Last summer, after spending a 15-year career stomping through Holland and Italy and Spain and France, pointing at all the silverware and saying “mine, mine, mine,” Zlatan Ibrahimovic announced that he would be subjugating England next, on Instagram.
(#iamcoming is still a hilarious hashtag.)
It took a while for him to get going, but Manchester United eventually developed an over-reliance on the striker; at 6-foot-4, the 35-year-old was still able to connect with any lofted ball and capable of turning quarter-chances into full ones. He scored 28 goals in all competitions before blowing out his knee in the dying embers of a Europa League quarterfinal tie against Anderlecht in April. While youngsters Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford both offered plenty of potential, they were never going to immediately replace that kind of production. The attack sputtered to a halt, and United slipped to sixth place by season’s end. They lifted the Europa League trophy and thus snuck into the Champions League through the back door, but Zlatan was gone, and United needed a new no. 9.
It was supposed to be Antoine Griezmann, but he couldn’t very well leave his club of three years in the lurch, as Atlético Madrid can’t make any new signings until 2018. (Also England is, on average, more overcast than Spain.) It was never going to be Robert Lewandowski, because why on earth would he leave Bayern for United? It might’ve also been Álvaro Morata, but Real Madrid wanted too much money … and David de Gea. Plus, Everton’s 24-year-old striker, Romelu Lukaku, was right there, an hour’s car ride southwest. And he was already besties with the future of the club.
Over the weekend, Manchester United completed the British-record, 75 million-pound transfer of the Belgian, who scored 25 goals in the Toffees’ league campaign last year. United beat out Chelsea, who matched their bid for the striker’s services, and as a result, Lukaku will now play for the same Special One that sent him off to Everton in the first place. The arc of time is long but it bends toward paying markup for players you once took for granted. There’s a more than decent chance Lukaku will — having had the 2016 league campaign’s second-highest goal tally — be a good return on value. He’s commanding in the air, skilled along the ground, and can score in a variety of different ways.
While not officially part of the deal, Wayne Rooney moved in the opposite direction in the same weekend. Please stand and remove your caps in observance of the man who scored a club-record 253 goals in 13 seasons. He also won the Premier League five times, the League Cup four times, and both the NCAA and NAIA versions of the European championship once apiece. He’s “irreplaceable” …
… but he’s also been functionally replaced — for some time, really. He wasn’t a first-team choice in the latter half of the 2016–17 season, and his starts at the beginning of it felt more like an obligation to the 31-year-old’s captaincy, than a recognition of anything he could regularly accomplish on the field. (There was also the issue of it being José Mourinho’s first year in charge, and him not wanting to make too many waves too soon.) He was still good for five league goals and five assists on the season. He just wasn’t good enough to justify his prohibitively high wages in the present without bringing up all he’s done for the club in the past. Which again, was a lot.
Rooney reportedly took a 50 percent pay cut to rejoin Everton, and in all likelihood he’ll be a great veteran presence in a very young changing room, if not an entirely adequate replacement for the team’s best player. I would say something about how United have swooped for Everton’s crown jewel twice over now:
But then I saw this:
In any case, United unveiled Lukaku on Monday, using the hashtag #RedRom. It’s cool because while it’s a portmanteau of his first name and the club’s signature color, it’s also a play on “Red Rum,” which is murder spelled backward, like in The Shining. I hope that we can look back on that on Boxing Day, and then over to his 10-plus league goals, and still think that it was cool and not embarrassing. I hope.