Romelu Lukaku has been an obvious transfer target ever since he turned down the lucrative contract Everton offered him in March, doggies in shop windows have been less conspicuously for sale, yet when reports began to emerge that Manchester United were confident of a £75m deal it still came as something of a surprise.
Chelsea had been thought favourites to sign him, for a start, and with Everton insisting no agreement has yet been reached with United there is still a chance a significant bid will arrive from that quarter.
Some are even suggesting Everton are keen on opening an auction to drive the price higher. Many at Everton believed a return to Chelsea was on the cards, and when Lukaku gave his reasons for stalling on a new deal at Goodison – “I don’t want to stay at the same level, I want to improve and I know where I want to do that” – it seemed reasonable to assume that the club now managed so impressively by Antonio Conte was the one he had in mind.
If so, especially as Conte may have played a part in edging Diego Costa towards the door, Chelsea could be embarrassed if United manage to tie up a deal for Lukaku this weekend. Costa will not be staying, Chelsea need a goalscorer and United seem to believe they are on track to sign a reliable one for considerably less than the £100m Everton were asking. Should Lukaku turn up in red and not blue at the start of the season, José Mourinho will have put one over his successor as Chelsea manager before a ball has been kicked, without even having to pay over the odds.
Of course, it is hard to dress up a fee of £75m as any sort of bargain, though in the present climate Lukaku is probably worth it. He scored 25 Premier League goals last season, he is only 24 years old and at his best he can terrorise defences through sheer physical presence and power. He is not exactly a new Didier Drogba but he is a close approximation, and for a coach like Mourinho who likes to play with a big, obvious target at the front he was always going to be of interest once Zlatan Ibrahimovic was ruled out.
The Swede was hugely successful at Old Trafford last season though his game is based on anticipation, timing and getting on the end of things. There were times last season, even with Ibrahimovic up front, when United became bogged down through a shortage of creativity in midfield. Lukaku is not a remedy for that – there were occasions when Everton were similarly ineffective – though he is the type of player who can produce something unexpected when he receives the ball, even in unpromising situations. Lukaku can make things happen, often on his own, and once he finally makes the step up to a club in the Champions League bracket his confidence will only improve if he can establish himself as the main point of attack.
At that level he will be tested as never before, and after three years spent as the big fish in a relatively small pool at Everton he will have to stand comparison with some of the best strikers in the world.
He is not as quick as Kylian Mbappé or as unstoppable as Luis Suárez, and perhaps he does not possess the all-round game of a centre-forward such as Robert Lewandowski. Yet Lukaku is four years younger than the unsettled Bayern Munich player, he can score with both feet and is strong in the air, and there is plenty of time and scope for further improvement. Everton are certainly going to find him hard to replace, and to judge by their interest in Olivier Giroud they are not even looking for an identical type of striker.
Prolific goalscorers who are 6ft 2in and around 15st are simply not that easy to come by. Because of his imposing stature it is easy to characterise Lukaku as a blunt instrument, a big fella up front, a prominent target at which to aim hopeful long balls. He can operate in such a way, in fairness, he has good touch and positional awareness and can not only hold the ball up until support arrives but usually play a decent pass to set up an attack.
Yet Lukaku is more like a youthful Wayne Rooney than a reincarnation of Duncan Ferguson. He is at his best with the ball at his feet, running at defenders and more often than not making inroads through his pace and control. The possibility of Lukaku linking up with players of the calibre of Juan Mata and Paul Pogba is quite an exciting one, and should the United move go through there is every chance of him becoming an instant crowd favourite at Old Trafford through his appetite for work and willingness to take on defenders. At Everton opponents would frequently detail two players to look after him, and that in itself would often create useful space for somebody else.
Lukaku probably knew all along he would be faced with a choice between his former club and his former manager. Contrary to reports suggesting the parting from Mourinho at Chelsea was acrimonious, the pair have retained respect for each other over the past three years. Mourinho said at the time that Lukaku aged 20 was not ready to be Chelsea’s first choice striker, and Lukaku aged 24 has accepted the wisdom of that.
“Choices were made by me, not by them [the Chelsea hierarchy],” the player has said. “Three years ago I was not ready, but several good seasons have changed the situation.” Everton have been principal beneficiaries of those seasons, and they stand to make a handsome profit on a player they signed for £28m but always accepted they had little chance of keeping indefinitely. Everyone will gain, in fact, except the club or clubs that end up missing out. Lukaku arrives for the next stage of his career in peak condition.