to drive into space to help others.
This has taken on more importance as Belgium have lacked key stars. Kevin De Bruyne missed the opening game through injury, and it’s unclear when he will return or if he will do so at 100%. Eden Hazard was also short of fitness against Russia, and that speaks to his ongoing troubles since joining Real Madrid. It doesn’t look like we’re going to see the Hazard of old at this tournament. This means Belgium need more from Lukaku, not just as a point striker but a rounded threat. He’s certainly started off by doing that.
This does change the way Belgium play. A side built around De Bruyne and Hazard is by necessity one of lots of little cute passes. That would be a team that wants to play possession football and attempt to create chances through eye-of-the-needle passes. This Belgium is slightly different. The Belgium built around Lukaku has to be more about transitions and opening up space to break quickly on the counter. While Hazard might be a problem, De Bruyne can slide back in as a complimentary piece here pretty naturally. The Manchester City man has always been the one who quickens the tempo, so linking with Lukaku should be closer to his natural speed than the work Pep Guardiola has him do.
What Lukaku won’t be doing is standing with his back to goal looking to bring down long balls and play in wingers running past him. Doing this is as unnatural to him as it would have been for Van Nistelrooy. Lukaku needs to be running into space in order to do what he does best. This can involve playing a better style of football to find him than simply hoofing the ball up the pitch, which isn’t a problem for Martinez’s attacking instincts. Belgium are here to play good football, which suits the modern iteration of Lukaku down to the ground.
Lukaku’s next opponent is Denmark, and that’s sure to be an emotional affair. After Christian Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, Lukaku was first to lend his voice in support of his club teammate, shouting “Chris, I love you” at the TV cameras. It was obvious playing after seeing Eriksen’s incident affected him. “It was difficult to play because my mind was with my team-mate Christian,” he said after the Russia win. It’s certain to play on his mind on Thursday. As much as Eriksen is a good friend of his, Lukaku has a job to do.
The key thing for Denmark will probably be staying in a compact block and denying the space in behind. If Lukaku is forced to have everything in front of him, he won’t be able to use his now signature move and find a channel to attack. This would force Belgium’s attack to become more static and predictable. But you’d have to back Lukaku to find the space in the end. Staying concentrated in a low block for 90 minutes isn’t easy work, and the striker will be there to pounce the exact moment anyone makes a mistake.
Is there anyone at Euro 2020 in a better moment right now than Lukaku? After two excellent years in Italy and a slightly tweaked Belgium team built more around him, he’s here to get serious. While he’s been dominating Serie A, recognition across the continent and, especially in England, has sometimes eluded him. If he keeps up this form for the next month, it is unlikely anyone will ever doubt him again. It’s Lukaku’s world, and we’re just living in it.
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