The Belgian has flourished since leaving Old Trafford for Inter last year while his former employers are still searching for an adequate replacement
When he left Manchester United last summer, Gary Neville was among those “delighted” to see him go. The former Red Devils defender called Lukaku’s professionalism into question as he claimed that the striker had been overweight at Old Trafford.
And yet only last week United striker Marcus Rashford expressed his enduring affection for Lukaku, describing his “brother” as a “selfless” character, “a team player… never afraid to dim his light for others to shine.”
It was hardly surprising, then, that when the transfer window closed on Monday night, some United fans were wondering if their club had made a massive mistake in allowing Lukaku to join Inter last summer.
After all, United sold a player who scored 34 goals in all competitions last season – the most prolific debut campaign by a Nerazzurri player since the great Ronaldo in 1997-98.
However, United’s mistake was not that they sold Lukaku, but that they did not sign a replacement. It was claimed that they did not need one.
At the time of Lukaku’s exit, the club pushed the line that the squad would be better served by clearing Mason Greenwood’s path to the first team and, after initially impressing in the Europa League, the academy product formed a lethal front three with Rashford and Anthony Martial during the second half of the season that fired United to a third-placed finish in the Premier League.
However, Greenwood became a regular by necessity – not grand design.
United turned to the versatile attacker because of lack of depth and quality in their forward line, which were exposed by injuries to Martial and Rashford at different stages of the 2019-20 season.
The failure to sign a Lukaku replacement was key in that regard, and it had more to do with United’s propensity for leaving their transfer business until the last minute than the emergence of a tremendously talented teenager.
Indeed, it is worth remembering that not only was Lukaku offloaded on the final day of the window, United did try to sign a replacement. As Solskjaer himself subsequently admitted, the club had a high-profile signing lined up last summer but “we just didn’t get him over the line”.
It was essentially an admission that United had not left themselves with enough time to get the deal done.
One could argue that the club was hampered by the fact that the close of the summer transfer window was brought forward to before the start of the 2019-20 campaign.
However, there was no such excuse for United spending the final day of the past two windows scrambling around looking for someone to strengthen a thread-bare attack.
When United missed out on their primary target last summer, Solskjaer hailed the club’s prudence and patience. “You don’t want to spend a big amount of money on someone that you’re not sure of,” he stated.
Solskjaer was essentially praising the club for not hitting the panic button – and yet that is essentially what they have done twice in 2020, first in January, and then again last Monday.
On the final day of the winter window, they failed with bids for Danny Ings and Joshua King before finally pulling of a last-gasp loan move for Odion Ighalo.
Of course, the expectation – or hope, as it transpired – during the summer was that they would land Jadon Sancho, which would have meant four young, versatile and rapid attackers competing for three spots.
However, after embarrassingly misreading Dortmund’s arbitrary deadline and asking price as negotiating tactics, United were left facing yet another race against time to get a deal for a forward “over the line”.
They eventually settled for Edinson Cavani, a player that had previously expressed no interest in signing, leaving many fans rightly wondering what on earth is going on at Old Trafford.
United’s recruitment policy has been shown to be contradictory and ineffective. The party line is that they are solely interested in promising players – 23 is considered the optimal age for a new signing at Old Trafford – and will not be pushed or rushed into making the wrong moves.
And yet a year after Lukaku left England without apparently needing to be replaced, United now have two strikers on their books who are the wrong side of 30.
United were right to sell the Belgium international. He wanted to leave and they recouped a significant chunk of the money they had paid Everton for a player that Solskjaer did not feel was suited to his counterattacking style of play.
However, as Lukaku has pointed out himself, the arguments that he was not fast, fit or industrious enough to play for United have been obliterated by his performances for Antonio Conte’s Inter.
As he is likely to show while lining out for Roberto Martinez’s Belgium at Wembley on Sunday, when used in the right way by a coach who understands him, Lukaku is one of the best strikers in the world.
Ighalo certainly never belonged in that bracket while Cavani’s best days are undeniably behind him, as underlined by the fact that no other top club were willing to pick up a 33-year-old free agent demanding exorbitant wages.
So, while Lukaku has made his “improvements” to his game over the past year, United certainly cannot say the same of their forward line.