Romelu Lukaku is, in many ways, Thierry Henry’s pet project. The two have been almost inseparable around Belgium’s Dedovsk camp in Russia this summer, and the hours of advice have paid off to such an extent that on Tuesday Lukaku can fire his country to the World Cup final, at the expense of France, who won it with Henry in their ranks 20 years ago.
“He helps me so much with everything in the game,” Lukaku recently told the Players’ Tribune in a glowing assessment of his mentor.
“My awareness, my skills, my shooting, my control in front of the goal, my actions, where I have to be on the field, scoring goals out of nowhere – that’s what big players do, don’t wait for the ball to come in front of you, you have to create the goal yourself.
“Since we’ve been working closely together I think I’ve raised my game twice as much than what I thought I could do, and I owe him a lot, a lot in the last two years. I owe him a lot.”
The two have become so close since Henry joined Roberto Martinez’s Belgium coaching staff in 2016 that they often meet up after Lukaku’s Premier League matches to discuss his performances. Henry will be armed with videos so he can show the 25-year-old how to make better runs and improve his movement.
Martinez himself has given the Manchester United frontman some pointers; he has given him a Youtube video of Huge Sanchez’s 38 goals in a single season, all scored with one touch. The aim was to sharpen not just Lukaku’s finishing, but – again – his movement; drag defenders one way and then disappear around the blind side. Lukaku has been watching the video in recent weeks and its effects were evident when he helped create Belgium’s third goal in their dramatic last-16 comeback against Japan, attracting two centre-backs towards him to create space for Thomas Meunier to cross, and then stepping over the ball for Nacer Chadli to tap home.
Lukaku, still just 25, is learning. He is growing into this tournament, and he may yet win it.
He scored four goals in two group stage matches playing as a traditional No.9 – one of the most traditional around, in fact. He has been the focal point of attacks, either with his back to goal receiving the ball into feet or to his head, or running in behind.
Yet on Friday night against Brazil he was positioned out on the right-hand side, charged with creating the kind of havoc he wreaked for Everton against Arsenal four years ago, during Martinez’s Goodison Park reign.
Just as Lukaku, Kevin Mirallas and Steven Naismith combined to devastating effect that day, Lukaku, Eden Hazard and Kevin De Bruyne laid waste to Brazil. In an attacking team, with plenty of support, he is flourishing.
He, more than many players, gives the impression he is constantly growing, constantly improving, and right now he is playing the best football of his career, and for Belgium he has been directly involved in 20 goals in his last 13 appearances.