Romelu Lukaku: Revelling in Redemption
With a phenomenal record of 59 goals and 14 assists in 85 matches for Italian giants Internazionale since joining the club in August 2019, Romelu Lukaku has truly cemented his place as one of world football’s elite forwards. Now with rumours of another big-money move on the horizon in the summer, we assess just how deadly the Belgian has been for Inter as they begin to close in on Serie A success for the first time in 11 years.
It’s now been a year and a half since Romelu Lukaku swapped the red side of Manchester for the blue side of Milan. A player so often scapegoated by some during his two-year stint at Old Trafford, the 27-year-old has now developed into one of Europe’s most complete and deadly strikers under the tutelage of former Chelsea boss Antonio Conte. With nearly 250 goals to his name in his senior club career, few can outdo Lukaku’s goal tally in European domestic football, but we have to look beyond his phenomenal strike rate to fully understand his growth as a player over the past 19 months.
A product of Anderlecht’s famous youth academy, from an early age it was obvious to those around him that he would go to the top of football. Ten years on from his spell in Belgium and after subsequent impressive outings with West Brom, Everton and Manchester United as well as a stint at Chelsea, the decorated striker landed in Milan in an effort to try and help Internazionale secure some long-overdue domestic success.
Scoring goals for fun has never been a problem for Lukaku – his record in the Premier League prior to his move to Italy shows that. A return of 113 goals in 252 appearances within the English top flight makes him one of the most prolific in recent memory. Instead, it was his lack of all-round top-quality build-up play and a supposedly poor first touch that never truly endeared the striker to the Manchester United faithful during his time at Old Trafford. His in-depth statistics in Milan show that he’s now started to remedy those weaknesses.
Normally partnered upfront for Inter with Lautaro Martinez in a 3-4-1-2 or 3-5-2 setup, Conte has created a system capable of getting the very best out of Lukaku. In the ‘little and large’ pairing, the Belgian acts as the target man of the tandem. He’s a striker capable of attacking incoming crosses with his aerial ability but also one able to hold up play to create chances for the players around him. This season, Lukaku has an expected assists-per-90 figure of 0.18, which is higher than any of his seasons at Manchester United (0.12 in both 2017-18 and 2018-19) or his first season at Inter (0.09).
A diet off the field dramatically changed his appearance after he arrived in Milan in 2019. His now leaner stature has born a player more confident with the ball at his feet. Unlike at points in his Premier League career, Lukaku is now no longer an aggressive one-dimensional forward who likes to run directly at the centre backs. Rather, the marksman now enjoys dropping behind Martinez to obtain possession before playing passes out wide or backward if necessary, to move his side collectively up the field. Lukaku has been involved in 35 shots following a ball carry this season (22 shots, 13 chances created), which is the fifth highest in Serie A in 2020-21. In the whole of last season, his total of 32 (23 shots, nine chances created) ranked 35th.
His control of the ball is unrecognisable from the player that departed British shores a year and a half ago, and his maturity and intelligence as a football player has developed drastically with the help of Conte in particular. He’s now capable of bullying defenders through any phase of play rather than relying on outmuscling.
Lukaku has improved in plenty of other areas as well. In addition to upping his chance creation numbers, the 27-year-old striker is now a much more prominent figure on the pitch throughout – there’s no case of him going missing in action, or certainly nowhere near as often.
Lukaku has further refined his shooting to only take attempts from more intelligent positions. In Serie A this season, the Belgian striker has averaged 0.61 expected goals per 90 from non-penalty chances – his best single-season mark.
Further evidence of this comes from his average xG per open-play shot rising to 0.20 in 2020-21. That too is a career high and impressively up from 0.15 in 2019-20 at Internazionale and just above his previous highest of 0.19 at Manchester United in 2018-19. To simplify this, he’s had chances that a player would be expected to score 20% of the time based on historical averages, compared to 15% last season or 19% at Manchester United. If you get in better positions to score, an improved goal return will likely follow.
Away from expected goals, we can see further improvement with his average touches in the opposition penalty area this term standing at 7.6, improving from 6.6 last year and 5.2 during his time at Old Trafford. Never has Lukaku had a higher proportion of his touches inside the box in a top-flight season within England or Italy than he has this term (18.7%).
As mentioned before, his strongest asset has always been his goalscoring, but even by his own sky-high standards, his strike rate this season in Serie A has been exceptional. He’s scoring a goal per 108 minutes of action, far better than his rate of 179 over his two seasons in Manchester. He can still suffer from lapses in concentration in front of goal and is capable of missing gilt-edge chances, but these instances have seemingly become less of a problem during his time at Internazionale. His big-chance conversion of 55% in Serie A is higher than it’s been at any club in his career, and well above that of his time at Manchester United (42%). His all-round improvement hasn’t gone unnoticed by his fans, teammates and manager alike. Conte spoke to Sky Italia earlier this season about his striker:
“Romelu is a different player to what he was a year ago. He is working and you can see just the way he receives the ball, the way he moves, everything has improved.”
Recent media reports have begun to suggest that Pep Guardiola and Manchester City could come calling in the summer. That’ll remain a mystery for a while yet, but the advances of the Spanish manager only go to highlight Lukaku’s improvement as an all-round attacker. The fact that a manager so devilish in the detail of his intricate system, so set in his ways on playing lovely, free-flowing, tika-taka based football would have the Belgian international at the top of his shopping list speaks volumes of Lukaku’s progress since departing the red side of Manchester in the summer of 2019.
For now, there’s a Scudetto to be won, and if Lukaku can continue his fine form into the latter part of the season, the Belgian striker could be the main catalyst in pushing Internazionale to their first Serie A title in eleven long years.