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Why recent performance proved Romelu Lukaku remains a flat-track bully

Saturday 3rd November 2018
Romelu Lukaku does not turn up against the big teams
Romelu Lukaku does not turn up against the big teams

André Zahn, Old Trafford inside 20060726 1, Club logos and Romelu Lukaku cutout added by Sean Lunt, CC BY-SA 2.0 DE

It's fair to say Romelu Lukaku won't remember the last few games with much fondness. When he played out games against Chelsea, Juventus and Everton in his head, he would have envisioned things going extremely differently. The Belgian would have been determined to make a point against all three.

Chelsea is the club he failed to break through, in the end, being forced to move away to Everton in search of game time. Every time he plays the Stamford Bridge club, he wants to prove that his departure should never have happened. Everton, meanwhile, represent jilted lovers. Lukaku no longer adores the Toffees, as he proved with his exuberant celebrations at Old Trafford last season, and they do not admire him.

Juventus, on the other hand, represent the future. Lukaku spent the international break talking up the club and how he would like to join the Old Lady in Serie A. Last week’s meeting at Old Trafford in the Champions League was the opportunity to prove a point to them and sow a seed among those in charge. Instead, the striker's performance could best be described as pointless. If he had not been there, he would not have been missed.

The Belgian considers himself a top striker and indeed, the numbers back up his claims. 105 Premier League goals in 229 games is an impressive record. It's more than Didier Drogba, Ruud Van Nistelrooy and Denis Bergkamp managed. His tally of 45 goals in 79 games for Belgium also makes him his country’s highest goalscorer at 25-years-old.

The last week, though, has demonstrated how far Lukaku is from being a top player. United's #9 has now gone nine club games without a goal. He’s managed five shots in his last five games, none of which have been on target. Big players also score goals against big teams but Lukaku does not.

Only 16 of his 105 league goals have come against the current top six. His last strike against a top six team was against Chelsea in February of this year. That was his only goal against a top six side last season. Suggestions that he had put his inability to effect the big games to bed were unfounded. This term, the only teams he’s scored against for United are Brighton, Burnley and Watford.

It’s a similar story on the international stage. Lukaku’s record is impressive but the sides he scores against are not. Two goals against Croatia in World Cup qualifying five years ago are the only time he’s scored against an 'elite' international team.

While he has racked up the goals against the likes of Luxembourg, Ireland, Cyprus, Estonia and Gibraltar, he has gone missing against the best. Four goals and an assist at the World Cup looked great on paper, but in reality, weren't all too impressive when one considers the goals came against Panama and Tunisia. The assist, at least, was in the 2-1 defeat of Brazil. All evidence to back up the idea he’s a flat track bully.

This past week provided him with a chance to prove he is a man for the big games. Predictably, Lukaku was nowhere to be seen. Of the 20 starting outfield players in the clash with Chelsea, he managed the second-fewest touches. Nobody was dispossessed more. Against Juventus, he had the fewest touches of any player.

As Paulo Dybala lit up Old Trafford with a superb display, Lukaku floundered. The chasm between him and the Argentine could not have been greater. An often stationary, listless Lukaku received regular calls from the stands to simply move. Up against world-class defenders like Leonardo Bonucci and Georgio Chiellini, he didn’t stand a chance. They are not your bog-standard Premier League defenders that Lukaku shines against.

He left Everton to be around better players. The notion at the time was that he, and his record in the big games, would improve as a result. Instead, he’s carried on where he left off at Goodison Park bullying the ‘little’ teams and going missing against the bigger ones.

He returned to Goodison Park on the United bench, this Sunday, only making a substitute appearance in the second half in which he again bottled a clear chance, knocking a free header well wide. On the eve of the Bournemouth game, social media exploded with claims he had not been spotted boarding the plane for the South Coast. At the writing, there was no confirmation from the club that the Belgian had been dropped from the squad. He's scored six goals in his last three games against the Cherries. You would think it's an excellent opportunity to rediscover his scoring form.

Fortunately, time is his on his side. At 25 he is yet to hit his peak and has several years of top-level football ahead of him to improve. He will also, at some point in the future, be playing under a manager whose football gets the best out of him. Until that situation arrives, though, Lukaku remains a man who, when the big games come calling, doesn’t answer his phone.

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Sean Lunt

Football journalist working in the North West mainly covering Everton and Liverpool but with musings on anything football related. 

Total articles: 110

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