New Lukaku or same old streaky bacon?
Background image: Oscar, CC BY-SA 2.0
Romelu Lukaku's career is like a vintage Reliant Robin, travelling in fits and spurts. His big-game presence was questioned at Everton, his heavy first touch at Manchester United. To date, the Belgian striker has Internazionale faithful wondering why such queries were made. His nine league goals match the Brazilian Ronaldo's record start when he joined the Nerazzurri.
In the Premier League, goals are measured by two criteria: quantity and quality of opposition. At the top sides, a third condition must be met. Inconsistency saw Lukaku twice benched by Jose Mourinho and finally by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer.
In retrospect, some United fans regret selling the hulking striker. The Red Devils have only 13 goals in 11 matches. Their best results come against top sides while they struggle against comparative lightweights. Keeping a 'flat-track bully' might have found Solskjaer's side much higher than tenth in the table, especially if you sit the big man when the top-six come calling.
At the Giuseppe Meazza, all nine of Lukaku's goals have come in Serie A. His Champions League account with Inter remains unopened. In addition, the Beneamata haven't faced too many difficult tests to open the campaign. Among teams in the Serie A's European places, Lukaku has struck only once, against sixth-place Cagliari on Matchday 2. He was held off the score sheet by Juventus and Lazio.
What's more, that heavy first touch hasn't softened. Goal production remains a one-way street with Lukaku, who is yet to register an assist in a Nerazzurri strip.
What works best
Lukaku’s best season to date was his last at Goodison Park when he struck for 25 Premier League goals. A tidy season’s work under Ronald Koeman made him a top target for European clubs.
Two games highlighted his best attributes. His hat trick against Sunderland and four-star outing against Bournemouth featured an array of perfectly timed runs. Three different teammates split the defence with passes for him to find against the Black Cats. It was much the same against the Cherries.
Those samples cast the dye for his preferences. Lukaku likes fast play that catches out the opposition. Whether receiving the ball at his feet or on his head, he can work with quality. From a bit further out, he’ll also one-two the ball to get forward when given a bit of time and space.
Moving to Manchester United should have resulted in more goals. He joined a side with Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial and, later, Alexis Sanchez. Sixteen wasn't a poor tally but he managed one more with West Bromwich Albion when surrounded by substantially lesser quality. For whatever reason, he was at his most inconsistent at Old Trafford. A good sandwich isn't only measured by how many slices of meat are laid on.
Why is the Giuseppe Meazza any different?
Rather than lean meat, Antonio Conte is cooking up a risotto. Comparing his 11 games in Italy with United's full 2018/19 campaign, there are key differences suggesting Lukaku is better suited to Inter.
At United, Pogba and Nemanja Matic were the predominant passers, with 59.1 and 65.6 per game. Conte's Inter plays faster. Marcelo Brozovic and Milan Skriniar make 75.6 and 67.1 passes per 90. Their accuracy is also far higher, translating into more chances and less time to daydream.
Antonio Conte’s 3-5-2 benefits the Belgian as well. Inter consistently cross balls into the box. This rapid, direct attack suits Lukaku as it did at Goodison Park.
Conte has been praised for his man-management before. The Italian installs strict yet successful regimes. The confidence and trust Lukaku receives shows in his demeanour. He strikes with venom but celebrates with restraint.
At 26, Lukaku isn't going to radically reinvent himself but he can be more consistent. He's scored in every international break for Belgium. With Inter, his only dry spell was three matches beginning with Lazio and ending with Juventus. Sampdoria were the middle side, another quality opponent. Responding to tougher defending must be his focus while in Milan.
Hellas Verona will test him on Saturday. Despite being newly promoted, I Mastini boast Serie A's joint-best defence, shipping just nine goals to date. Given Ivan Juric's side have only scored that many, one strike should be enough to deliver a result. Beyond that, he must wait for third-place Roma's visit in December. I can tell you Inter is the best thing to happen to Romelu Lukaku but, in the end, only he can prove me right.