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Lukaku's stunning Inter form shines light on United's mistakes

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Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku. Photo: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku. Photo: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Getty Images

Inter Milan's Romelu Lukaku. Photo: Emilio Andreoli/Getty Images

Of the 21 goals Romelu Lukaku has plundered for Inter Milan this season, it was his first strike away at Napoli last month that best underlined his transformation since he emerged from the desperate gloom that shrouds Old Trafford.

Picking up the ball inside his own half, the Belgian surged towards the back-pedalling Napoli defence, eating up the ground in front of him and assessing his options.

A step-over followed, then a shift of the hips, and before the defenders could react, the ball was in the corner of the net. It was raw, uncensored Lukaku: a striker at the top of his game, playing to his strengths in a team who thrive on aggressive, front-foot football.

They have not all been like that. There have been tap-ins, too, and long-range screamers. Then there are the predatory finishes and the towering headers, such as the one against AC Milan on Sunday.

"There's a new king in town," he said on social media. It has all been there for Lukaku, who is looking for all the world like the complete striker United were so desperate to recruit last month.

If the decision to sell Lukaku looked curious at the time, to many it now appears foolish, not least because of their struggle to find a replacement, before taking Odion Ighalo on loan from China. That is embarrassing enough for a club of United's stature, but Lukaku's form is more damning because it only strengthens the suggestion that he was misused by the club's coaching staff.

"When you want to play with that kind of striker, he is that target man," Ole Gunnar Solskjaer said of Lukaku this season, following the completion of the Belgian's move. Except Lukaku is not "that target man" and, in his own words, he has never been that sort of forward.

Under the management of Antonio Conte, and away from an environment at United that was clearly shattering his confidence, Lukaku has thrived in part because he is operating within a system - a meticulously choreographed system, no less - that allows him to make the most of his skill-set.

"When there is a lot of movement around me, I am at my best because I can create myself and I can be at the end of the delivery," Lukaku said.

It helps Conte has been working on this plan for years. He first made contact with Lukaku six years ago, when he was the Juventus manager and tried to sign him at Chelsea.

Lukaku arrived at Inter in desperate need of a fresh start. He threw himself into the culture, learning Italian within weeks, and the club helped him to address the issues with his weight that had so plagued his time in Manchester.

As it turned out, his digestive system had been malfunctioning. Following nutritional guidance, Lukaku lost more than half a stone in 12 days. The speed is back, and the sharpness has returned.

On almost every metric, Lukaku has improved since leaving United. He scores, shoots and touches the ball more often and creates more chances for his team-mates. Evidently, he has been liberated by the change of clubs and culture.

And while there are always individual factors behind every player's personal struggles, the fact remains Lukaku is not alone.

Chris Smalling is thriving at Roma, having left United in the summer. Ashley Young has said he is "loving every minute" at Inter, where he has started the past four matches. Even Alexis Sanchez, also at Inter, is beginning to rediscover his form.

A pattern is emerging here, and it does not make for pleasant reading for Solskjaer or United. Lukaku's re-emergence as one of Europe's most dangerous forwards will further tighten the nervous knots in United stomachs, and further emphasise the deep-rooted trouble at Old Trafford.

Lukaku has been a genuine goalscoring threat wherever he has played. Except last season, when he struggled so horribly at United. Was he the problem, or were they? (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

Telegraph.co.uk