You don’t find too many £18m signings playing reserve team football, but Romelu Lukaku is something of a special case.
Much is expected of the gigantic 18 year-old forward, but for the majority of his first few months in England he has most often been found playing for Dermot Drummy’s second string team.
With an array of senior forwards ahead of him in the pecking order, playing time was always going to be hard to come by, but this was both known and taken into consideration before pen was put to paper to bring the Belgian to a club dear to his heart.
Days after the transfer was completed, Andre Villas-Boas revealed that the Blues moved for Lukaku primarily so as to not lose him to a rival suitor:
“He is one of those players we couldn’t afford to lose because of his potential and that’s why we made the move in the market even though our team is competitive enough in that sector of the field.”
Whilst he’s been afforded playing time in the Carling Cup and handed a cameo substitute role here and there in the league, it’s been a deliberately slow start to life in London for the young forward.
Despite having experience in both the Champions League and at full international level, he has approached things with the utmost professionalism and determination to improve his game.
Four competitive goals and one more in a friendly against a strong Ipswich Town team have marked him out as more than capable against defenders at this level, but that much was already known.
What has been impressive is to watch him refine the areas of his game most in need of work. His work off the ball in both defensive and attacking capacities has greatly improved, whilst the physical regime he is undertaking is beginning to show signs of success.
In his early appearances, he appeared sluggish and cumbersome, lacking agility and any real signs of dynamism. Perhaps that should be expected of a teenager who is listed as the heaviest outfield player in the Premier League.
However, with each performance he appears leaner and quicker, and a man who is working towards his adult build and frame. He simply eats up ground with his long strides and coupled with his terrific work rate (a by-product of being such a big Chelsea supporter), he makes life hard for opposing defenders.
With Nicolas Anelka heading off to China early next week and both Didier Drogba and Salomon Kalou due to depart to the African Nations Cup in mid-January, Lukaku will join Fernando Torres as the sole centre-forwards available to Villas-Boas.
The fixture list is favourable enough and Lukaku will certainly get his opportunities to play. What you’re likely to see when he does is a much improved version of the player you saw in September and October, and one more likely to make an impact.
It takes time to settle, and it takes even longer for a raw player to develop his undeniable potential. It’s important to remember he’s actually younger than Josh McEachran, even though you’d never guess it by looking at them.
We’re still very much in the early stages of Lukaku’s career at Chelsea yet the signs are already very, very positive indeed.