Between 2014 and 2016, Sadio Mane scored just 25 goals in two seasons for Southampton, while Romelu Lukaku scored 45 goals for Everton across the same period. If you asked most fans which of these two players could make the step up from mid-table to become a modern great, almost all of them would pick out the latter as the one destined for stardom.
Fast forward to today, the summer of 2022, and Mane has departed Liverpool as a club legend after six glorious years at Anfield. With 120 goals to his name, winners’ medals in the Champions League, Premier League, FA Cup, Carabao Cup, European Super Cup, and Club World Cup, he is undoubtedly one of the most inspired signings of many at Liverpool. Costing just £34million to sign from Southampton, where he’d looked little more than decent, he took his game up a level, worked his socks off under Jurgen Klopp, and is being wished nothing but the best by Liverpool supporters today as his move to Bayern Munich is confirmed.
By contrast, in the same time frame we’ve seen Lukaku move for combined transfer fees of roughly £241million, win just one trophy, and flop in his two chances at big Premier League clubs. His most recent struggle at Chelsea is now genuinely seeing him being talked about as one of the worst Premier League signings ever.
Lukaku’s clubs are not entirely without blame here, of course; we’ve seen what the Belgium international is capable of at Inter Milan, where he played some of the finest football of his career to make up for that difficult spell at Manchester United. Even after his disappointment at Chelsea, it’s little surprise Inter have been keen to have him back, and he may well flourish again in the right system that works for him. Many will argue that when you’ve got a player that good, it’s worth changing your approach a bit to accommodate them, but there was little sign Thomas Tuchel ever intended to do that.
?? Lukaku’s salary will be around €8m.
?? NO buy option or obligation clause.
?? Add-ons related to team performances. pic.twitter.com/3sEeQtfXs0
— Fabrizio Romano (@FabrizioRomano) June 21, 2022
Sources have confirmed to CaughtOffside that “the writing was on the wall” for Lukaku after his Sky Italia interview, and it could be that Tuchel should have taken a softer approach with the player, listened to his concerns, and tried to make this expensive transfer deal work. Still, it’s also hard to escape the feeling that Lukaku, once again, brought this all on himself.
It was widely documented that Lukaku proved a difficult personality at Man Utd as well, with the 29-year-old notably once drawing plenty of criticism over a tweet showing off his running stats in comparison to his team-mates, which Ole Gunnar Solskjaer then ordered him to delete. That same summer, the Sun reported on the player having a row with Red Devils coach Mike Phelan.
Lukaku deleting a tweet leaking the team's speed stats to prove he ain't slow is funny as heck pic.twitter.com/4cbxVGe1Uh
— James 'TGK' Bralant (@TGK_22) August 2, 2019
After Lukaku’s departure to Inter, Solskjaer was asked about Lukaku and pointedly responded, as quoted by the Times: “I have not thought, ‘Oh, I wish I had kept him.’ Some of those we let go were not right for the culture. That is just my belief and why we kept the players with the right attitude. They will run through a brick wall for the club — not everyone did.”
Lukaku can justifiably point the finger at Tuchel’s stubbornness and questionable tactics, as well as at the general dysfunction at Old Trafford that harmed him and so many other players, but after two hugely underwhelming spells at two of England’s elite clubs, it gets harder and harder to think this is just bad luck on the player’s part.
To go back to Mane for a moment – while the departing Senegalese forward is undoubtedly a world class talent, it arguably still remains true that Lukaku has more to his game overall; the Belgian is a lethal finisher, strong, quick, and with an eye for a pass – a new string to his blow that he displayed at Inter. He was a wonderkid at Anderlecht, earning that first move to Chelsea from a young age, and adjusting quickly to life in the Premier League with initial loan spells at West Brom and Everton. He’s almost always had the world at his feet, but, unlike Mane, has not maximised that talent.
It’s not like Mane’s time at Liverpool was entirely without moments of drama either, most notably that time when he threw a strop when subbed off against Burnley, making it clear he was frustrated with team-mate Mohamed Salah, as cited by talkSPORT, but this was quickly forgotten, with little sign that Mane would ever allow something like that to derail him.
Lukaku gives the air of a player who holds grudges – he has taken aim at United fans on Twitter for questioning his ability, he has admitted to joking with Jose Mourinho about wanting to “kill” him for snubbing him at Chelsea, as quoted by the Metro. At the time, it would have been easy to write this off as a light-hearted joke, but one gets the sense that there can be a bit of a personal agenda driving Lukaku, more than Mane’s sense of team ethic.
The timing of the Sky Italia interview highlights once again what an impatient character Lukaku seems to be, with the quotes coming barely halfway through the season, with the team performing pretty well overall until this major distraction clearly threw them off. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t go down at all well with Chelsea’s players, with The Athletic noting that Tuchel asked several senior members of the squad if he should keep playing Lukaku, with the answer being a fairly unanimous “no”.
Lukaku will no doubt get a hero’s welcome back at the San Siro, and it would be great for football in general if he could revive his career once again. A Man United source admits the forward has “all the attributes to be one of the best in the world, but needs to feel loved”, so the move back to Serie A could be the best decision for him now.
However, one wonders if he could do with looking at Mane’s departure, happening more or less at the same time, and see that there’s another way of doing things – without egos, without agendas, and with all the rewards and love that brings. In the Premier League at least, that huge opportunity has now surely come and gone for good.