Manchester United confirmed the signing of Romelu Lukaku on 10th July 2017, a reported £75m deal rising to £90m with add-ons and technically worth £100m overall after the Old Trafford club agreed to waive a £10m fee for the transfer of Wayne Rooney in the opposite direction.
Manchester wasn’t initially Lukaku’s expected destination. Less than a week before United announced the signing, the Belgian was thought to be rejoining former club Chelsea, while Alvaro Morata was on the brink of making the move to United.
It was just five days before Lukaku officially joined United when the ‘hijack’ was first reported, with Chelsea’s inability to strike a deal with Everton apparently the reason for their collapse.
United were seemingly unconvinced by Morata’s potential to thrive in the Premier League, an assessment proven to be correct in hindsight after a poor debut season with Chelsea and moved quickly. Morata was dumped on the spot and Chelsea picked up the pieces.
Lukaku settled quickly at United. He was already close friends with Paul Pogba, having met five years earlier as teenagers when they were both sat in the stands during a game between United and Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, and had holidayed with the Frenchman in 2017 and 2016.
He was also immediately able to connect with Jesse Lingard and Marcus Rashford, while he was accepted warmly by the rest of the squad – a picture of the diminutive Juan Mata trying on his enormous boots went viral on social media at the time.
Given ‘permission’ from Zlatan Ibrahimovic to take the number nine shirt, Lukaku made his first unofficial United appearance as a half time substitute in a friendly against LA Galaxy on 16th July, just six days after signing for the club. He then scored his first unofficial goal against Real Salt Lake a few days later and again found the net against Manchester City in Houston.
After scoring three goals on tour, Lukaku’s first competitive goal came in the UEFA Super Cup against Real Madrid in Macedonia as United lost 2-1 against the European champions.
The new superstar striker got off to an explosive start in the Premier League as well, netting a brace on his debut against West Ham at Old Trafford, before further goals against Swansea, Stoke, Everton, Southampton and Crystal Palace, a run of seven goals in his first seven league outings as United took 19 points from a possible 21 in a blistering start to the season.
Playing in the Champions League had been a huge factor behind Lukaku’s desire to leave Everton and he was even on fire in that competition, scoring on his European debut for United in a win over Basel and bagging a brace in the next game against CSKA Moscow.
By this time, United fans had created a brand new chant for Lukaku, their ‘scoring genius’, one that hit the headlines as it drew major criticism from anti-discriminatory groups over its stereotyping lyrics regarding an alleged ‘b*****d to his toes’ and was eventually stopped after a somewhat embarrassed plea from the player himself.
Lukaku’s first season with United might best be described as good with room to improve. A goal tally of 27 in all competitions was a more than respectable start, but only 16 of those came in the Premier League, half the haul of Liverpool’s Golden Boot winner Mohamed Salah and four fewer than Jamie Vardy at Leicester.
United fans want their main striker is among the league’s top scorers every season. And while maxing out at 16 was not entirely the result of Lukaku’s shortcomings – the team as a whole did not create anything like enough chances after the opening weeks of the season – there were occasions when he could have been more clinical with his play.
It’s also worth noting at this point that early cynics who suggested he was little more than a brute target man and that Chelsea had got the far superior player in Morata were wrong in their assessment. Lukaku’s regular involvement in United’s technical build up play was good and he finished the season with nine assists. Of the rest of the squad, only Pogba managed more.
There were occasions when Lukaku’s infamous heavy first touch let him down, but that only brings us back to the ‘good with room to improve’ summary from earlier. Having only recently turned 25 years of age, time is more than on his side.
The World Cup has the potential to see Lukaku take his game to another level in 2018/19. He has been on fire in Russia in a continuation of his incredible international record over the last two years , netting four goals in the tournament and remaining in with a chance of the Golden Boot, while at the time of writing he could even become United’s first World Cup winner since Sir Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles with England in 1966. The momentum carried forward from that high could be huge.
Year one is in the books, but Red Rom is still only just getting started.