In light of previous mistakes, Manchester United were keen to emphasise how things have changed. Having focused on buying big names and proven players at their peak in recent years, helping to create the highest wage bill in the Premier League, the appointment of Ole Gunnar Solskjaer supposedly heralded a new dawn.
United were going back to their old model of bringing in young players who they could gradually mould into stars, rather than paying a premium for readymade ones. In principle, it was a strategy that made sense, and had worked well for the most part under Solksjaer’s mentor, Sir Alex Ferguson. The Norwegian manager wanted to emulate that approach and put an end to expensive, short-term signings.
At least, that was the plan. In reality, Marcus Rashford’s back injury prompted a frantic search for a replacement striker late in the January transfer window. They settled on Odion Ighalo, the Nigerian international who has spent the last three years playing in China. The 30-year-old arrived on a six-month loan deal, precisely the sort of reactive recruitment decision they were so keen to avoid.
Planning for the future was put on hold as United found themselves caught short. But this wouldn’t have been the case if Solskjaer hadn’t readily discarded Romelu Lukaku, who has consistently demonstrated his match-winning qualities since moving to Inter Milan for £74million last summer. United not only failed to recoup the money they had originally spent on Lukaku, they have also had to watch on as he rediscovers his best form, wondering what might have been.
The Belgian international was poorly handled during his two years at Old Trafford, and eventually forced out of the club when he still had so much to offer. Flogged to death by Jose Mourinho and then treated as an afterthought by Solskjaer, United ultimately let one of the world’s best strikers slip through their fingers.
It was felt that Lukaku could only play one way, as a blunt instrument, a battering ram to force open uncooperative defences, but there’s more to his game than that. His movement and awareness is much better than he’s given credit for, and his shooting far sharper too. He admittedly isn’t the most subtle or dextrous player with the ball at his feet but Solskjaer was wrong to write him off.
If the intention in selling Lukaku was to help liberate Marcus Rashford, and give him more experience of playing through the middle as the first-choice striker, then that aim has been achieved, but at what cost to the club’s wider ambitions?
Rashford has already scored more goals than in any previous season of his fledgeling career but he’s had no alternative. The burden has been placed almost entirely on him. After Anthony Martial, 18-year-old Mason Greenwood is United’s third-highest league scorer with just four goals.
While Solskjaer’s side have struggled for goals and consistency, Lukaku has been the focal point for a free-flowing Inter’s title challenge. A fresh start and a more suitable training regime have helped him to shed weight and rediscover his best form. Leaner and more focused, he's quickly become the Nerazzurri’s driving force.
Antonio Conte’s band of Premier League outcasts, also featuring Ashley Young, Alexis Sanchez and Victor Moses amongst others, is leading the way in Serie A having beaten AC Milan on Sunday, with Lukaku once more on the scoresheet. They fell behind to goals from Ante Rebic and Zlatan Ibrahimovic but made a sensational recovery in the second half.
Lukaku scored the final goal of a 4-2 win, heading in Moses’ far-post cross to take his tally for the season to 23 in 30 appearances. Those extra three points saw them capitalise on a Juventus slip-up away to Verona, moving ahead of the reigning champions on goal difference.
Inter haven’t won the title in a decade, since Jose Mourinho delivered a glorious treble in his second, and final, season at the San Siro. Juventus have been utterly dominant in the intervening years, but their position is now under serious threat. Lukaku has adapted to Italian football with ease and enabled Conte’s new-look team to flourish.
Lukaku’s relative struggles at Man United were a consequence of his environment and a lack of appropriate structure and support as much as anything else. But he was still far more effective than many gave him credit for. Lest it be forgotten, he was top scorer with 16 league goals, and a further 11 in other competitions, on the way to securing United a runner-up spot two seasons ago – the highest they’ve finished since Sir Alex Ferguson stood down in 2013.
A truly elite striker, and one of the youngest players to reach 100 Premier League goals, Lukaku was moved on too quickly by an impatient Solskjaer, keen to embark on a new project and define himself in opposition to his predecessor. Still only 26, his best days are ahead of him too. Letting Lukaku leave is a decision that his former club will live to regret, if they don’t already.