Serie A Happy Returns

The careers of Romelu Lukaku and in particular Paul Pogba have taken on a trajectory almost akin to a yo-yo, and now they both find themselves back at the place where they have enjoyed their biggest highlights to date, in Serie A with Inter and Juventus respectively. There was a sense of homecoming for both, such was their eagerness to return to somewhere they are loved by a club and its supporter base, after record-breaking moves back to the English Premier League fell dramatically short of expectations.

For Lukaku, in his mind it is very much a case of righting the wrongs of his decision to leave the San Siro to re-join Chelsea in the summer of 2021, having endured a disappointing season last term. Upon returning to Inter on loan for 2022-23, he’s made no secret of his happiness at being back.

It continues a busy career for the big Belgian striker, who’s already played for six different clubs at senior level by the age of 29 and commanded gigantic transfer fees, with Chelsea splashing out a club record fee of £100m million last August for their prodigal son’s services. The hitman first joined the London-based club in 2011 from Anderlecht for £20m but failed to cement a starting place in the line-up, before successful loan moves to West Bromwich Albion and Everton. The Toffees broke their transfer record when they signed him for £28m million outright in 2014.

His performances during his stint at Goodison Park compelled Manchester United to lay down £75m in July 2017 to bring him to Old Trafford. After a good start in Manchester goals and regular game time dried up, but Inter and their coach Antonio Conte weren’t put off by this loss of form and decided to pay a club-record fee of €80 million in 2019 for the attacker.

In his first season he netted 34 goals in all competitions helping his new side to second place in Serie A, the next year his 24 league goals fired the Nerazzurri to the Scudetto and their first title since 2010. Financial problems meant La Beneamata had to cash in on their top striker and he headed back to Chelsea, a move that helped prompt Conte to quit the club in protest. Despite his signing being hailed almost universally as the final piece of the jigsaw towards bringing the Premier League title to Stamford Bridge, it turned out to be a major, expensive failure.

Last winter Lukaku told Sky Sports Italia in a candid interview how his decision to leave northern Italy was the wrong one to make. Apologising to Inter fans for the way he left the club, he revealed how he hoped to play for them again in the not-too-distant future. Unhappy with life at Chelsea since his return to England, he clearly regretted forcing a move back to London. Unsurprisingly, Blues supporters turned on their leading striker, who also bemoaned the tactical decisions of coach Thomas Tuchel in the first part of last season. Lukaku started just 16 league games scoring eight times and was dropped by the German tactician after details of the interview were released ahead of their crunch tie with Liverpool at the beginning of January.

In August, Lukaku elaborated further and spoke of how he’s extra motivated to do well for Inter this season after the frustration of last term. Reflecting on the feeling of unfinished business at the core of his decision to return to Chelsea, he felt he’d return to Stamford Bridge as a hero and not the bit-part player he became.

For Lukaku, the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence and that could be one of the reasons why he forced a move back to Italy this summer. In a World Cup year, the Belgian international, will, of course, want to be playing week in and week out and rediscover his goal-scoring form, and what better place to reanimate himself than at the club he lifted the title with. What’ll be interesting this time around will be how his new coach Simone Inzaghi sets the team up around him. Under Conte, Lukaku was the fulcrum of the attack, the ball went from back to front directly into the striker, with the wing-backs providing ample service into the box and Lautaro Martinez playing high up beside him.

Inzaghi sets his side up in a similar formation but tactically it’s much different; playing out from the back with his midfielders take more touches, his game slightly slower than that of the Scudetto winners of 2020-21. Inter have the strongest squad on paper in the league, and the pressure will be on Lukaku to deliver the goals that could see them wrestle the Scudetto from their city rivals Milan.

Meanwhile, French midfielder Pogba left Italy in August 2016 for Manchester United for a then world record transfer fee of £89m. The hashtag #Pogback was used around social media to announce his arrival back to the club where he spent three years as a teenager. The online fanfare surrounding his move to Old Trafford rarely dissipated and despite some poor performances on the field, his following within certain sections of football fandom grew. Others, however, claim he’s more interested in being an internet personality rather than a footballer and his presence around a football club can become a distraction.

Pogba’s time with United could hardly be called a success despite several mitigating factors beyond his control such as injuries and coaching changes. Arguably the World Cup winner has been turned into a scapegoat at England’s most decorated side, even though the running of the club has descended into chaos compared to their very high operating standards of the past. Juventus were quick to re-sign the midfielder this summer on a free transfer for the second time after first acquiring him in 2012.

In 2015 Pogba was a protagonist in Juve’s run to the Champions League final which they lost 3-1 to Barcelona. The Frenchman won’t be part of a star-studded midfield on his return to Turin; coach Massimiliano Allegri’s current crop are not of the same standard that Andrea Pirlo, Arturo Vidal, and Claudio Marchisio were during his previous spell. Pogba will have his work cut out for him when he returns to the field; the Old Lady are no longer the all-conquering juggernaut that he left behind. Arguably, the league is on a much more even par now than in 2016 with Inter and Milan breaking the their stranglehold on the Scudetto and Roma, Napoli, Lazio, Atalanta, and Fiorentina also looking to have their say in the title fight. 

It is possible that as his time at Man Utd progressed and he continued to struggle to produce his best form, Pogba missed the strict guidelines on and off the field at Juve and needed the settled and dependable coaching setup that think of him as a star player to build a team around rather than a bit part garnish that makes the odd cameo.

Unfortunately for Pogba and the Bianconeri a meniscus tear was detected in his knee at the end of July during pre-season training, which will keep him out of action until the end of September and give him less match practice ahead of the World Cup.

France coach Didier Deschamps has always relied on the midfielder, putting his trust in him and regularly being rewarded with fine performances on the pitch. Pogba can rediscover his form in Turin playing under Allegri who’ll send him out onto the field with a specific role and not be allowed to roam around aimlessly like he was at Old Trafford. On the other hand, the France international has barely featured over the past three seasons and that lack of match sharpness plus the injuries could see him struggle on his return to the peninsula.

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