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Soccer

Romelu Lukaku Has Put Inter On His Back

Inter Milan's Belgian forward Romelu Lukaku celebrates after they scored during the UEFA Champions League football match Borussia Moenchengladbach v Inter Milan in Moenchengladbach, western Germany, on December 1, 2020.
Photo by Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

The Premier League’s grip on at least the English-language soccer media’s consciousness is so adamantine that it sometimes feels like nothing that happens outside of it really matters. Players who’ve never played in England are looked at with suspicion, players who play well there see their reputations inflated, and those who leave after being perceived as disappointments find it hard to shake the “flop” label, regardless of how they perform elsewhere. Proving that there is life after England, though, is Romelu Lukaku, who has followed up a couple relatively down years at Manchester United by going to Inter and becoming one of the best strikers in the world.

The latest evidence of Big Rom’s dominance came in Tuesday’s Champions League match between Inter and Borussia Mönchengladbach. Lukaku practically drove Inter to victory himself, as he has so many times over the year and a half he’s spent in Italy. The Belgian scored twice in the 3–2 win, which in all competitions gives him 11 goals in 12 matches so far this season. Those scoring figures are even more potent than his already strong numbers from his debut campaign, where he hit for 34 goals in 51 appearances in all competitions. His combination of speed, strength, and finishing has him once again looking completely unplayable.

But scoring is only one facet of what makes Lukaku so good right now, and it’s the thing he’s always been able to do at elite levels. Even at United, where he failed to live up to the expectation that he become a world-class foundational piece upon which the club could ascend back to the top, Lukaku was still chipping in 0.5 goals per 90 minutes in league play. What has Lukaku playing the best soccer of his life, as he himself put it after the Gladbach match, is the development of the other aspects of his game—specifically, his complete and total mastery of back-to-goal play.

The compilation from the Gladbach game is a good example of this. Lukaku is exceptional at walling off defenders, corralling long balls, and sorting out the best option to help the team progress up the pitch. He is of course Inter’s target man and primary goal threat, but he is also its possession organizer—a role more commonly given to midfielders. Inter’s game with the ball is entirely built around these hold-up and support skills of Lukaku’s. The team surpasses opposition pressure by hoofing the ball up to Lukaku, relying on him to wrangle it and—be it with a first-time flick to a teammate making a run off him or with him keeping it while fending off the defender and then sending a pass back to an open midfielder—decide where the ball needs to go. In that way he’s kind of soccer’s equivalent to basketball’s point forward, a big man who posts up on the block, catches a pass, and from there runs the offense himself.

That point forward-esque target man role requires high levels of strength, stamina, soft touch, intelligence, and long and short passing ability. Because of that, it is a role very few strikers are capable of fulfilling. It’s also one tailor made to maximize Lukaku’s enormous and rare repertoire of skills.

Like most young forwards, Lukaku broke onto the scene thanks to his impressive physical gifts. Even as a teenager, Lukaku’s speed and strength made him an unstoppable freight train when attacking space one-on-one with defenders. Those space-devouring skills helped him tear up the Premier League during his years at West Brom and Everton, but upon arriving at Man United, where space was more limited against deep-sitting defenses, Lukaku was no longer quite as effective.

It was while in Manchester that Lukaku began using that strength, speed, and intelligence to improve his back-to-goal game, but the club moved on from him before he got a chance to put it all together for the Red Devils. As we’re seeing now, United’s loss was Inter’s gain. A fully empowered Lukaku is a thing of wonder.

“Failing” at United—and again, it’s a little silly to call a guy who scored 42 goals in two seasons a “failure”—was probably the best thing that could have happened to Lukaku. At the Inter of Antonio Conte, a manager who more than any other loves developing and building around a playmaking target man, Lukaku has found the perfect playing system in which he can demonstrate exactly how good he is. Moving from England to Italy might have cost him a ding to his reputation, but that’s a small price to pay to get better than ever. And, if he keeps it up, he’ll soon be bigger than ever, too.