Of all the moves that took place in the summer transfer window, Romelu Lukaku’s loan switch from Chelsea to Everton might have been the one that made the most sense. The twenty year-old Belgian needs first-team football, Chelsea need Lukaku to develop his game and Everton need a striker. The transfer, finalised on deadline day, satisfied all of those requirements and promises therefore to be one of the deals of the season.
Clearly, Lukaku is a special talent. His first full season at Anderlecht saw him score nineteen goals and assist eleven others, all before his seventeenth birthday. His rise has continued on a similarly meteoric trajectory, and his tally of seventeen Premier League goals during last season’s loan spell at West Bromwich Albion was bettered by only five players in the division.
Having scored more league goals than all of Chelsea’s other strikers combined in 2012-13, it seemed natural to assume that Lukaku would take over as the Blues’ first choice striker in 2013-14. The fact that he top-scored in the club’s preseason matches served only to cement the feeling that there was a new leader of the line at Stamford Bridge.
However, the first few matches this season have proven that he remains a peripheral figure in West London. While it may be an unpopular viewpoint to put forward at this moment in time, it must be said that José Mourinho is probably correct to marginalise him for now, and there are two reasons why.
Firstly, the political ramifications of selecting Lukaku over Fernando Torres, Samuel Eto’o and Demba Ba are less than desirable. Chelsea’s current strikers may not be perfect but they are investments that have to be used: Torres and Eto’o because of their huge cost to the club; Ba because he joined relatively recently and cannot be resold without accepting a pay-cut elsewhere.
To prefer Lukaku to such experienced and expensive alternatives would represent a slap in the face of Roman Abramovich. Mourinho cannot afford to be seen to make selections that are so potentially irritating to Chelsea’s owner so soon after returning to London. Of course, Lukaku remains one for the future but, from a manager’s point of view, his present must be sacrificed in order to protect the strikers above him in the hierarchy.
Secondly, Lukaku is probably not yet technically rounded or tactically mature enough to lead Chelsea’s line, week-in week-out. His goal tally at West Brom was undoubtedly impressive but his link-up play was often subpar. Given that Chelsea’s squad contains players such as Juan Mata, Eden Hazard and Oscar, their playing style requires the striker to have characteristics that Lukaku currently does not possess.
Last season, for example, Lukaku earned widespread acclaim while playing 16.3 passes per game with 72.1% accuracy. Torres, who was regarded as having endured yet another awful season, produced comparable figures: 18.2 passes per game, with 69.5% of them being complete.
Nikica Jelavić, the player Lukaku replaces at Goodison Park, was similarly turgid: 13.2 passes per game, 68.2% completion. Lukaku, Torres and Jelavić were also caught offside considerably more times than their attacking colleagues. Taking goal tallies out of the picture, the three players had similar seasons.
It is one thing repeatedly giving the ball away and occasionally missing chances in front of West Brom’s fans, but it is another entirely to make those mistakes in front of Chelsea’s crowd. If the goals were to dry up for Lukaku, as they did during his first year in England, the force of the fans’ backlash could prove fatal to his confidence and his season.
The advantage that Torres has here is that he has accrued enough experience and proven his mental fortitude to prove to his manager that he can and will improve and get the fans off of his back. Lukaku needs to gain more experience and technical know-how and will do at Goodison Park.
Over the next year, Lukaku’s targets must be to learn how to move in and out of space as and when required; to play and receive numerous short passes, often under pressure, while doing so; and to acquire the vision and ingenuity to create chances for midfield runners. Only with these qualities can he make a mark at Chelsea.
Under Roberto Martínez, Everton will be the perfect club at which to gain these skills. Martínez has an excellent reputation for the way he educates players, fans and fellow coaches alike. Managers such as Sir Alex Ferguson and Arsène Wenger have previously been happy to loan him their youngsters, believing that he will educate them properly and allow them to progress into capable first-teamers.
In a 2012 interview with The Blizzard, Martínez said that he employs the methods of coaching prevalent in his native Spain, geared towards progressively educating players on an individual basis with the ultimate aim being to allow players to dominate possession and develop their decision-making process. This style of training, poles apart from Mourinho’s match-specific drills, will improve Lukaku immeasurably.
With the Toffees’ current leader of the line, the aforementioned Nikica Jelavić, totally off the boil, Lukaku can expect to get game time as well as an education. Jelavić may have netted eleven times in his first four months in the Premier League but the goals have stopped coming.
With a solitary goal against Manchester City to his name in 2013, the Croatian’s confidence is shot and his time leading Everton’s line is surely over. Lukaku is therefore likely to start games from the word go, either in partnership with Arouna Koné or as a lone striker, supported by Leon Osman or Gerard Deulofeu.
In any case, exciting times lie ahead for Everton fans. The Toffees have been one of the Premier League’s standout sides so far, completing more passes than any other side on the opening weekend and absolutely dominating in subsequent draws against West Brom and Cardiff.
The famous Leighton Baines/Steven Pienaar axis will continue to create chances from the left and the fledgling partnership between Séamus Coleman and Kevin Mirallas has proven just as productive from the right in the season’s opening weeks. With Lukaku taking the place of Jelavić, these chances will no longer go unconverted.
With such quality service Lukaku will almost certainly score lots of goals for Everton and return to Chelsea a much more rounded, adaptable player. The loan system has been heavily criticised in recent years for allowing big clubs to stockpile young talent but this is an example in which everyone is a winner – and none more so than Romelu Lukaku.