What must Ole Gunnar Solskjaer be thinking?
Romelu Lukaku, the player he deemed surplus to requirements on deadline day a year ago and sold to Inter Milan without being replaced, now sits top of a table that includes Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The table in question is goals-per-game ratio at international level and neither Ronaldo or Messi – who have 11 Ballon d’Or awards between them – can keep up with Lukaku.
Romelu Lukaku’s goal against England took him ahead of two familiar faces in one key stat
Lukaku’s international goal-per-game exceeds Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi
Lukaku’s sensational form in the last 12 months raises questions for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Manchester United after the Norwegian deemed the Belgian surplus to requirements
And while as the Belgian keeps scoring Solskjaer’s United perhaps look more goal-shy than ever.
Lukaku – who has now scored 277 goals for clubs and country – has three goals so far for Inter Milan this season in Serie A. Marcus Rashford, Anthony Martial and Mason Greenwood need to combine their returns in all competitions to reach the same figure.
And so, yes, what must Solskjaer be thinking?
Lukaku’s penalty against England at Wembley, in what transpired to be a 2-1 defeat by Gareth Southgate’s side, was his 53rd goal for Belgium in 86 games.
That works out to 0.616 goals every time he turns out for his country. Ronaldo’s ratio comes in at 0.612 while Messi’s 71 goals in 139 games sees him third with 0.51 goals a game for Argentina.
Belgium take on Iceland in Reykjavik on Wednesday and it is hard to bet against Lukaku adding goal No 54, 55 or 56.
Against England he was back to the centre-back bully he showed he could be at Everton before his £75million switch to United.
Even in his first season at United Lukaku became one of only 11 United players ever to score 25 goals or more in a campaign since 1992-93. Solskjaer, Andy Cole and Eric Cantona never matched the Belgian’s single-season total at United.
And yet he lost his way. Questions over his weight overshadowed his efforts and he was playing a lone striker role that hung him out to dry.
So he left, by United’s choosing, but it was one of the best things to happen to his career. Now he is out-performing two of the greatest ever to play the game in Ronaldo and Messi.
‘This is the first time I have seen him free and happy,’ Belgium boss Roberto Martinez said when Lukaku swapped Manchester for Milan.
‘I have been very impressed with his happiness and the way he is looking forward to the football ahead.’
Lukaku was heavily criticised during his time at United and was sold to Inter Milan at a loss
That decision looks to have backfired as he has re-established himself as one of Europe’s best
Since leaving Old Trafford the difference on both sides is striking.
He has scored 42 goals since his £73m exit – 37 for Inter and five in five for Belgium – pushed Inter to a Europa League final, finished second in Serie A and just a point off Juventus, and claimed UEFA’s Europa League Player of the Year award for 2019-20.
Inter have him in a front two of a 3-5-2 system alongside Lautaro Martinez and it proved instantly electric between them.
He scored 34 goals in his debut campaign and added six assists. The last Inter Milan player to score as many goals in his first season at the San Siro was Brazilian Ronaldo back in the 1997-98 season.
For Belgium he ploughs more of a lone role in a 4-3-3. He had Yannick Carrasco and Kevin De Bruyne for company at Wembley at the weekend.
Lukaku often looked laboured during the end at United, that was the big criticism.
Solskjaer even pushed him out wide, gave him little backing as the go-to guy, like Martinez and Inter boss Antonio Conte do with such consistency now.
HOW DO MANCHESTER UNITED’S CURRENT STRIKERS COMPARE?
Mins per goal: 119.8
Mins per goal: 157.2
Mins per goal: 163.9
Mins per goal: 155.5
(Club stats since Romelu Lukaku left Manchester United back in August 2019)
Marcus Rashford (left) and Mason Greenwood (right) have combined for three goals across all competitions so far this season – the same number Lukaku has managed on his own at Inter
For a player that was regularly derided as lazy and lacking a suitable first touch in the Premier League, no one is laughing now that he’s out-shining Ronaldo and Messi in international colours.
‘With Conte I improved my game in every aspect,’ Lukaku said recently.
‘If you want to play for him you have to know you have to be ready to sacrifice for the team. Your physical and mental level need to be at the top and if you then achieve on the field you can feel at your very best.’
It appears great sacrifice has brought great reward and critics that proved so vocal in Manchester have quietened now as he cannot shake his Midas touch for club and country these days.
Anthony Martial has assumed the No 9 role but is struggling to match Lukaku’s goals output
Lukaku is thriving and was crowned 2019-20 UEFA Europa League Player of the Year recently
Messi, for all his sheer brilliance, has always fallen short for Argentina. In contrast, Ronaldo has helped guide Portugal to win Euro 2016 and the UEFA Nations League a year ago.
That’s the challenge for Lukaku now. He’s bullying defenders, scoring at will and looks as confident as he’s ever been.
He has a better minutes-per-goal ratio for Inter than Rashford, Martial and Greenwood at United, has scored more goals than all of them and has a better win percentage.
For Solskjaer and United, it appears they didn’t know quite how good they had it until it was gone. And their loss is very much Inter and Belgium’s gain.