Inter Milan, 2019–
It was perhaps Romelu Lukaku, a striker he had attempted to bring to Chelsea, who proved Inter Milan’s most important player during 2020/21 as they and Antonio Conte ended Juventus’ long-term dominance of Serie A by winning their first Italian league title since 2010. Recruited from Manchester United for £74m in August 2019 when he was 26, Lukaku has, alongside the similarly impressive Lautaro Martínez, excelled in one of Europe’s leading front twos.
“Lukaku is an unusual footballer,” Conte said of a striker signed by United when José Mourinho was their manager. “He is a centre-forward; he acts as a target man, and he is very fast. He is like an American football player.”
Lukaku is a powerful striker who, though more comfortable on his left foot, is also capable of striking the ball effectively with his right. He generates significant power while doing so, even if shooting from a static position, and is demonstrating improving balance both when shooting and when making off-the-ball runs.
When shooting with the inside of his foot, he remains relatively static; few movements are made until the relevant pass is played; he also often disguises his shots to put both the opposing goalkeeper and, if necessary, defender, off-balance. His ability to twist and turn with the ball at his feet, and to then strike it with either one, makes Lukaku a threat from most angles (below) and positions in the attacking third. That he is also strong in the air, and to the extent he can compete with the very best – particularly from inside the penalty area – enhances that threat.
That same strength and power is largely why he is so effective at driving forwards with possession and holding off opponents. He is quick on the counter, but even when defenders can match his speed they struggle to stop him because of his upper-body strength (below) and ability to protect the ball while on the move, which often ensures he eases past opponents – and to the extent he remains aware of his surroundings.
Another consistent and impressive trait exists in the forward movements he offers around his opposing central defenders, when supporting the ball and seeking forward passes. He excels at moving his opponent, and then moving again to receive the ball, when his timing creates the necessary room to receive and then potentially shoot at goal.
His link play is similarly effective. By pinning even the strongest central defenders (below), Lukaku creates opportunities to spin and drive in both directions, and often complements doing so by using his arms to keep opponents away from the ball. If combinations offer greater potential than him receiving on the move or attacking in behind, or indeed if teammates are better positioned, Lukaku adjusts by adopting positions between defenders and then dropping, and times doing so just before the ball is played.
That same sense of timing is extended to when he releases the ball, when he resists retaining it for so long that he risks being pressed from more than one direction. He, similarly, is capable of providing a valuable outlet and working to hold on to the ball for lengthier periods – particularly if pressure is being applied from behind him – to provide time for his teammates to make runs or adopt new positions as the opposing defenders attempt to adapt to Lukaku’s movements.
Role at Inter Milan
Alongside Martínez, Lukaku consistently leads the 3-5-2 in which they provide the focal point of the majority of Inter’s attacks. The Belgian’s ability and willingness to occupy opposing central defenders regularly encourages Martínez to attack the spaces in behind (below); he draws defenders out of position, encouraging Martínez to attack one-on-one and isolate his direct opponent. Lukaku is similarly capable of retaining the ball on the occasions Martínez needs to adopt a new position. He regularly drops into the right inside channel; Martínez prioritises making penetrative runs through the central or left inside channel.
When he is the one in possession, Lukaku favours feeding teammates by setting possession to them if they are better positioned to play forwards passes, or by spinning away from pressure and then delivering balls in behind. For all of the awareness of his physical attributes, the quality of his final pass is underappreciated; he demonstrates an admirable understanding of how to create with more delicate passes, and Martínez and Alexis Sánchez have both benefitted from him doing so.
He is similarly influential in Inter’s ability to attack on the counter. Conte’s preference to so often defend with a mid or low block means that their back five and three central midfielders provide the foundation from which to defend, and that their front two become the target of early forward passes. Lukaku, more than Martínez, becomes their preferred target, because of his consistent success in securing the ball and then time for Martínez and their attacking midfielders or wing-backs to advance and either support or provide the decoy runs he requires to progress their attack himself.
Attacking runs from Achraf Hakimi and Ivan Perisic, so often Inter’s senior wing-backs, provide essential support by ensuring their opposing defenders can’t move infield and overload Lukaku. From Inter’s mid-block, their attacking midfielders –perhaps Stefano Sensi, Christian Eriksen or Nicolò Barella – are likelier to provide those runs through already being further forward than those wing-backs.
That Lukaku is so effective at attacking crosses (above) means that their attacks can offer further variety. Inter’s wing-backs are encouraged to adopt more advanced positions, owing to Lukaku’s ability to support wider play – often from between the opposing central defender and full-back, and potentially eventually twisting and turning with the ball to create the chance to shoot at goal.
Their wing-backs’ movements also create space for Lukaku to make one run intended to move his marker, and then another to pursue a through ball or cross. When he is their most advanced runner in behind, Martínez or Sánchez drop, encouraging their attacking midfielders to drift wider, from where they can play balls in behind from a different angle, and target Lukaku in the knowledge he will complement their delivery with a well-timed run and can finish both in the air and on the ground.