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Inter Milan have ended their 11-year wait for the Serie A title and former Manchester United striker Romelu Lukaku has been at the heart of their success.
When the Belgian made the £74m switch to the Nerazurri in August 2019, he had big boots to fill, replacing Mauro Icardi as Inter’s main striker.
Although the Argentine’s time at Inter was tainted by off-field controversy, on the pitch he was one of their most reliable performers, with 111 goals in 169 Serie A starts.
Lukaku left United with 42 goals in 96 games across two years, but his scoring tailed off, with 26% of his tally coming in the first two months of his Old Trafford career, and he received criticism for a perceived lack of workrate, a wayward touch and wasteful finishing.
But the 27-year-old has risen to the challenge at Inter and has even surpassed Icardi’s scoring rate to help bridge the gap to the top and end Juventus’ nine-season Serie A dominance.
Inter finished a substantial 21 points behind Juve in 2018-19. But the arrivals of Lukaku and head coach Antonio Conte enabled a title challenge last season, as they finished second, one point behind Juve, before going all the way this time around.
So what has changed for Lukaku in Milan?
A new-found chemistry with Martinez
At Everton and Manchester United, Lukaku would often be deployed as a lone striker.
It shows the development in his game that not only is he part of a 3-5-2 system that maximises his strengths, but his play is also now refined enough to extract the best from his strike partner, Lautaro Martinez.
The duo have a natural chemistry. When Martinez drops deep to create, Lukaku will run in-behind.
When Lukaku uses his hold-up play to pin defenders back, Martinez will make a run off him.
Both players can serve as the creator or goalscorer, which makes them a very difficult partnership to defend against.
In 64 starts together, they have assisted 18 goals for each other – while assisting or scoring an additional 87 goals between them.
Improvement in link-up play
Lukaku’s hold-up play has always been a major facet of his game, but he has aligned this with increased creativity in the final third.
His assist for Martinez’s first goal in February’s Milan derby – which Inter won 3-0 – demonstrated how cultured his all-round game has become.
Lukaku made one of his familiar movements to the right wing and outpaced Milan captain Alessio Romagnoli, then whipped in a brilliant cross for Martinez to head home.
No Serie A player has assisted more goals than Lukaku’s 10 this season and his chances created, expected assists (creating a chance that would be expected to be scored) and distance carrying the ball are all at the highest level he has produced in the past four seasons.
|Man Utd 2017-18||1.04||0.17||93.9m||7|
|Man Utd 2018-19||0.89||0.10||97.8m||0|
|Inter Milan 2019-20||1.6||0.15||90.8m||2|
|Inter Milan 2020-21||1.72||0.28||123.5m||10|
There are shades of Karim Benzema in Lukaku’s playing style – he is now comfortable linking play and carrying the ball from deeper areas, while his movement and athleticism ensure the end product is there too.
His goal in the 2-1 win over Sassuolo on 7 April encapsulated this, as he chested a ball to Martinez on the halfway line, then make a powerful run into the box to head in an Ashley Young cross.
New diet and counter-attack
When Lukaku joined Inter, their sports science staff put him on the Bresaola diet – high in white meat and vegetables – to shed some body mass. It has reaped its rewards.
Often Lukaku will be found tearing defences apart on the counter-attack. In a 3-1 win over Lazio in February, Lukaku collected the ball from inside his own half and accelerated down the outside of Marco Parolo and assisted his partner Martinez.
Inter have scored more counter-attacking goals in Serie A – seven – than any other team this season and Lukaku’s contributions are a key factor.
Stepping up in big games
A common criticism of Lukaku at Manchester United was his performances in so-called “big games”.
The Belgian managed just one goal and four assists in 16 starts for United against the other five members of the Premier League’s “big six”.
The same criticism persisted during his first season at Inter, with Lukaku missing big chances in a Champions League group qualification decider against Barcelona as well as the Europa League final defeat by Sevilla.
This season, he has laid those demons to rest with eight goals or assists in 10 starts against their six main rivals – Milan, Atalanta, Juventus, Napoli, Lazio and Roma.
Lukaku has previously credited Conte’s motivational strategies as a factor in his improvement.
“I remember one of my first Champions League games against Slavia Prague, when I played really bad,” he said.
“In front of the whole team, he told me that I was really trash and that he would take me off after five minutes if I did it again.
“And we played the Milan derby just after that and I played one of my best games of the season. He stepped on my confidence, but it woke me up at the same time.”
There is no doubt Conte’s arrival, Lukaku’s all-round development and Inter’s rise are all linked.
The 2009-10 Belgian Pro League is Lukaku’s only previous club trophy, so not only does this season end Inter’s 11-year league title drought, but his too. Club and player have proved the perfect fit at the perfect time.