Romelu Lukaku: Didier Drogba comparisons, career at Manchester United and the future
Comparisons can be dangerous in many ways. Comparisons can help a player’s level of motivation to strive harder, and it can also de-motivate them. In the case of Romelu Lukaku, comparisons have merely tarnished his reputation and overshadowed his achievements. If comparing players doesn’t leave enough of a negative impact on players, doing so with Didier Drogba in context is one that is far worse.
Romelu Lukaku on a number of occasions has spoken about his love for the former Chelsea striker, saying the Ivorian is his ‘idol’, someone he looks up to, someone who helps him.
Drogba is a man who needs no introduction as he’s one of the most fondly remembered figures in the modern history of the Premier League. He’s won it all at Stamford Bridge including the all-important Champions League trophy in 2012.
Likening to Drogba
“He is my idol and he knows it”, said Romelu Lukaku back in December 2015. "I still speak to Drogba. He gives me tips all the time. We have had a really special relationship since day one”, he continued.
Even if Lukaku weren’t to publicly reveal his idolization of Drogba, likening Drogba to the then-teenager seemed easy. Lukaku was the natural heir to the striker who was set to depart in 2012, both the players are primarily goal-getters, the master-apprentice relationship could’ve scripted itself.
Not to mention, the relation that both strikers share with Jose Mourinho and Mourinho’s choice to bring Lukaku to his-then Manchester United side to lead the line.
Likening the Belgian to the Ivorian is now, in turn, damaging the perception of Lukaku as a footballer. It’s easy for quite a few names to get lost when looked at with the rich, illustrious legacy of Drogba in the backdrop. They might have their fair share of similarities, but by no stretch of the imagination are Drogba and Lukaku similar players.
Drogba was the perfect lone striker with the context of playing in a Jose Mourinho team that walked the league title. He was strong, technically brilliant in his many ways while striking the ball, a menace in the air and was the personification of a ‘clutch’ player for the big occasions – Drogba has scored 10 goals in 10 finals to win 10 trophies.
His ‘completeness’ along with the warrior mentality he possessed made Drogba one of the most difficult center-forwards to play against in the world. Even without a goal or an assist, he would still influence his team going forward and could succeed even without a whole lot of service handed to him.
Romelu Lukaku is inexplicably different from his idol. Sure, they’re both strikers of African descent who played together at Chelsea Football Club but that ends there.
Change of role
At Everton, Lukaku played 166 league games and scored 87 goals becoming the highest scorer in the Premier League era for the Toffees. He scored goals for fun and in numbers, albeit with a lack of ‘big-game’ goals.
But Lukaku is not a target forward. Just because a striker is 6'3", powerful as a dozen oxen put together and is rapid doesn't mean that he can play that role.
He’s the opposite, someone who enjoys playing facing the goal rather than playing with his back to it. His first season at United saw a fairly remarkable improvement in his hold-up play, linking with his fellow attackers and scored 27 goals in all competitions, 16 of those coming in the Premier League.
This is rather impressive considering it’s the first time Lukaku has played for a Champions League level club, playing a different role with newer, bigger expectations and responsibility on his shoulders. But if there’s anything that stands out, it is that he can’t play the role of a target forward over an extended period with consistency.
And his most recent decision to add more muscle has certainly worked against him. Whether this has to do with Jose Mourinho wanting Lukaku to ‘bulk up’ or Roberto Martinez for Belgium in the World Cup, the United striker’s decision has worked against him.
He’s endured a poor season so far and as of now can only hope to come off the bench during games. Under Jose Mourinho, he started games despite his poor form as he was the only available player in the squad who offered the ‘target man’ figure to lead the line (barring Marouane Fellaini, of course).
Lukaku at Everton was someone who thrived of playing on the shoulder of the last defender, running with the ball and is difficult to stop when at full speed due to his unfathomable upper body strength. His attempted transformation from a quick, lethal finisher to a well-rounded target man has so far failed beyond every extent.
There is a glaring difference between his performances at Everton and United. He’s certainly matured in Manchester but he was quicker, more agile, and was a colossal razor-sharp forward in Merseyside.
His form at United is shockingly bad for a couple of reasons. Lukaku’s goal in a routine win against Swansea City at Old Trafford in 2018 was his 100th goal in the Premier League, making him the fastest foreign player ever to achieve that milestone in England.
The Belgian was also *arguably* one of the stand out strikers at the World Cup, with some excellent performances in the knock out stages of the tournament as well. At 25, he’s already outscored many Premier League deities, he’s a seasoned pro in the English top flight.
Future under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s reign began with Marcus Rashford leading the line and Lukaku has since then looked like a square peg in a round hole. He’s rarely started games since the Norwegian took over and quite surprisingly, his best performance in that time period was while playing as a right forward (a right winger for the most part of the game).
Funny thing is, the leaner, quicker, more athletic version of Lukaku while he was at Everton would’ve been ideal for the current set up at United. That was rightly why he became the most expensive center-forward signed club in the summer of 2017. Now a bulkier shadow of his leaner self, Lukaku’s future (particularly if Solskjaer gets the permanent manager role) looks bleak under the bright lights of Old Trafford.
Both him and fellow struggler Alexis Sanchez have featured as more of second-string attackers under the Norwegian. They’re both struggling to dislodge the athleticism, work ethic and ability brought to the table by Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial.
If Lukaku can manage to rediscover his spark and gets a good run of games in the main side, it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that the former Chelsea striker can galvanize his role at Manchester United. In order for that to happen, he needs to alter his physique and align with the other forwards at the club.
Lukaku’s professionalism is something that is doubted very rarely by coaches and players alike. In fact, his mentality and ability to learn from his mistakes is one of the things that the Belgian deserve immense credit for. The ability, as well, is present.
It all went wrong for Lukaku after the World Cup, particularly when him bulking up directly affected his ability to turn away quickly from defenders and run at goal. He appears to have lost the element of sharpness in the box and speed at which he operates.
Rediscover that, and United are saved of the headache of offloading him (bear in mind the massive transfer fee and wages paid by the club) and replacing him with another center forward and he can learn under a master finisher in Solskjaer himself. But if were to Lukaku continue at this rate, Solskjaer and United will have no choice but to move on to a different profile.
Romelu Lukaku is too big a name to sit on the bench. Unless Lukaku does something about it – rework on his approach under the new manager or move to a lower club – he is in danger of further tarnishing his reputation.
The Drogba comparisons, although extremely unfair, do not particularly help the Belgian #9.