“His body is in Manchester but his mind is on Milan,” one of Romelu Lukaku’s confidants messaged three years ago. Lukaku had uploaded a photo onto his Instagram account of him sporting a black and blue training top amid Inter Milan’s interest. His agent, Federico Pastorello, was striving to conclude a transfer before Manchester United flew to a timezone seven hours ahead of the UK.
Lukaku did not get his way and was named in the United pre-season tour squad to Australia and Asia. United touched down in Perth on July 8 and returned to Manchester on July 26. From Australia to China, via Singapore, Lukaku did not play a single minute across four games.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer repeatedly claimed Lukaku was injured. Lukaku was mentioned at almost every press conference and the answers became so unconvincing they were barely worth reporting on.
Also read: United are keeping their options open with goalkeeping situation
United knew Lukaku wanted out and they were prepared to let him go, provided Inter submitted an acceptable offer. United were reluctant to make a loss on a striker they paid £ 75million to sign two years earlier but their posturing was to no avail.
Lukaku abandoned public diplomacy back in Europe. He uploaded sensitive training data onto Twitter that ridiculed Luke Shaw’s “maximum speed” and days later went AWOL, surfacing at former club Anderlecht. That was United’s breaking point and they made a minor loss, selling Lukaku for just over £ 73m.
Chelsea have returned Lukaku to Milan, avoiding the commotion of coaxing him onto the Drake Stadium pitch at the UCLA for pre-season next month. United staff who shadowed Lukaku across two continents would do well to highlight the ordeal to Erik ten Hag as he prepares to finalize his pre-season tour squad. The waifs and strays nearly break double figures and maintaining the facade of resale value is utterly pointless for a club that is infamously abysmal at selling players.
Most of United’s outgoings – if there are any – would likely be on loan, so there is no significant bargaining position to be weakened. Signing clubs almost always cover the majority of a player’s salary.
Four flights and treks to two different continents also increase the chance of contracting Covid-19. Dean Henderson, who already has one foot out of the door, was not match-fit for two months after contracting it last year. Symptoms of Covid differ drastically but United have to consider the risk of it preventing an outgoing if a player is laid low.
Aaron Wan-Bissaka, Brandon Williams, Eric Bailly, Phil Jones and Axel Tuanzebe are all available but the prospect of all leaving their passports in their drawers is fanciful. United do not expect to sign a center-back before they assemble in the Manchester Airport departures’ lounge on July 8, so at least one of Bailly, Jones and Tuanzebe is bound to travel.
Bailly has not concealed his wish to leave and his resentment of Harry Maguire’s privileges went public in April. Ten Hag can do without that friction in his first squad. Jones ended last season ahead of Bailly in the center-back pecking order but United cannot entrust him with fourth-choice status. Tuanzebe would be a logical inclusion as he is perhaps the easiest fee to obtain of the three center halves.
Figures at United have described Anthony Martial’s situation as a “big problem”. It is reflective of United and Martial’s standings there have been no takers for a 26-year-old France forward who commanded a £ 58m fee at the age of 19. There could be movement later in the transfer window but United are already braced for the possibility of being saddled with Martial when it closes.
Marcus Rashford is “raring to go” at United, the threat he was considering his future in March a hollow one. United are optimistic of a Rashford resurgence and feel he has an advantage over Martial as he has performed more recently.
Solskjaer named a 28-man squad in 2019 and Ten Hag could easily match that number without an addition or the extra baggage of discontents who would be bed-blocking youngsters. Lukaku’s phantom injury on tour allowed Mason Greenwood to play and score against Inter.