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  • With Romelu Lukaku headed to Manchester United, there's a domino effect that encompasses, Chelsea, Real Madrid, Alvaro Morata and a number of other big-name forwards.
By Jonathan Wilson
July 10, 2017

For the past six months or so, it had seemed that Romelu Lukaku would be joining Chelsea. Antonio Conte, having told an unsettled Diego Costa he was no longer needed at the club, needed a striker, and Lukaku, having left Chelsea three years ago had made clear he was keen on a return. The pieces seemed to align. Manchester United, meanwhile, was engaged in a pursuit of Alvaro Morata from Real Madrid, but was apparently unhappy at a valuation in excess of $80 million.

Then, unexpectedly, last week United announced it had agreed upon a fee—believed to be more than $120 million—for Lukaku. There are those who have claimed that United was playing a double game all along; that it was negotiating for Lukaku while using Morata as a smokescreen. The truth is probably a little more pragmatic. It seems United inquired about Lukaku a couple of months ago only to be told that negotiations with Chelsea were so far advanced that there was little point making a play for him. Last week, however, Lukaku’s agent, Mino Raiola, who has a good working relationship with both Jose Mourinho and United’s CEO Ed Woodward, let it be known that the Chelsea deal had stalled and that United could swoop in.

Woodward has a reputation as a generous dealmaker; he is not averse to paying slightly over the odds to get a deal done. Everton and Raiola had, it appears, grown frustrated with the slow pace of negotiations with Chelsea. Lukaku may have liked the idea of finishing what he had begun at Chelsea, but the prospect of playing for Manchester United and earning in excess of $250,000 a week also seems to have been enticing.

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United, meanwhile, has not merely received the striker it needed to replace Zlatan Ibrahimovic in the squad but has also off-loaded Wayne Rooney. And even if it ends up subsidizing his wages at Everton, that represents a significant saving. It may not entirely be a coincidence either that in completing the deal, Mourinho has ended up getting one over on each of the last two sides he managed, Chelsea and Real Madrid, and the deal will have ramifications for both.

Perhaps Conte could pull off some remarkable act of diplomacy and persuade Diego Costa not merely to stay but to attack the season with the aggression he did last year, but realistically, Chelsea will need a striker. Other than Lukaku, there are probably three of roughly the same profile in terms of youth and promise, if not style: Morata, Andrea Belotti and, the youngest and most expensive of the lot, Monaco's Kylian Mbappe. Belotti, the 23-year-old Torino forward, is probably the best fit in terms of his aerial ability, but would probably cost well over $100 million.

Conte was already believed to be frustrated with Chelsea’s transfer activity over the past year. It’s easy to forget given how things played out, but he wasn’t especially happy last season either, and neither was Mourinho before him. That could place pressure on Conte’s relationship with the director Marina Granovskaia. That shouldn’t be overplayed, but it does potentially lay the groundwork for political issues in the future.

More immediately, there’s the issue of Nemanja Matic, who had looked like joining United from Chelsea for around $50 million. That seems like a reasonable fee for a player who never seemed to entirely convince Conte of his worth, but if relations between Chelsea and United are strained, it may be that that move ends up being aborted.

And then there’s Real Madrid, which has ended up looking a little foolish holding out for more than $80 million for Morata. Assuming Madrid does need to sell, perhaps to help finance a move for Mbappe, it may be that Chelsea can pick him up for a significantly smaller fee than had previously seemed possible.

All of that is to ignore the move obvious question of how Lukaku fits in at United. With 25 goals he was the second in scoring in the Premier League last season, and his tally of 118 top-flight goals by the age of 24 (33 of them in Belgium) is remarkable. He is good in the air and quick over the ground, but his frame of movement is small. He is clearly much faster than Ibrahimovic, but, like the Swede, he is not going to drift out to the wing or drop deep to hunt the ball.

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Mourinho, whose relationship with Lukaku at Chelsea wasn’t straightforward but perhaps wasn’t as bad as was often made out, perhaps sees the Belgian as a player he can mold into a leader of the line in the manner of Didier Drogba or Diego Milito, a focal point who can hold the ball up but also has the pace to get behind a defensive line. There are those who wonder whether Lukaku occasionally goes missing, especially in big games, but it’s never easy with strikers to determine whether when that happens the fault is theirs or that of the players supposedly getting the ball to them. Certainly his goal away at Manchester City last season, bursting from halfway and going through two challenges before finishing calmly, spoke of the highest quality.

But those questions are for a month’s time. For now, Lukaku's move to United will dictate the remainder of the transfer market for some of the world's biggest clubs.

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