Manchester United's purchase of Lukaku embodies a tactical shift in the Premier League's 'summer of strikers'


Jose Mourinho loves a proper striker. In his world of reactive tactics, where tasks are rigidly individualised and the laws of Machiavelli immovable, fluid football is just virtue-signalling for the self-absorbed. And so, naturally, the weaving playfulness of a false nine is of little interest to him. From Didier Drogba to Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Mourinho’s favourite centre-forwards reflect a no-frills, bludgeon approach to football management.

Romelu Lukaku’s £75 million transfer from Everton fits neatly with this philosophy, and follows on from his £89 million valuation of Paul Pogba - another straight-edged athlete with a narrow, but finely tuned, skill set; both run in direct (and deliberate) contrast to the methods of the Guardiolas. The Portuguese clearly revels in his role as the outsider, but an unexpected shift in Premier League tactics has, all of a sudden, made his preference for thumping centre-forwards strangely fashionable.

Prior to the current window, there were only seven centre-forwards on the list of the 25 most expensive transfers in history and only one of these, Fernando Torres’s £50 million move to Chelsea in 2011, saw the striker arrive at a Premier League club. This surprising fact reflects the transference of power towards the playmaker and the inside forward over the last decade; their nimble-footed slaloms became increasingly vital in an age of high tempo passing and compressed defensive lines. But a tactical recoil - led by the re-emergence of two-striker systems, counter-attacking football, and Klopp’s gegenpressing - has seen a sudden renaissance of the Mourinho type.

If Alvaro Morata and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang join Lukaku and Alexandre Lacazette in Premier League transfers this summer (which appears increasingly likely as Chelsea and Liverpool emerge as frontrunners), then England’s contribution to centre-forwards in the top 25 will quintuple in a single window. This is fast becoming the summer of the striker.

And yet we remain sceptical. Lukaku’s critics have grumbled loudly about his poor goalscoring rate against top-six clubs; his clumpy first touch; and his difficulty linking the play from deeper positions. And yet, leaving his remarkable goalscoring record aside, his bumbling forcefulness in the final third conjures memories of Drogba, who was nowhere near Lukaku’s level at the same age. Gonzalo Higuain, the other striker in the top five most expensive signings in history, suffered similar accusations when he joined Juventus in 2016, despite possessing one of the most astonishing goalscoring records in the world. 

The criticism levelled at these two players would have been unthinkable just five years ago. Granted, pundits have become more tactically literate in that time, but the shift in analysis also reflects the Premier League’s evolution.

As Guardiola’s possession-based football gradually drifted across the English Channel, we became obsessed with the idea of ball retention, high defensive lines, and narrow movement in the final third. Consequently, the pitch became congested and strikers had to drop deeper, leading to the emergence of new archetypes who had converted from wider, or deeper, positions. Luis Suarez was the new ideal, the likes of Emmanuel Adebayor dropped off the radar, and those who clung to power (thanks to their tremendous goalscoring rate - see Diego Costa and Sergio Aguero) were, tellingly, never targeted by Europe’s biggest clubs.

Jurgen Klopp’s frantic gegenpressing football - the next phase of global tactical progression - also preferred forwards who were more creative than clinical, but the last two years in the Premier League has shifted momentum back the other way. First, Leicester City’s miraculous title-winning season symbolised the return of a counter-attacking style that unapologetically dismissed possession statistics, before Chelsea triumphed with a double-playmaker formation that required an old-fashioned striker. With Eden Hazard and Pedro circulating in the number ten space, it would have been counterproductive for Costa to also drop off the front line.

Morata and Lukaku would have been tactically inadequate for a top club during the Premier League’s possession years, hence the complaints; tactical adaptation has always sat uncomfortably in this country, meaning that in 2017 many are still analysing from a possession perspective. Likewise, Lacazette is far from the complete player and prefers running the channels to roaming in attacking midfield, but his style is very well suited at the tip of Arsene Wenger’s Conte-esque 3-4-2-1 (in his 4-2-3-1, a flaky Mesut Ozil threading balls through for Lacazette would appear spineless - and both would disappear).

That Ronald Koeman is interested in an ageing, and thus less dynamic, Wayne Rooney highlights the Dutchman’s preference for direct, individualised football, and Liverpool’s interest in Aubameyang shows they are the definition of a modern club. Klopp’s gegenpressing requires an agile poacher to beat the offside trap, attributes that were all-but extinct at the top end of the Premier League five years ago. On a similar note, West Ham United are wise to be pursuing Javier Hernandez.

As for Lukaku, the debate will continue long after he first steps onto the Old Trafford pitch. Not since Andy Carroll made a startling £35 million move to Liverpool has such an expensive striker so violently split public opinion, but, as is so often the case with football’s most wearying ideological arguments, the clash signifies that a major tectonic plate is shifting. In a post-possession era, the highly specialised dip-in and dip-out striker is back in fashion.