Romelu Lukaku remains a player who splits opinion: half of the Chelsea faithful panicked when they saw a summer move being mooted, whilst the rest still put it up their with the sale of Kevin De Bruyne as Mourinho’s biggest mistake over his two periods at the club. Travel to the Hawthorns, and West Brom fans will tell you of the most lethal striker to have worn the black and white stripes. His new manager at Everton, Ronald Koeman, proved recently that he is not out simply to win friends when he announced that the player would almost certainly move on should he reach his substantial potential.
“If Romelu was to play at Everton until the end of his career I know he has left something behind” – Ronald Koeman, November 2016
Concern naturally arose around the Goodison terraces amid such talk from the Dutchman. Even the most ardent Evertonian though would confess that the Champions League is still a pipedream, and that is where Lukaku’s journey will ultimately take him. It has been a long journey however from one of a player with raw potential and physique, to a player who is verging on being ready to adapt his style to work within a team at the very top of European football.
From day one, Anderlecht knew they had something special. Towering over opposition players in his youth days, recording 121 goals in just 87 appearances, the Belgian giants were quick to sign the 6″4 son of a Congolese professional to a long term contract. Europe’s giants were soon queuing up for the youngster who scored 20 goals in his first full season as a professional, and it was eventually Chelsea who signed him, earmarking Drogba as the ideal role model.
Lukaku never really found his role at Chelsea however. Heralded as a signing to mark the beginning of a new era under Andre Villas Boas, the Belgian youngster was confined to the reserves for the majority of the season, and soon found himself shipped out on loan, first to West Brom, and then to Everton where he spearheaded an attractive Roberto Martinez side to perhaps Everton’s best season of recent times.
The Main Man
Lukaku is clearly a player who performs best when a side is built around him. Comparison between the Belgian and Didier Drogba are often made, and it should not be forgotten that the Chelsea icon was into his twenties before he could brag about being on the radars of Europe’s elite. Like Lukaku is in the process of doing, Drogba adapted his game to suit the ethos of ‘team’.
Playing for a struggling West Brom side, Lukaku was able to score 17 goals in his single season there, finishing the 6th top scorer in the division, and outscoring anyone from his parent club, Chelsea. This was very much a side built to his strengths. Moving to Everton, he was able to knock 15 goals in 31 games in his loan campaign in which his side just missed out on Champions League qualification, before clearing out his Stamford Bridge locker for good and making the move to Merseyside permanent.
Chelsea though cannot be blamed for sending the prodigious teenager out on loan. Steve Clarke, his manager at West Brom, labelled him at the time ‘raw… but always learning’. A club environment like Chelsea does not carry passengers, and whilst West Brom and a mid-table Everton side could afford to indulge the youngster, Chelsea were struggling for identity under Roberto Di Matteo, with Roman Abramovic unwilling to accept second best.
“He wanted to play for Chelsea but he wanted to be clearly the first choice striker, which in a club of our dimension, it is very difficult to promise to a player” – José Mourinho, July 2014
As José Mourinho returned for his second spell in charge of the club, many hoped he would mentor the athletic Belgian in a similar way to that of the man he was brought to eventually replace, Didier Drogba. As the Blues played out a 0-0 draw through at Old Trafford, with Kevin De Bruyne playing as the ‘false 9’ and Lukaku not selected, it became clear that Mourinho, like Di Matteo before him, did not yet deem him ready to lead the line.
Lukaku’s departure from Chelsea never felt acrimonious. Whilst the press tried to spin the story where possible, rumours linking the player to a reunion with Mourinho at first Chelsea, and then Manchester United, have never gone away. The very fact that Lukaku was willing to move to a club not considered amongst Europe’s elite would suggest both he and his advisers knew he still needed to hone aspects of his game. A sum of £28m was perhaps too good to turn down for the money men at Chelsea, and as long as Diego Costa resists the overtures from Madrid, Lukaku will not be missed.
The transition to permanent centre forward for the then-Roberto Martinez side though did not go as planned, with Lukaku like the rest of the side, struggling to progress under the ideology of Martinez. Now his manager at national level, the Spaniard failed to build the defensive stability to allow the goalscorer to flourish, and though ending the season with a respectable 15 goals in the Premier League, only four of these were scored before November, and his side would ultimately fall to a disappointing 11th.
“He arrived at the club at a very young age but is someone who has been developing month after month” – Roberto Martinez, December 2015
Martinez was never able to reproduce the level of football that took them to the cusp of Champions League qualification. If anything, Lukaku became more effective the more his side struggled as his club record 17 goals in the 2015/16 season coincided with his side stumbling to a 12th place finish. The Spaniard left the club having failed to deliver Champions League football as he promised, and for a while threatened, and as a consequence it was presumed Lukaku would do the same, albeit against the wishes of the club hierarchy.
A risk worth taking
Koeman would have to decide whether to continue with the ‘Lukaku Experiment’. Under Martinez, the Blues had on paper one of the most exciting front lines in Europe consisting of Gerard Deulofeu, Ross Barkley and Lukaku; unfortunately for him the game is not played on paper. The fowards rarely worked with any consistency, and Lukaku’s often public remonstrations towards the Spanish winger in particular made any improvement unlikely.
Common speculation in the press over the summer adhered to the fact Barkley and Deulofeu represented Everton’s future. Both too raw to attract the sort of money Everton would want, the new manager could mound them in the ‘Barcelona’ style the club hoped he would implement. Knowing the rigour of the Premier League though, Koeman’s first call though was to Lukaku, and the message was clear: ‘You’re going nowhere’. The player, by his own admission, is not one to cause trouble and promised his manager should he remain, he will not sit on the sideline and sulk. The interest from Chelsea was though was genuine, and should Costa have forced his move back to Spain they may have gone even higher than the £60m on the table.
“I told him I am not a guy that is going to cause any problems. I am a guy who has to be at 100% and that is what I am going to do. He knew it straight away” – Romelu Lukaku, November 2016
Lukaku would no doubt have been tempted to return to his old club. Though not offering Champions League football for the immediate future at least, the global reach of Chelsea would likely propel Lukaku to not only the elite in terms of playing reputation, but also monetary values. With agent Mino Raiola behind him, Lukaku may not have seen a package equal to that of stablemate Paul Pogba, but would have far eclipsed what he receives on a weekly basis as things stand.
Koeman though remained strong, and the burgeoning relationship between the two is undoubtedly mutually beneficial. Despite once again starting the season slowly, perhaps a result of his country’s run to the quarters of the Euro’s, Lukaku has already netted seven in ten club games this year, and is for the first time establishing himself as number one pick for Belgium. The coaching of the ex-Southampton manager has undoubtedly contributed, with the player speaking openly about the benefit of an increased clarity within the club. The significance of the removal from the ideology of ‘tika-taka’ should not underestimated either, with the direct running of new signing Yannick Bolaise so far proving are far more effective buffer than the talented yet infuriating Deulofeu. The Ivory Coast international has contributed four assists so far this season, and all through Lukaku.
Whilst the youthful trio that Martinez sought to build his legacy around remain at the club then, it is Lukaku and Barkley though who continue to make the starting XI; Deulofeu – Spanish U21 caps record holder – may yet make a space for himself, but for the time being must accept his role off the bench.
Lukaku and Barkley remains a work in progress. Notable though is the way in which the Belgian is mentoring a player only a couple of years his junior. Speaking openly in recent interviews, Lukaku suggested he had been lending a helping hand to a player looking to re-establish himself as one of the most promising players in world football, perhaps drawing inspiration from the scrutiny that has surrounded himself over the past couple of years.
“He has got power, technique, he can shoot with both feet, he is fast and he can pick a pass. The manager has been working with him so he makes the right decisions on the pitch. Who is going to stop him?” – Romelu Lukaku on Ross Barkley, November 2016
The pair possess the skill set to unlock the most ardent of defences. For his faults, Barkley remains one of few players who can pre-empt a pass phases in advance, with Lukaku through the centre the common target of these passes. Barkley would do well to consider the advice of Lukaku right now, as he faces a spell on the outskirts of the national side, and to see the Belgian talking as he is suggests at just 23 years old, he is beginning to show a sense of maturity rare in one so young.
Victim of his success
With Lukaku showing signs of his growing maturity, clubs will no doubt return with fresh bids in the summer. The player would ideally remain under the tutelage of Koeman for a couple more seasons before making his big move, yet early signs out of the Raiola camp may be that he is the next in line for a bumper move. Football will always be a money business, and should a Chelsea or any of Europe’s elite return with a revised offer, a move could be on the cards. Koeman is an intelligent man, and may well be shaping his side to survive the ‘post-Lukaku’ transitional phase. A more traditional sense of wing play is being brought back to Goodison Park, with Kevin Mirrales another seemingly reborn, having fallen foul by the end of Martinez’s spell in charge. Returning to the case of Delefeou, this is the role in which he may yet find joy under Koeman, and it is up to him to put his case forward in training and cup games.
With the fundamentals in place, Koeman could feasibly place a player such as Charlie Austin in the number nine role, and continue to improve his club’s fortune. A player whom he coached at Southampton continues to prove himself as one of the best natural goalscorers in the division, and should the service be provided, rarely lets the team down. The Dutch manager himself almost certainly holds higher aspirations, and would be wary of the scenario of being labelled a hypocrite should he dissuade Lukaku of his move, only to make the transition to a club such as Arsenal or Barcelona himself. Koeman has been linked to both posts in the past, and having taken the decision to make the ‘step-up’ from Southampton to Everton barely six months ago, would be unlikely to think twice should one of the big clubs come calling.
It could very well be that Chelsea is his most likely destination next summer, though this will be largely dependent on whatever mood Costa seems to find himself in. The set up at Stamford Bridge would certainly suit the less egocentric style of Lukaku, with the implementation of a wing-back focused system resulting in plenty of crosses into the box. The quarter final of last year’s FA cup between Chelsea and Everton demonstrated as well Lukaku’s ability dropping deep and running, much in the way Costa has been given the licence to do, and the Chelsea fan base should be excited by the prospect.
Other clubs though will be monitoring. Tottenham Hotspur may well be in need of a new striker, with murmurs surrounding Kane’s contract situation resurfacing once more, and Lukaku would seem a natural choice. According to Gabrielle Marcotti, Manchester United would be Kane’s most likely transfer, and should that not unfold, Lukaku could join the growing group of Raiola clients at Old Trafford. Having developed his style of play to perhaps justify the ‘Drogba-lite’ tag, perhaps now would be just the time to trust his development with José Mourinho.