Manchester United are set for a squad overhaul this summer, and Romelu Lukaku looks set to be one of the players on his way out.
The Belgian has scored 42 goals in 96 appearances across two seasons for United. Those aren’t terrible numbers by any means but his form has been patchy, especially since Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took over.
With that in mind, reports suggest Lukaku is keen to move to Italy, where Inter Milan are said to be waiting for him. And while United won’t miss him desperately, they will certainly need a replacement striker.
But which path do the Red Devils go down? Should they attempt to bring in an established, world-class forward to immediately transform their attack? Or will a more realistic, affordable route be the plan of action?
Failing that, United may decide to take a bit of a risk with a wildcard alternative. We’ve had a look at just a few of Solskjaer’s options for replacing Lukaku below.
Dream: Antoine Griezmann
Let’s get this out of the way: it’s going to be very difficult to lure Antoine Griezmann to Old Trafford with no Champions League football. But United fans will be dreaming of the club bringing one of football’s biggest names to the Theatre of Dreams this summer.
Griezmann is set to end his beautifully strained relationship with Atletico Madrid in the coming weeks. The Frenchman was criticised for dragging out his decision to stay with the club last summer via a misjudged documentary, a method that now looks all the more strange given his imminent exit.
During his five years in the Spanish capital, Griezmann won the Europa League, the European Super Cup and the Spanish Super Cup. He will be eager to match his undoubted career highlight – winning the World Cup with France last year – at club level, which is the obvious reason behind his desire to leave Atletico.
Two questions emerge here: will Griezmann feel he can achieve that at Manchester United? And will Solskjaer allow the majority of his budget go on one player when other areas of the squad need improving?
The answers to those questions create a paradox. Griezmann obviously won’t be able to win the Champions League with United next season, but United’s best chance of qualifying for the competition in 2020/21 is with a signing of Griezmann’s standard, hence why he would be the dream replacement for Lukaku.
Realistic: Nicolas Pepe
Only Kylian Mbappe (33) scored more goals than Nicolas Pepe’s 22 in Ligue 1 last season. Pepe’s performances transformed Lille from a team scrapping for survival in 2017/18, when they finished 17th, to the second-best side in France, about as good as it gets in the age of PSG dominance.
The 24-year-old also provided seven assists, meaning he had a direct hand in 29 of Lille’s 68 league goals. It’s easy to see why Manchester United are reportedly considering a summer move for Pepe, who should prove inexpensive compared to Griezmann, making the deal a more realistic option.
Pepe’s versatility makes him an interesting target. He can play out wide or through the middle, using his pace to get in behind opposition defences. The Ivory Coast international added clinical finishing to his repertoire in 2018/19, and Solskjaer would likely deploy him in a central role if he were to arrive.
As with Griezmann, United face the issue of convincing Pepe to join a Europa League club. If he stays with Lille, Pepe will be playing Champions League football next season. But the size and stature of United could prove too big for him to turn down, regardless of the European competition they are playing in.
Add into the mix a huge salary rise and it’s difficult to see Pepe staying at Lille if United come knocking, although PSG and Arsenal have also been linked.
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It was seen as a bit of risk when Everton parted ways with a club-record £50m to sign Richarlison from Watford last summer. But the Brazilian eased fears of flopping by hitting the ground running for his new club, finishing his debut campaign on Merseyside with 14 goals in all competitions.
In total, 13 of those goals came in the Premier League as Richarlison helped the Toffees finish eighth. That means there will be no European football at Goodison Park next season. Could that be a factor in Richarlison’s mind if the possibility of another transfer arises this summer?
Probably not. Richarlison has been linked with Manchester United and Barcelona, but when recently asked about the reported interest in his services from the two European giants, he revealed he is happy at Everton: “It’s a nice feeling when you get praise for your good work, but I’m not thinking about a transfer at the moment. I’ve just arrived at Everton. I’m happy here.”
But with United urgently attempting to improve their squad, Everton could receive a massive bid for Richarlison. And if that offer is accepted, Richarlison will have a big decision to make.
United must think carefully, too. At just 22, Richarlison still has plenty of time to improve and he could prosper all the more from joining one of the country’s biggest clubs. But there is always the risk a young player will not kick on. In that regard, the money Everton will likely demand for Richarlison may not be worth it.
All of the options we have discussed above could feasibly be described as ‘second strikers’; attackers who aren’t quite centre-forwards, although they can play as the focal point of the team. Lukaku is more of a traditional No.9, and United might be keen to recruit a similar type of striker.
If that is the case, AC Milan’s Krzysztof Piatek will be near the top of their list. The Poland international scored 30 goals across all competitions in 2018/19. However, he only joined Milan in the January transfer window having impressed for Genoa in the first half of the campaign.
Usually, that would all but rule out a move in the next transfer window, but Milan’s failure to qualify for the Champions League could put doubt in Piatek’s mind as to whether he is at the right club. Of course, United will have to convince him they are in a better position to qualify for the Champions League next term than Milan.
The fact versatile attackers are being mooted as replacements for Lukaku perhaps suggests Solskjaer is indeed looking for a ‘second striker’ type. Benfica’s teenage sensation Joao Felix is another option in that mould, though reports claim the Portuguese champions will ask for an astronomical fee of £120m for the 19-year-old.
Alternatively, Solskjaer could put faith in Marcus Rashford as the focal point of United’s front line. If he’s not replaced from the outside, Lukaku’s exit will limit the squad’s centre-forward options, which could put the right kind of pressure on Rashford to establish himself as United’s star striker.