Perhaps no other position in football provides us with as diverse a number of playing styles as the forward. Over generations of tactical development, we’ve seen the forward having to fulfill a number of duties, ranging from the towering target man or traditional centre forwards, holding the ball up and terrorizing the opposition defenders with his physicality to the shrewd and cunning poacher relying on his speed and athleticism to sniff out the tiniest of chances and convert them into goals. A more recent development, the “false 9” drops deep and dictates the play with his vision and passing skills while at the same time being equally or even more adept at goal scoring. Ever so rarely in football are we blessed with a “perfect striker”, worthy of performing almost any of these roles on any given day. Didier Drogba and the “Emperor” of old Adriano at his peak are arguably the finest complete forwards the beautiful game has delivered and bedazzled us with. However, neither of them can boast of the same success at the young age of 21 that the Belgian wonder kid Romelu Lukaku has achieved.
Who is Romelu Lukaku?
I do risk categorizing that as a rhetorical question. After all, Romelu Lukaku has already established himself as one of the stars in Premier League, consistently leaving us in awe and admiration of his talents. Over the last two years we’ve almost been so accustomed to him “bullying” defenders away and blasting many a ball through the net, that it’s easy to forget he’s only 21!
Belgium is a country of many different cultural heritages, something which is an attribute towards their recent footballing “Golden Generation”. A large number of players such as Christian Benteke and Vincent Kompany (both also of Anderlecht) have Congolese roots, just as Romelu Lukaku does. Born on May 13th, 1993 to a Congolese family in Antwerp, Belgium, Lukaku’s interest in football must have stemmed from his father, Roger who migrated to Belgium to have a successful career in professional football in the 1970’s, and was even nominated for the “Ebony boot”, awarded to Belgium’s top player with African Roots. Lukaku, like most young prodigies joined his local team “Rupel Bloom” (now in the third tier of Belgian football) at the tender age of 5. His skills even at the age of 9, attracted Lierse SK, an established Belgian pro league club, known for its excellent youth academy. An amazing period of two years (2004-2006) followed, with Romelu notching up an astounding 121 goals in 68 games as a youth player!
Lierse’s relegation from the Pro league saw a mass exodus from the club’s youth ranks, with Lukaku and 12 others joining the most successful Belgian club, Anderlecht. After three more years of dominating the youth leagues, at the age of sixteen and still in high school, Lukaku made his first team debut on 24th May, 2009. When you look back at his time at Anderlecht, it’s incredible how talented he was as a teenager. The entire nation took interest in the talented youngster’s exploits. It was reported that at Anderlecht, shirts with Lukaku’s name on the back accounted for 60% of shirt sales. But his concentration was fully focused on the football, something that must have been difficult; we’ve all unfortunately heard of youngsters who were unable to handle it all and missed their shot at the big leagues. His two seasons at Anderlecht saw him score 33 goals in 73 appearances, attracting interest from the biggest and the best clubs. The club that fought and eventually won his signature was Chelsea Football Club.
Right from the moment he signed, there was only a single thought in the excited minds of all associated with Chelsea: This is the new Drogba. They weren’t wrong at all; comparisons were obvious, ranging from the impressive physique and even to their hairstyles. The most important comparison was perhaps in playing style. Strength, pace and skill. Lukaku had it all at such a young age while Drogba arguably was a late bloomer. However, this seemingly simple like for like replacement was anything but. A number of factors can be attributed, but the chief one was the instability in the backroom staff at SW6 which saw Andre Villas Boas sacked and Roberto Di Matteo installed as caretaker for the rest of 2012. There was a general sense that AVB, never fancied the then 18 year old to be good enough as yet, leaving him out of squad pools which eventually resulted in him missing out on an eventual Champions League and FA cup winners medals and instead a prominent member in the reserves. Lukaku wasn’t shy of voicing his opinion on his apparent mismanagement on a season during which he made just eight appearances.
The 2012/13 season saw him go out on loan at West Bromwich Albion, a move which seemed mutually beneficial for all parties involved. It was at the East-Midlands club that he did flourish once again. An amazing 17 goals in 35 appearances saw him take the usual relegation strugglers to their best ever Premier League finish, at 8th place. By far his most memorable performance was a hat-trick in the 5-5 thriller at The Hawthorns, Sir Alex Ferguson’s last ever game in charge, a game unlikely to be forgotten any time soon.
At the beginning of the 2013/14 it seemed all was in place for Lukaku and Chelsea. Jose Mourinho made his return to the club, and it looked as though Lukaku had an integral role to play in the season ahead, given the misfiring of Fernando Torres and co. He appeared in the UEFA supercup against Bayern Munich and unfortunately missed the last penalty in the shootout, costing Chelsea the cup. It is unknown as of now if that had in any part greatly influenced the decision to follow, but suddenly almost rather inexplicably, Lukaku was loaned out to Everton.
Despite the confusion regarding his long-term future his immediate future was with Everton. Lukaku picked up right where he left off last season, and wasted almost no time in establishing himself as first choice under Roberto Martinez. Lukaku introduced greater consistency to his game; while at the same time developing his footballing brain and flexibility in position and work, something the possession advocating Martinez demands from all his teams. His record at the end of the season was an impressive 15 goals and 6 assists, leading Everton to a secured Europa League spot.
Romelu Lukaku featured in our list of 100 Best Young Players to Watch-out for in 2014, coming in at #1 in our list of strikers. Lukaku was nominated for four different awards in our Premier League 2013/14 End of Season Awards, but won none, only finishing in 2nd place for the Forward of the Season with 4% of the votes. More importantly, as you can see above, he was voted as the #TalentRadar Readers’ Forward of the Season in our #TalentRadar Young Player Awards 2013/14 (full list here).
Styles, strengths and weaknesses
Blessed with a powerful physique, standing at 6’3 and weighing in at almost 100 kilos, at first glance he could almost easily be classified as a traditional target man and nothing more. Perhaps that’s where the defenders of the Premier League have made a mistake. Not only does Lukaku possess the sheer physical ability to come out on top against the aggressive and imposing likes of Vidic and Koscielny, but is also blessed with a fantastic burst of pace to run behind a marker. His feet are amazingly well sorted for a “big man”, being able to rely on his dribbling ability consistently to get him out of tight spots, as displayed fantastically in a number of his goals. Primarily functioning as the pinnacle target man of the side, his control is impeccable when under pressure, using his body well between the ball and the aggressor, a trait only the best target men can use. A common route to goal for him is to cut in between the fullback and the centre back, preferably from right flank using his favourite left foot to power shots home. His finishing is immaculate with the potential of scoring with both feet (though favouring his left) and even a fantastic header. His goalscoring record is nothing but more of a testament to this. At West Brom he boasted of a goal every 112 minutes!
The most fruitful part of his game is his hold up play, which generates many flick-ons and passes into the channels for his teammates to utilize. Despite this, his passing does at times leave a lot to ask for. While he can spot runs superbly by weighing a pass on more than one occasion, often they are misplaced, especially long passes. This is echoed in his below par successful pass percentage of 66% this season at Everton; something Roberto Martinez may not have been too pleased with. His pressing and defensive ability also often come into question with rare efforts at closing down an advancing opposition. Lukaku has even shown versatility this season with Martinez deploying him on the right flank at times, a previously unfamiliar role for the young Belgian. He performed exceptionally well on those occasions such as the game against Arsenal at Goodison Park in a 3-0 win. He grabbed a goal that game and ended with 17 completed passes out of 25 and a 100% dribble success.
Take the thrilling Merseyside derby against Liverpool in October which ended in a 3-3 draw. Lukaku delivered a man of the match performance scoring a brace. This game was special as it provided a great example of his all round movement which was extremely varied and intelligent, often dropping deep wrecking havoc and drawing Dan Agger and Martin Skrtel out of defence and thereby creating more space for the others
Despite his fantastic performance, a closer examination of the game brought about an important observation of one of Lukaku’s greatest weaknesses. Lukaku when in possession often exhibited poor decision making, and on more than one occasion overlooked a simpler pass to a teammate and instead played more of a solo game, taking on the opposition. All of his 3 attempted take -ons were unsuccessful and resulted in the loss of possession leaving Everton vulnerable to dangerous counter attacks. Having a cool head and making the right decisions at the heat of the moment and knowing the risks of every decision are skills that all the best players have, something Lukaku will surely develop with more game time.
2014 World Cup
Lukaku is an integral part of Belgium’s current “Golden Generation” of stars who remain popular dark horses to go all the way at Brazil 2014. Christian Benteke’s unfortunate injury almost assures him a chance to lead the line in Coach Marc Wilmot’s star studded team. He made his debut for the “Red Devils” as a 17 year old and already has 27 caps to his name. He remains a strong contender amongst fans and pundits alike to bag the “Best Young Player” at this year’s World Cup, but will face stiff competition. You can expect Romelu Lukaku to only get better and better, and who knows, here’s hoping we see a future Ballon d ‘Or winner!
This is what Callum Jones, Everton supporter, told Outside of the Boot about Romelu Lukaku. Follow him on Twitter @TheStreetEnd
“He’s a player who’s got if all, left foot, right foot, skillful, quick, strong and good in the air. His year with Everton has brought him on leaps and bounds, the only frustration with him is he can be incredibly inconsistent. Some games it’s difficult to know if he’s actually on the field. But, he’s got all the attributes and will end up one of the best strikers in the world I’m sure.”
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