There’s scarcely been a better or more appropriate time to discuss Romelu Lukaku.
Following a frustrating first season at Chelsea, the Belgian returned for the new campaign determined to prove himself and, following some rather terse words towards his permanent employers after departing on loan to West Bromwich Albion, he’s started pretty well, with a goal for his country against Holland and another for the Baggies against Liverpool.
To suggest he is persona non grata amongst Blues fans for his ‘outburst’ last week would be taking it too far, but it’s fair to say that the comments didn’t go down particularly well.
‘I couldn’t see myself staying at Chelsea. I sacrificed a year of my career with them and didn’t want to put up with it any more. ‘I decided in March I wanted to go out on loan, and told my agent to find me a club. I am relieved to have found a solution.
‘On the first day of pre-season I told the manager I wanted to leave. Roberto Di Matteo told me I ought to think about Chelsea as there weren’t going to be many other strikers this season, but this is the time for me to think about myself.
‘I got sick of watching the others from the bench. I just played 12 games and when I was playing well, they would take me off. ‘I lost my hunger for the game over the past year. I won’t beat about the bush – my season at Chelsea went very badly.
‘As regards getting minutes on the pitch, I wasted my time. Last season I was in the reserves alongside a young lad who’d barely turned 15 and I asked myself what I was doing there.’
Football fans are, amongst many things, a loyal and tribal bunch. Many take a personal affront at any criticism of the club they support, and so when one of their own players takes a verbal swipe at the team, we often see a rancorous reaction.
Yet we have to remind ourselves that above all, Romelu Lukaku has to look out for Romelu Lukaku. Yes, he is a Chelsea footballer, but having been undeniably messed around and wasted last season, anyone who expected anything else from him this summer may be slightly on the naïve side.
Perhaps he could have shown a little discretion in the manner of his criticisms but everyone has a tipping point. Having already played for Anderlecht last season, he could only appear for one more club during the 2011-12 campaign and once he was handed a debut against Norwich, that was it for him.
He doesn’t suggest he should have been starting ahead of Didier Drogba or Fernando Torres, but to not make a single league start until the final day of the season and to go largely unused during the African Cup of Nations when Torres was the only other senior striker available must have stung the youngster.
It’s not the first time that the club have made a poor decision at a key point in the career of a young player. Whilst we rightly commend the successes coming through the academy, there are undeniable examples of players having months or even seasons where their careers have stagnated.
Last season though, Lukaku kept quiet, kept his head down and worked hard for the reserves (finishing as leading goalscorer) and, most importantly, has shown signs of progress.
His weaknesses are clear and readily highlighted by critics. He’s nowhere near approaching being the finished article, but Chelsea knew this when they signed him.
“Bearing in mind what he has been doing in the last couple of years since starting at Anderlecht at the young age of 16 we didn’t want to let this boy escape and it is a question of days or hours till this is done,”
“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.”
If you sit down in front of the footage of his debut in August and then watch him against Blackburn in May, the signs of improvement are there for all to see. He has refined most aspects of his game, he’s involved in more of the play, his link-up ability is more subtle and he gets more shots away than before.
He has a remarkable skill set, perhaps unrivalled in modern football. There may well be others of his height and build, but very few of them are blessed with his exceptional athletic abilities and physical prowess.
At close to 6’4” and almost 100kg of muscle, he resembles something of a freight train when running at full speed. He plays with an enthusiasm and desire to make an impact in line with his tender years; he is, after all, younger than Josh McEachran.
But whereas Josh came quietly through the club’s ranks and is a more introverted character, Romelu has the burden of an £18m transfer fee to deal with.
Fans, maybe with some justification, expect more for their money, but each transfer must be judged in its own context and in no way should be be appraising a 19 year-old Lukaku as the finished product.
The prospect of what he could achieve if everything comes together is downright frightful. We’ve been blessed by eight sensational years of Didier Drogba steamrollering and battering the world’s elite on the biggest stages, but he remains in comparison to Lukaku a rather lithe 6’1” 90kg pup.
It’s hard to draw comparisons to players of yesteryear when looking at him simply because there’s been so few forwards of his stature. I’ve previously mentioned the name Emile Heskey in passing, which may seem crude and laughable given the veteran’s later years and subsequently earned ‘reputation’, but we should remember that from 1995 to the early part of the 2000s, he was a dynamic, dominant forward who earned a big-money move to Liverpool and became a key player for England.
A look at his best bits reminds us of what he was capable of:
Yet even then, Heskey seems to be overshadowed by Lukaku on the tale of the tape. The majority of physically dominant frontmen of the recent era have been notably smaller than him, at least those aspiring to play at the same top levels. Kenwyne Jones is 6’2″ and 85kg according to ESPN. Carlton Cole isn’t far off, but lacks the frame and pace.
When we come across a taller individual, they tend to be the of beanpole ilk; Nikola Zigic, Peter Crouch, or Andy Carroll. Perhaps Fernando Llorente at 6’5″ and 90kg is the best striker in the world of a similar size. It wouldn’t be bad if Lukaku (eight years his junior) went on to have a career like his, would it?
Whether our young man goes on to score over 100 goals in England and racks up 60-odd caps for Belgium, playing at a series of major tournaments or not remains to be seen. It’s just far too early to begin to judge him.
Give him a pass for his comments last week. He’s young, he’s frustrated, and he’ll learn from them. If he ends up a key contributor in blue in years to come, very few people will ever remember it anyway.