The 2018-19 season was not one Manchester United fans would remember particularly fondly, but Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s appointment provided cause for optimism.
United finished sixth in the Premier League but reached a Champions League quarter-final and gathered momentum in the second half of the campaign with Solskjaer at the helm.
Supporters could hope a number of the players at Old Trafford would be able to form the basis of a title-winning side in the coming years.
And so it proved this week as Romelu Lukaku, Alexis Sanchez, Ashley Young and Matteo Darmian got their hands on domestic silverware – in Inter colours.
That quartet played a combined 88 Premier League games for United in 2018-19 but this term turned out together for Inter, accounting for 107 Serie A appearances.
While Sanchez, Young and Darmian have each played their part, it might be Lukaku’s success in Italy that causes United the most distress.
They made their money back on the £75million signing, but he is now a champion while Solskjaer’s side, as when Lukaku left, trail rivals Manchester City.
Rom rewarded by Ron role
United had not been the only club willing to part with such a sum to sign Lukaku in 2017, as former club Chelsea, coached by current Inter boss Antonio Conte, sought to bring back the forward they had sold to Everton for around a third of the price three years earlier.
Despite 15 league goals – arriving every 170.8 minutes across 31 matches – on loan at Goodison Park as a 20-year-old in 2013-14, Chelsea and Jose Mourinho turned instead to Diego Costa to lead their successful title charge.
“[Lukaku] wanted to play for Chelsea but wanted to be the first-choice striker,” Mourinho said. “That’s very difficult to promise.”
Delighted Everton manager Roberto Martinez’s described Lukaku’s “potential” as “quite unique”, but criticism of the striker’s finishing would find its root in his first season as a full-time Toffee.
Although there were 20 strikes in all competitions, just 10 came in the Premier League as chances worth 11.3 expected goals (xG) brought eight non-penalty goals.
Lukaku’s conversion rate dipped to 9.5 per cent as he passed up 12 big chances – situations from which Opta would reasonably expect a player to score.
However, 11th-placed Everton’s issues extended beyond a young player’s slight regression.
In turn, Martinez moved away from the fast-breaking attack that brought 1.4 counters per game – none of which ended in Lukaku goals – in 2014-15 and opted instead to station his striker in front of goal. It provoked 220 touches in the box and 18 goals from Lukaku, yet could not rescue the manager.
Incoming coach Ronald Koeman may now be more familiar with making the most of the diminutive talents of Barcelona’s attack, but he certainly knew how to get the best out of Lukaku.
The new Everton manager’s solution was simple: build everything around Big Rom.
Heading away from the direction Martinez had taken the team and their talisman, Lukaku took just 12.5 per cent of his touches in the penalty area, as he instead had clear career highs in duels (588), aerial duels (322) and successful dribbles (63).
The forward scored 25 times in the league – taking 22.7 per cent of his chances to outstrip his xG by 9.5 – and had 31 goal involvements. He looked the complete package.
More Mou’s man than Ole’s
The complete package is certainly what United would expect for a £75m outlay. What they got was a steady debut season.
Ten goals in Lukaku’s first nine matches for the club in all competitions hinted at a continuation of his 2016-17 Everton form, but the rest of the campaign had more in keeping with his earlier outings on Merseyside.
There were 16 league strikes, still ahead of his xG of 12.6, but also 11 big chances missed. No longer required to carry the load alone, Lukaku’s total shots fell from 110 to 86 and his conversion rate dwindled to 18.6 per cent.
Still, Mourinho stood by his man.
Having started all but five of United’s league games in 2017-18, Lukaku was again included in the XI in 12 of their first 17 matches the following season.
But when Mourinho was sacked shortly before Christmas, Solskjaer had no such loyalty to a striker who had failed to kick on, contributing just six goals.
Lukaku completed the full 90 minutes on seven occasions under Solskjaer, who turned instead to Marcus Rashford as his main striking option.
Rashford only scored one more goal than Lukaku over this period and missed two more big chances, but criticism hurt the Belgium international and a hamstring injury in April 2019 brought a premature end to his season – and his United career.
“A lot of people don’t think I can be part of that team,” Lukaku later told NBA star Josh Hart’s LightHarted Podcast. “If it’s like that, we can go our separate ways.
“You guys can find someone who really fits the bill and I can go.”
Counted on by Conte
Lukaku certainly fitted the bill at Inter. New Nerazzurri coach Conte needed a replacement striker as Mauro Icardi’s love-hate affair with San Siro’s Curva Sud finally reached its conclusion.
Having failed to recruit Lukaku at Stamford Bridge in a move that might have suited all parties better than the United switch, Conte added the striker to a squad intent on ending Inter’s wait for the Scudetto.
Not since 2009-10, with Samuel Eto’o and Diego Milito paired in attack, had Inter reigned, but they now had another forward partnership to enjoy.
On paper, Lautaro Martinez might have been considered the ‘little man’ to Lukaku’s ‘big man’, yet Conte has increasingly resisted the urge to use his talented giant as a battering ram.
Although Lukaku remains capable of bullying defenders – only in two Premier League seasons did he win more aerial duels than 2019-20’s 93 – Conte has followed Koeman’s example and made sure to involve his number nine in everything Inter do.
Not since his final season at Everton has Lukaku attempted or completed more dribbles (97 and 52 in 2020-21), meaning he is back facing the goal again, involved in 13 counter-attacks – his most since 2014-15. He also has 10 assists for the first time.
Yet Lukaku is still taking the largest share of his touches in the box to date (18.3 per cent), leading to a career-high 35 big chances.
From such positions, he can afford to squander 17 big chances and net only 16 non-penalty goals from efforts worth 16.8 xG, another new benchmark.
“Lukaku has made exceptional improvements but can make even more,” Conte says.
Martinez, now his coach at international level, feels the development is clear for all to see. He told La Gazzetta dello Sport: “Romelu became a complete player, obviously thanks to Conte.”
Lukaku is now scoring with a staggering 23.6 per cent of his shots – making him the first Serie A player since 2004-05 to tally 20 goals and 10 assists in the same season – and Inter are champions.
United and those critics have long since disappeared into the rear-view mirror.