ROMELU Lukaku had already demonstrated his ability as a penalty box finisher by tucking away Inter’s fourth goal of the night when the Belgian proved just how badly so many have misunderstood him as a player over the years by picking up the ball 35 yards out and driving it forward to score a fifth entirely on his own steam.
It was the 27-year-old’s 33rd goal of his debut season as an Inter player. These numbers illustrate just how healthy last summer’s move to the San Siro has been for Lukaku, but statistics only reveal so much of how Antonio Conte has got the best out of the forward. The former Chelsea and Juventus coach has unlocked Lukaku’s full potential, something so many have previously tried and failed to do.
This is largely due to how Lukaku has been perceived for the majority of his career. As a physically imposing frontman, the temptation for many is to ask the Belgian to absorb long passes into his chest and get his head on the end of crosses into the box, but this has never been his natural game.
Even those who have attempted to embrace Lukaku have generally done so in the wrong way. Jose Mourinho, for instance, installed the Belgian as his starting centre forward at Manchester United, but limited what he was able to do by asking him to play with his back to goal. It’s little wonder Old Trafford never saw the best of Lukaku.
Ronaldo scored 3️⃣4️⃣ goals in his debut season at Inter
Lukaku is on 3️⃣3️⃣
— Goal (@goal) August 17, 2020
Roberto Martinez was the first to truly unleash Lukaku, giving him space to run into in behind the opposition defence. The 2018 World Cup witnessed a rampant Lukaku, with the 27-year-old even played on the right wing in a 2-1 quarter final win over Brazil. Martinez recognised how giving Lukaku the opportunity to surge towards goal would give his side another dimension.
While Mourinho failed to change his interpretation of Lukaku as a forward after the 2018 World Cup, Conte seemingly took note. The Italian coach had previously wanted the Belgian during his time at Chelsea, ending up with Alvaro Morata when he had instructed the Stamford Bridge club to sign him Lukaku. It’s worth considering how Lukaku might not have wasted two or three years of his career had he got the chance to work with Conte earlier.
At Inter, Lukaku has forged a strong partnership with Lautaro Martinez in a 3-5-2 formation which affords the Belgian the sort of freedom he requires to play his best, and most natural, game. The two forwards bounce off each other. While Conte’s system is rigid in some areas, Lukaku and Martinez are trusted to exploit space where they can find it in the attacking third.
Most significantly, Conte asks his wing backs and central midfielders to spin Lukaku in behind the opposition defence as often as they can. This is what they did against Shakhtar Donetsk on Monday night, with the Ukrainians powerless to stop the Belgian in full flight for Inter’s fifth goal of the contest.
Lukaku has scored goals for every team he has been a member of and yet he has always been a player who polarises opinion. At Inter, though, Lukaku has found a home, not just in terms of the club he now plays for, but in terms of the way he is being used by a coach who gets him.
Rather remarkably for a player who has operated at the elite level of the sport for a number of years, Friday’s Europa League final against Sevilla presents Lukaku with the opportunity to win his first major honour. The sight of the Belgian with silverware in-hand would be symbolic of how he is finally flourishing.