BY MARK GODFREY
Romelu Lukaku. You either love him unconditionally or are infuriated by him, there’s very little in between. Everton supporters are trapped on this seemingly endless emotional see-saw. It’s said he’s too lazy, too selfish, and that he doesn’t run around enough. True, perhaps, to some degree. But the problem has never been that he doesn’t move the required amount, it’s that he doesn’t move intelligently enough.
I’ve often heard that the Belgian striker is a keen student of the game, watching matches past and present to pick up hints and tips that can improve his own performances on the pitch. All I can say is, that if this is the case, he’s either been a slow learner to this point or his teachers have been remiss in correcting his obvious flaws.
If we examine the basic facts of Romelu Lukaku’s career to date, the statistics are mightily impressive. Twenty-three years old; hurtling towards 100 Premier League goals; a very favourable goals-to-age ratio when compared to the untouchable duo Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. We should be wholly sated by what he has achieved in the first third of his professional career. But we’re not – well, not all of us. Why is that?
It’s been very apparent since his teenage years – and especially since he stepped out of Jose Mourinho’s long shadow – that he is not only blessed with all the size, pace and brute strength that is so desperately sought after by Premier League clubs to lead their attacks, but he also has a rampant thirst for goals and the wherewithal to get them, as his record proves.
In Lukaku’s case, however, the devil is most definitely in the detail. Peer through the cracks of the raw data and the evidence points not to a player who could simply do more, but one who could – and should – have done better.
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: when Lukaku is on his mettle there are few more fearsome and enjoyable sights in the Premier League than him charging down on goal, barging and splaying his markers across the turf before unleashing deadly accurate howitzers past helplessly contorted goalkeepers.
However, too often space between defenders has not been exploited to its full potential; simple passes have been carelessly misplaced; choices of runs in the box have been questionable; first touches have been woefully inadequate. I could go on.
These are not the characteristics of a lazy or non-committed individual, but those of one still coming to terms with his own strengths and weaknesses, and the rigorous demands of the modern day lone centre forward. We know he can do all of the things we want him to do – we’ve seen it and it’s glorious – what is vital now, both personally and for his newly-ambitious and moneyed-up employer, is that he does not let that ability flounder against the rocks of inconsistency.
Being fair to Lukaku, he – like other young talents at Goodison Park such as Ross Barkley and John Stones (now of Manchester City) – were somewhat mishandled by the previous manager, Roberto Martinez, who repeatedly failed to instil any kind of discipline, urgency or sense of responsibility in his players, and as a consequence, Rome burned while Nero fiddled. The Spaniard’s removal from his position and the appointment of the more brusque and forthright Ronald Koeman was timely for Lukaku, whose body language at the back end of last season was that of a frustrated and petulant young man who had lost all purpose and inspiration at a club he felt was not prepared to match either his ambition or abilities. At last it seems he has struck up a relationship with a manager that has the right balance of carrot and stick to extract the very best he has to offer on a more regular basis.
To compound this, Koeman is demanding more from Lukaku’s supporting cast, and while there have been teething problems and the occasional bruising of reputations – the dropping of Barkley in particular – the entire Everton squad are being made very aware that mediocrity will no longer be tolerated. Barring a few hiccups along the way, the response to this sea change has been positive; and none more so than with Lukaku who now appears to be ready to commit to the club for longer than just the time it takes for the next transfer window to open.
The fortunes of the club and the player are inextricably linked. Everton cannot break into the top four or challenge for honours without Lukaku spearheading their attack, while for him, a move (should he eventually decide to test his agent’s fanciful confidence in him) to one of Europe’s real powerhouses – Real Madrid, Barcelona, Manchester United, Bayern Munich and so on – will only ever happen once his all-round game jumps consistently to a higher level that will propel Everton to greater things.
As Koeman plots productive ways to spend Farhad Moshiri’s millions and experiments with formations and a talented bunch of youngsters, Everton Football Club has the feel of a revitalised organisation, with Romelu Lukaku as the embodiment of that new found surge of hope.
Frustration is the word that springs instantly to my mind when I think of Lukaku’s time in the Royal Blue jersey to date; not in his work rate or lack of effort, but in the consistency of quality output. We all know what he is capable of, so when that fails to manifest itself, there is nothing more vexing.
As an grizzled and embittered old timer who has seen far too many false dawns at Everton, I reserve the right not to get too optimistic just yet, but it certainly appears that Big Rom has turned a corner; one that could lead himself and his club to another plane.