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Why did Manchester United pay nearly $100 million for Romelu Lukaku?

Shahan Ahmed
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Romelu Lukaku is a $100 million striker.

Well, to be accurate, he’s a $97 million striker, but $3 million at these sorts of sums misses the point. So, what does a (roughly) $100 million striker look like exactly in this modern money-mad market of European football?

First of all, the figure isn’t as important as understanding the meaning of the amount. The Premier League is currently stuffed fat with money from television contracts, and that money is shared by all the clubs in a non-salary cap world — though the teams that finish closer to the top get more of that hearty money pie.

In short, these ridiculous transfer fees seem to be getting to a stage where all the clubs share in such riches that buying a talent from a club like Everton is, well, expensive, considering a top player under contract will end up costing so much when courted by the third-most valuable sports club on the planet, Manchester United.

Lukaku may be a case of an insane price tag attached to a star striker moving domestically from a middle-tier club to a “big” club, reminiscent of Andy Carroll’s record $45 million fee while trading Newcastle for Liverpool back in 2011. That set a record for the highest transfer fee paid for a British-born footballer. That’s right, Lukaku’s fee was more than double the ridiculously high fee Carroll drew during an inflated January market only a half dozen years ago.

In fact, Lukaku cost 50 percent more than Fernando Torres’ record-breaking transfer to Chelsea that catalyzed to the Carroll fee in 2011. And no, this is not meant to suggest that Lukaku will fail or flutter because Torres and Carroll struggled under their silly selling prices. The point is to demonstrate that attempting to make sense of the actual numbers is a futile exercise, and to compare to the past is to choose a path off a cliff with no visible bottom.

Consider that Everton paid $36.5 million for Lukaku when Chelsea sold him to Merseyside on a permanent basis back in the summer of 2014. In this TV money world of 2017, Everton nearly tripled its investment over three years and got 52 league goals for its troubles.

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So instead of focusing on the dollars, let’s try to understand what Manchester United thinks is worth $100 million in the current market.

“What (Lukaku) brings is, hopefully, goals,” Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho told Yahoo Sports during his first press conference after the signing. “He’s the kind of player that everybody knows that he is a striker, so we are not speaking about a multi-functional player or a player that we can adapt or we can create doubts about positions on the pitch. He’s a striker.”

Mourinho contended that Zlatan Ibrahimovic, as great as he may be, had a tendency to drop deeper into the midfield from time to time because he possessed the skill to play in that manner. In the Portuguese’s mind, Manchester United needed a traditional no. 9 striker to sit in the box and finish chances.

Why would Mourinho think this way? Well, statisticians point out that former Red Devils striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic missed 18 clear-cut goal-scoring opportunities last season, more than any other player in the Premier League during the campaign.

While mentioning that Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial provided good options in attack, Mourinho explained the club’s dealings.

“Really, I think for the characteristics of the Premier League, we need a target man … the clear 9, the one that is comfortable to play in the box, comfortable to play with the back to the defensive line,” Mourinho said. We thought that Romelu would be a very good option for us.”

Lukaku's physical gifts make him an ideal fit in England's rough-and-tumble top division. (Getty)
Lukaku’s physical gifts make him an ideal fit in England’s rough-and-tumble top division. (Getty)

Consider that Manchester United only lost five matches in 2016-17, which was the same number as the champions Chelsea and only bettered by Tottenham‘s four defeats. Also, consider that the Red Devils drew 15 matches compared to only three draws for the Blues. If even half of those 15 draws turn into three points thanks to Lukaku, United would have finished with 87 points, enough to win the league in three of the past four seasons. In fact, Chelsea won the league with 87 points with Mourinho guiding the ship in 2014-15.

With Lukaku, the Red Devils instantly become Premier League title contenders.

“Normally strikers, they score goals,” Mourinho explained crudely and plainly. “And the reason why (Lukaku) is so important and he was so difficult to get is exactly what he did in the Premier League because obviously, there are other good strikers in football, but the Premier League is a very specific habitat — a difficult habitat for strikers. Normally, they need some time to adapt, and Lukaku plays in the Premier League for the last four or five seasons.”

It’s true what Mourinho said about Lukaku’s domestic experience. Lukaku scored 25 goals for Everton during the 2016-17 Premier League season to continue his progression from 18 goals the year before. He also scored 15 league goals for Everton while on loan in 2013-14, and netted 17 for West Bromwich Albion in 2012-13. In the end, Lukaku has pedigree and clearly knows how to score goals at the levels that were often lacking at Old Trafford a season ago.

And so, the Belgian arrives as an experienced 24-year-old Premier League striker coming off a scoring haul that would have easily won him the golden shoe had Harry Kane not scored seven times in Tottenham’s final two matches.

And so, what is the going rate for just about the best Premier League striker in the prime of his career? With Lukaku, Manchester United set the marker at just about $100 million.

Shahan Ahmed is a soccer columnist for Yahoo! Sports. Follow Shahan on Twitter: @ShahanLA

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