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What can Manchester United expect from Romelu Lukaku?

The striker has obvious talent — but how does he fit at Old Trafford?

Manchester United v Los Angeles Galaxy Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

With now-former Everton striker Romelu Lukaku moving to the red side of Manchester, United supporters may be wondering exactly what they’ll be getting from their potential world record signing. Not to worry, Manchester United fans, after watching Lukaku for four seasons at Everton, your friends at RoyalBlueMersey can help you out.

The first thing worth noting is that United could certainly use help up front after last season. In terms of expected goals, José Mourinho’s side had the worst attack of any of the top six in 2016-17. Their actual goal output was 8th best in the league — less than that of Bournemouth.

Notably, they had finishing problems all season and ended up underperforming xG significantly. A large chunk of that is bad luck, but bringing in a player who has both had a high xG and usually slightly outperformed it will help.

So Lukaku is a proven goal scorer but where does he fit in the team? I think @reverse_ball makes some good points in this thread:

It’s true that Lukaku doesn’t fit the mold of a typical Mourinho striker. Here is a map of where he received the ball for all of his assisted open play chances in 2016/17:

Courtesy of Paul Riley

And here is the same map for Zlatan Ibrahimović:

Courtesy of Paul Riley

Note how often Lukaku received the ball outside of the box before shooting, as opposed to Zlatan who is almost always inside of the box. Those who have watched Lukaku over the years will not find this surprising; he is a tremendous run-and-shoot striker, and he likes beating defenders with his pace and power. This year he significantly upped his dribbling output as well.

Now, it’s not as if he avoided the box — his map and highlight reel still shows a decent presence there. But, he is not an Ibra-style dominator of the penalty area.

Part of the reason that Mourinho likes target men is for their ability to bring other players into the attack. Lukaku has demonstrated some creative ability here and there, but his key pass and expected assist numbers do not match that of Ibrahimović, which are pretty decent for a player of his type.

Looking at United’s other striking options, we find Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford. Martial hasn’t played significant minutes at center forward since his Monaco days and certainly isn’t a “Mourinho-style” forward anyway. Rashford also profiles as more of a run-and-shoot type, keen to pick the ball up in the channels and use his dribbling to penetrate the box.

The question, then, is how Mourinho will use Lukaku? Will he (a) try to mold him into more of a penalty box presence, or (b) let Rom be Rom, drift around a bit, pick the ball up deeper, and run at opponents.

Option (a) might produce a more complete player in the long term and allow Mourinho to set the team up the way he wants to, but Lukaku might have a period where his output sags for a bit as he adapts to the new role.

There is some overlap between Lukaku’s skillset and what Mourinho usually asks of his strikers, and that is in direct play. In those big games where United opt for a compact and conservative approach, Lukaku will be a very good outlet for the attack, as he is tremendous with the ball in space. But Mourinho will not set up his team like that every match.

Regardless, there are a lot of reasons to think that Lukaku will find success at United sooner or later. His scoring record is sterling, and at Everton he rarely had the talent around him that he will have at Old Trafford.

In a nice little piece recently, Mark Thompson found that Lukaku’s un-assisted chances were of a higher quality than the assisted ones. Among other things, this suggests that he was not particularly benefiting from his teammates putting chances on a platter for him. I’m sure he is welcoming the increased amount of creativity around him.

Of course, no assessment of Lukaku would be complete without at least a brief mention of what the Belgian will be like off-the-pitch — where his actions (fairly or unfairly) caused some Toffees supporters to turn on him before his departure from Goodison park.

Thus far, Lukaku has said all the right things regarding his move to United. He’s praised the legacy of the club and made it clear that he really wants to be at Manchester United. As it stands now, there is no reason for Lukaku not to behave that way — United is a Champions League bound club with arguably a bigger international profile than any other sports team in the world.

However, it is worth noting that two things could cause Lukaku to potentially become an off-the-field headache.

First, if United misses out on the Champions League next season, expect Lukaku to be at the top of the list of players making a scene about it. His desire to play in the Champions League was ultimately the biggest reason he moved on from Everton in the first place. If United finishes fifth in the hyper-competitive Premier League this season, expect to hear from Lukaku about it in one form or another.

Second, Lukaku has increasingly shown a desire to grow his brand, in the same vein as his buddy Paul Pogba. Currently, United is a fine place to be growing one’s individual brand (it’s certainly worked for Pogba) — but if some change in the environment at Old Trafford begins to limit Lukaku’s ability to grow his popularity, the Belgian might be inclined to look for a new club, particularly if the on-field club success isn’t present either.

In short though, Manchester United has signed an immensely talented striker. He may not be a perfect fit for Mourinho’s system immediately, but he’s got more than enough ability to adapt given the time to do so. Off the pitch, United’s enormous global brand will continue to be a big draw to Lukaku, provided that the club continues to qualify for the Champions League and allows the striker to grow his own individual brand.