The steps Romelu Lukaku has made in Italy to get back on a trajectory toward true greatness are gargantuan.
He goes into Euro 2020 as one of the world’s most in-form strikers, following two impressive seasons in Italy with Inter Milan, culminating in winning Serie A in 2020/21 (and also the competition’s player of the year award).
Lukaku now, once again, has the kind of status he lost two years ago. A status he perhaps never even had in England.
“Romelu hasn’t been appreciated for most of the time he’s been in the British game,” Belgium head coach Roberto Martinez told the Daily Mail in 2019, around about the point Manchester United got rid of him.
“And the reason is very clear,” Martinez added. “Everyone analyses what he hasn’t got as a No 9.
“Everyone wants to tell him the first touch should be better, that he should be stronger in the air, that he needs to make more room. But what they miss is his outstanding trade as a goalscorer. Look at his stats. He is one of the most significant scorers at his age.”
Martinez’s point, that people have generally focussed more on what Lukaku can’t do than what he can, does ring true (and he would know having coached him in England at Everton). The question is, do Lukaku’s stats paint him as one of the most ‘significant scorers at his age’?
Lukaku’s time in England didn’t end well, of course. In his last season at Manchester United, he scored 15 times. Which is not terrible but not great, and he was a poor fit with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s style of play, and so his 27 goals from the previous season under the previous manager were swiftly forgotten.
But that was 2019. And since he has moved to Inter Milan, Lukaku has scored 47 goals in Serie A. Only four players have scored more across Europe’s top five leagues and every one of them is over the age of 30. Ciro Immobile is the youngest at 31 (Robert Lewandowski, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are the other three), which still puts the Lazio striker three years older than Lukaku, at 28.
For strikers aged 26-30, Lukaku leads the way. His 47-goal total is more than Gerard Moreno, Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah (all 41), more than Wissam Ben Yedder (38), more than Alexandre Lacazette (23) and €120m man Antoine Griezmann (22).
Not only that, but for a player who is primarily considered a scorer only, Lukaku is actually semi-prolific at creating chances for his teammates. Of the six strikers listed above, only Mohamed Salah (118) has created more goalscoring opportunities in the last two seasons than Lukaku (106).
The Belgian has really blossomed under Antonio Conte’s coaching, even developing things that he was historically weak on like his first touch. The result is the consistent dominance you have seen in blue and black. His debut season ended trophyless, but he managed to equal the great Ronaldo Nazario’s goal tally in a debut season with 34.
Then, in his second year, he not only surpassed O Fenômeno‘s goalscoring record but also drove the Nerazzurri forward to win their first Serie A title in a decade in a phenomenal showing. Again: only veteran legends are outscoring him since he moved to Inter.
Euro 2020 top scorer odds (via William Hill)
- Harry Kane: 6/1
- Romelu Lukaku: 7/1
- Kylian Mbappe: 9/1
- Cristiano Ronaldo: 14/1
- Karim Benzema: 16/1
(Odds in this article are correct at the time of writing. 18+ only, BeGambleAware.org)
Now Euro 2020 is on the horizon. Lukaku was already a dominant striker at the 2018 World Cup, helping Belgium finish third at that tournament. The only thing to stop him then was the impossible brilliance of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti in the semi-final. Could any team conjure a similarly dominant partnership at Euro 2020? Looking at how this season has gone for Lukaku, they’re going to have to, because short of that kind of impassable wall, it’s so hard to see anyone living with the striker he has has turned into.
So incredibly skilled is the Belgian that he is second-favourite to be top-scorer at Euro 2020. There are other top quality forwards at the tournament, of course, but only Harry Kane is as well-placed to rattle the goals in as Lukaku, playing at the head of an attacking Belgium side in a favourable group up against the defences of Finland, Russia and Denmark (and with Thierry Henry back as a coach).
“Like any player, if you are going to highlight the things they don’t do well, you wouldn’t get the feeling of a good player,” said Martinez. “But in Romelu’s case, he’s always been a top goalscorer.” While it’s true that Lukaku has always been prolific, thanks to his Italian adventure, he is now so much more. A goalscorer, a title winner, a talisman. And now he’s gunning for European Championship glory.